Sarah Blaffer Hrdy makes a strong case that humans needed to develop alloparenting – parenting by others besides mother and father. Therefore, she says, mothers can’t depend on any one family structure, but need to be flexible to get help wherever they need to. I agree with this conclusion. However, Hrdy goes on to say that the nuclear family is not an optimal structure because it can’t provide enough care and resources that demanding and slow-growing human babies need.
I think Hrdy’s criticism misses how nuclear families work. A married mother and father are the core of the unit that cares for children, but they are rarely all of it. Even in our highly mobile society, where couples in the middle class often live far from their extended families, nuclear families get lots of help from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and more distant kin.
A nuclear family is not a self-sufficient unit. Not in theory, and certainly not in practice. Instead, when a mother and father marry they bring together two lines of support for the benefit of their children. This is one of the great advantages that children in two-parent families have over single-parent kids: they have two sets of grandparents and two sets of aunts and uncles.
Mothers do need to be flexible. They do need to be ready to take help from many sources, especially if they are not married. But the nuclear family still remains the best structure for parenting, and for mobilizing the most reliable network of alloparenting. Mothers need to work hard to create some alternative network if they are unable to make a nuclear family.