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Can Children be Shared?

Can babies be shared? A quick glance at serial parenting.

In Lorrie Moore's brilliant new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, several women become emotionally attached to one hapless toddler as they each take their turn in a round-robin of care. The list includes the baby's biological mother, followed by the teenaged daughter of the baby's initial foster mother (the adolescent bonds with the infant and is the child's first parent substitute). Then there's the baby's adoptive mother-- a sophisticated restaurant chef named Sarah Brink--followed by Sarah Brink's college-aged nanny, and the novel's quirky, punny narrator,Tassie. If you're having trouble keeping all these female characters straight, that's also the baby's predicament and the main question at the heart of this powerful book. Are children meant to be shared among various "caretakers," or continuously loved and cared for by a small, exclusive club  --often the child's parents and grandparents? And if circumstances dictate that a child must be "shared" or even loaned out forever,  how do mothers cope with this loss?

In A Gate at the Stairs, the baby in question has no permanent name. Every woman who loves her calls her something different, and her worldly possessions--her terry cloth sleepers, her blankies and sippy-cups--get transferred from one caretaker to the next in a green garbage bag.

 I can't imagine a more trenchant metaphor for the transience of love. Of course Lorrie Moore is not the first, nor the last, to see disposability as a feature of  American relationships (see last week's New York Times essay by sociologist Arlie Hochshild, documenting how 10% of American women have lived with three or more husbands by the time they're 35). Still, it takes a special kind of "open mind" to fathom speed dating an infant.  After all, it is the first emotional attachment we experience, and most psychologists, including myself, would argue that the biological bond between mother and baby is the origin of human empathy. It took 180 million years of mammalian evolution to lay down the tightly calibrated feedback loop that binds a mother and baby's interests together. And in the absence of a reliable, long term substitute, the rupture of this intimate connection wreaks havoc on a child's ability to form relationships--and a mother's ability to find happiness.

The persistence and urgency of the maternal-child pas-de-deux is highlighted by three recent bits of information.  In a cover story on September 27th, the New York Times reported on the 100,000 mothers who have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Most of us would agree that equal opportunity is not up for grabs, yet the  difficulties children experience during their mothers' deployment would give anyone pause, not least being the mothers themselves, one reason why female recruits are rapidly declining. "Recent surveys indicate that most children, while largely resilient, experience worry and anxiety when a parent deploys, and the military has tried to address this by increasing counseling services. Nevertheless, grades and behavior suffer. Children cry more. Some start wetting their beds. Nightmares are common, and teenagers can become more reclusive and defiant," Lizette Alvarez reports. Notwithstanding the army's offers of counseling, it should be no surprise that the female soldiers returning to this scenario--a third of whom are single mothers--decide against another extended absence. With any luck, the eminence grise of happiness, the wise American cognitive psychologist, Marty Seligman--who has recently been hired by Obama to assist the Pentagon with the mental health of recruits-- will prioritize mothers' and children's emotional needs over political and military ones.

The second  event was my late summer reading of evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's,  new book, Mothers and Others, which provides ample evidence that human children--with the longest apprenticeship of any animal except bowhead whales--had to have been raised by "alloparents:"  alloparents being the grandparents, older siblings, female friends and neighbours who must have chipped in to assist parents and especially mothers--or the child would never have survived. It's a strong evolutionary case for child sharing. Still,  Blaffer Hrdy too,  quotes the baby's need for a "warm, intimate, and continuous relationship" which is as "addictive as opium." Without it hundreds of studies show that an infant's social and emotional development is compromised. Hrdy reports that in cultures as diverse as small villages in northeast India, to the hard-scrabble early settlement communities of Canada and Finland, grandmothers provided the long term, dependable love and care that eluded the magnetic baby that is at the center of Moore's novel.

Finally, on a visit to Antwerp, Belgium last week I visited Het Maagdenhuis, a museum that housed an orphanage for foundling girls from the 17th until the19th century. Child abandonment has been a constant over history, and I've seen  "baby wheels" before--  trap doors allowing mothers to discreetly deposit their newborns in convents and churches, without being identified. Then nuns---deprived of their own offspring--take over in another tag team of care. The baby wheels can still be seen on the exterior of buildings in Florence--and there have been public policy initiatives in Europe to revive them as a way of reducing child abuse and neglect.  But this was the first time I'd seen foundling  tokens, playing cards cut in two, or scraps of fabric torn from the mother's dress, that remained an enduring part of the orphan's identity, and signaled the mother intention to return. She had only to present the matching other half of the card, or the hole in her dress, to reclaim her daughter.

It was a poignant reminder that most of these mothers never intended to cut the tie. Like the toddler at the heart of Lorrie Moore's novel, the child's presence there was supposed to be short term, merely a loan, not a gift. Blaffer Hrdy might say that, without mothers or grandmothers to provide consistent TLC, these babies were never meant to survive. The fact that many of these cards were never reunited with their other halves is a persistent human story, but the saddest one there is.