UC Davis
Source: UC Davis

The cover of Kathyrn Stockett's bestseller, The Help, is littered with birds. I wonder if she knows how apt that is.

My friend, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, would.

Stockett's book is about black women in the Civil Rights Era south who bring up their mistress' children. "Taking care of white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning," is how the maid, Aibileen begins.

Sarah Hrdy's latest book, Mothers and Others, is a sort of history of childcare writ large -- from prehistory, to primates, to birds.  It's about the "helpers-at-the-nest" who feed and protect our babies, from cooperatively breeding brown jays in Costa Rica, to self-sacrificing Hanuman langurs in India, to hardworking Hadza grandmothers in Tanzania. "The urge to share is hard-wired," she says.

There's no doubt that we women have always raised our children with help. On Ifaluk, a tiny coral island in the Western Pacific 7 degrees north of the equator, where I lived and worked with my husband as guests of the chief, women who gave birth were never left to themselves. They were fed by the men who fished for them, and surrounded by the women who cooked for and cleaned for and comforted them, for the better part of 3 months. And after that season was over, their children grew up surrounded by the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers and cousins who lived on the island, and loved them. In Michigan, I raised two babies in my parents' family cottage, with in-laws nearby who picked them up from school or sports, fed them snacks, and looked after them when they were sick. And in the histories I've read since I got back from Ifaluk, as my son and daughter grew up, large families have always been looked after by large numbers of helpers.

Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious, sucked at the breast of a wet nurse named Himiltrude. He grew up with a boy named Ebbo, one of the serfs born on Charlemagne's estates, who sucked at the same breast. "For Louis nurtured him as a boy and formed him well in the liberal arts," said one of his court poets, Ermold the Black. Ebbo ended up as an archbishop of Rheims; and Louis' brothers, who were nursed by other serfs, ended up as abbots -- at St Riquier, St Quentin, Moutier St Jean and Luxeuil.

Something called "life cycle service" was common in early modern England. More than half of all young women were "in service," working as domestics in the houses of their betters, between the ages of 15 and 24. They were usually unmarried. But they were helpful, among other things, as nannies. James Boswell, the Laird of Auchinleck who incriminated himself in print, was pleased with his children's nurse. As he wrote in his journal, on 3 October 1777: "I very foolishly indulged such a fondness for Annie Cunningham as was truly a kind of love, which made me uneasy; I cherished licentious schemes."

But before there were life cycle servants in England, or medieval serfs, history was full of slaves. Hundreds, thousands, millions of slaves filled the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome. Like male serfs or servant boys, slave men usually worked outdoors -- on the farms, or in the mines. But like serf women or servant girls, female slaves often raised their masters' children. They're listed as dressers and hairdressers, spinners and weavers, masseuses and midwives, wet nurses and nannies in the inscriptions on Roman tombs.

Kathryn Stockett's southern nannies are in love with their charges. "By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley followed me around everwhere I go," the maid, Aibileen brags.

And as Sarah Hrdy points out, it's natural to help.  "As early as the second year of life, children appear ready, even desperately eager, to comfort someone who seems sad, to help someone in distress."

But it makes me especially happy when the women who help get helped back. I'll never directly return the favors of my father, who gave me a house to live in, or of my mother-in-law, who was so good with my children. But I will return those favors indirectly, by taking care of my own grandchildren. It's probably worked that way ever since we were hunter-gatherers. It's even worked well for birds.


Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer.  2009.  Mothers and Others.  Cambridge: Harvard.

Sear, Rebecca and Ruth Mace. 2008.  Who keeps children alive? Evolution and Human Behavior, 29:1-18.

Turke, Paul.  1988.  Helpers at the nest: Childcare networks on Ifaluk,  in L. Betzig et al., Human Reproductive Behavior.  New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 173-188.

Betzig, Laura. 1988. Mothering on Ifaluk.  Mothering, 48: 13-16.

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