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.

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