What this criticism fails to grasp is that throughout basically all of human history, parents have never, ever raised children in isolated nuclear units the way they have been doing for much of 2020, with little to no hands-on family or community support. Individual families being completely responsible for children “is absolutely unheard of except in total emergencies,” said Stephanie Coontz, an emeritus professor of history and family at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the author of “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”
As far back as we can go in prehistory, parents engaged in what biological anthropologists refer to as “cooperative breeding,” said Robin G. Nelson, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University (and an old friend of mine). That’s the idea that family and community members would help with holding, grooming and sometimes even feeding your baby. Sarah B. Hrdy, an anthropologist, called these helpers “alloparents,” and her research suggests that shared child care may have been “the secret of human evolutionary success.” Dr. Nelson called group living “part of what it means to be human.”
When you go back to the beginning of American history, the same facts hold: From colonial America through the early 20th century, there were almost no parents whose days were dedicated to just child care without support. Poorer parents worked alongside their children as young as 5 in crowded tenement sweatshops, textile mills and in the fields, while older children and other family helped care for children too young to work. And wealthier white families were not doing the child care without household workers. “Middle-class women were able to shift more time into child rearing in the 1800s only by hiring domestic help,” Coontz noted.
In fact, one parent (the mom) staying home and only spending her time on housework and child care was “a historical fluke,” for the white middle and upper classes that began in the 1940s and ’50s, “based on a unique and temporary conjuncture of economic, social and political factors,” Coontz wrote in “The Way We Never Were.” As she points out, during World War II, Americans saved money at a rate that was “three times higher than in the decades before or since,” and real wages increased more in the ’50s than they had in the previous 50 years.
And they were not “alone” the way many parents are during this pandemic. Middle-class mothers who stayed home with their children did so in communities of other mothers like them; the children would be pushed out to play in suburban neighborhoods. Even in the heyday of the American nuclear family, only the wealthiest white families were able to live that Donna Reed life — as Coontz points out in her book, one-third of nonimmigrant white families “could not get by on the income of the household head.”