The girl with three mothers

Ki is 13. Her mother, LaJuana, is a single parent, bringing her up alone. But Ki is lucky. She has two 'other mothers', Brenda and Dynelle, to care for her, too. It's called 'shared parenting', and it's catching on in the US, says Aminatta Forna. Tony Blair take note...

All her life, 13-year-old Kimpavitha has had three women she can turn to. First and foremost, her mother LaJuana Clark, a dance therapist and single mother. Second and third her mother's two closest friends, Brenda and Dynelle.

Twice a week, Brenda, a newspaper columnist who can choose the hours she works, collects Ki from school and takes her to track practice, while her mother works late. When Ki was much younger, she spent her afternoons after nursery playing under Brenda's desk. In the evening, Ki often calls Dynelle for help with homework or just to talk. She regularly spends nights or weekends with both women and their husbands.

"They are my big support systems," says LaJuana. "They do things for my daughter that I can't do and they give her things I can't, like taking her skiing or camping. If I were to die, I hope it would be Brenda and [husband] Steve or Dynelle who would raise my children." Brenda and Dynelle are "other mothers", an old way of caring for children which is taking a new turn.

Last week, Tony Blair pledged to urge single mothers back to work with an assorted bag of proposals aimed at shifting people from welfare to work. There was much debate over whether lone mothers were being helped or forced back to work. But one thing is clear, the state will no longer tolerate them staying at home, claiming benefits. But no government policy has ever been devised that tackles the main problem that prevents lone mothers from changing their lives. They are already overburdened, and going out to work, even with childcare provision, simply adds to their load. We know the difficulty married, middle-class mothers have combining a career and family, despite an au pair and a second income. The solution they are offered is the reverse, to give up work and stay at home. Now a growing number of people are doubting whether government can solve the problems of the modern family. What's missing no government can provide - parenting.

"Other mothers" and "other fathers" are old African-American terms used to describe people who help raise the children of friends and relatives. Over time, the culture of child-sharing has been eroded by a different set of values - independence, privacy, choice. But in America, the idea of shared parenting among friends is rapidly gaining popularity, and single mothers are leading the way.

My first introduction to an "other mother" was at a party in San Francisco. Sheila was accompanied by a pair of small girls who called her "nana" and who belonged to two close friends who were single mothers. Frequently, the two girls stay with Sheila to give their mothers time to themselves. Sheila has become part of the girls' families and they are part of hers. "It was a conscious decision to take the place of the paternal grandmother. There was no one fulfilling that role," she explains. "There is not a room, a gathering or a family argument at which I am unwelcome."

The social upheavals which created the parenting deficit are well-documented. The imploded family, divorce, the decline of the extended family all created a labour shortage at home. For people on lower wages, much childcare is unaffordable, and as incomes decline in real terms, life becomes harder even for those at the top. Judith Stacey, author of In The Name Of The Family, says: "People are economically and time strapped, they can't buy their way out of the problem anymore." At the same time, people living alone and couples without children now make up more than 50 per cent of households, creating a very different social picture even compared with a decade ago. And society seems to have become divided into the "have" and "have nots": couples who have children form networks with other families and don't impose their "lifestyle" - their children - on the child free. But we are discovering the emotional and social price of autonomy. "The dream of independence has started to wither," according to Carol Stack who has written a book about "other mothering". There's a recognition that children need relationships outside their families and that families, mothers in particular, need more support, whether or not they work. And, for single people, independence can mean isolation.

"Other mothering" has been borrowed directly from America's minority and immigrant communities. The South American terms are "co-madre" and "co-padre". Alma Rendon describes the experience of finding help when her first child was young: "So many babysitters with different views, so many changes - I think he suffered." When she became a mother for the second time, her own mother, Mercedes retired early to become co-madre. It made sense as Alma's career was just beginning to take off. In Britain, other mothering doesn't have a name, but it almost certainly takes place, particularly in Black British communities. It is perhaps significant that around 60 per cent of Black British lone mothers have paid work, a figure well above the overall average.

Shared mothering is as much for mothers as for children. Among these communities, the Western ideal of the exclusive, stay-at-home mother who does everything isn't nearly as powerful. Dora Dillon, a Bolivian woman married to an American lawyer, tried to bring her own co-madre, who raised her alongside her own parents, from Bolivia to help with her new baby, so that she could finish her studies. But US immigration didn't understand the term or the concept.

The real value of shared parenting is that it works in every direction. Everyone I met saw their role as mutually supportive and beneficial. Many were people who had chosen not to have their own children. Dynelle grew up with an aunt who played the role of "other mother" and decided years ago that she would do the same. As well as a high-powered job, she writes songs and sings. "My schedule is hectic and I love it," she says. "I decided I didn't want my own kids, that I would be a stabilising force in the life of other people's kids and give them love and affection. I don't see it as a secondary role, I'm just as valuable as a resource."

Typically, it is still female friends who help out, but there is evidence of more "other fathers", male friends who provide an adult-male-relative figure where the father is absent. One single mother whose children's "other father" is an older male friend whose own children had grown up and gone to college, explained the pressure the arrangement lifted from her other relationships: "My kids used to see every boyfriend as a new daddy. Every time a relationship flunked it upset them. And the guys were scared off from the start."

Judith Stacey wants to see "para-parents" given socially and legally recognised status. As a minimum, for example, guardianship status, to enable a child to be collected from school. "Language and recognition are really important in validating these roles," she says. Her own son, Jake, has an alternative parent, a woman friend who plays the same role in another family.

Many of those involved in shared parenting see it as a new, more honest way of caring for children, a replacement for the traditional impermeable family structure. They say we are all parents, whether or not we have children. And in an era when it seems to be more fashionable to criticise parents than to support them, here is a signal that we are finally beginning to recognise that sharing responsibility is not shirking responsibility.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    JavaScript Developer (HTML5, Ext JS, CSS3, jQuery, AJAX)

    £40000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

    Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

    Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

    C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

    £50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor