Last week's Science had two book reviews about parenting in it. Both were interesting. One was a review of a sociology book called Longing and Belonging, by Allison Pugh, about the use of consumer goods to help children fit in. The other was a review of a human evolution book called Mothers and Others, by Sara Hrdy. I've linked to the summaries rather than the full text because you'll need a subscription to read the full text.
The premise of Mothers and Others (at least according to the review- I haven't read the book yet) is that humans are actually a "cooperatively breeding species", meaning that "individuals other than the mother assist in the care and provisioning of young". This is supported by the shorter birth interval of human hunter-gatherer populations (3-4 years) as compared to great apes (6-7 years) and by the tolerance human mothers show to having other individuals hold and care for our young (apparently, this is a big no-no in great ape society). Fathers, by the way, don't count- mothers couldn't count on them sticking around. They do in some hunter-gatherer societies, but not in others. Flexible child care arrangements utilizing the larger societal group are more consistent.
Furthermore, Hrdy argues that this cooperative breeding status might explain the origin of some human interaction behaviors (such as our ability to theorize about the intentions of others) that had previously been explained primarily by the existence of warfare. The reviewer, Gillian Brown, points out that other researchers have begun to theorize that cooperative breeding might even explain the selection of some quintessentially human behaviors, such as "social learning, teaching, and language."
So, the modern trend of flexible child care arrangements that often involve members of our larger societal group isn't so new afterall. I wonder what the traditionalists who argue that the nuclear family is the only way in which humans should raise children would say to that? (No cheap shots about them not believing in evolution- not all of the traditionalists are fundamentalist Christians.)
This theory of human cooperative breeding would argue that societies that provide better "extended group" support to mothers are more inline with our evolutionary biology, and perhaps even more likely to succeed. Current demographic data certainly supports the idea that greater societal support to families leads to more successful societies, at least if we define a successful society as one that is not shrinking. Many Western countries are seeing declines in birth rates to levels below replacement. It is common to "blame" this on working women. However, as a recent article in the Economist points out, the trend of lower birth rates in countries in which many women work outside the home has been reversed, and there is now a positive correlation between birth rates and female employment rates. The article theorizes that this is due to the fact that children are no longer an economic help (in that they could work on the farm) but an economic drain (in that we need to buy them lots of things), and so many families need two incomes to support multiple children.
The article goes on to explain that countries with high female employment rates tend to have "large government cash transfers to families, generous replacement pay during parental leave, the availability of plenty of part-time work and lots of formal child care." Most mothers reading this post probably could have told the researchers this, but it is actually based on comparative data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. France and the Scandinavian countries are the examples of this sort of society.
The obvious exceptions are America and Britain, neither of which provide large cash payments to families or state-provided child care. The article posits that our birth rates are still high because of a flexible labor market that allows women to drop out and then back in and because public opinion "approves of working mothers". I'd also add that, at least in the US, quality child care is available, even if it is not state sponsored and is rather expensive. I remember a thread on going back to work at Ask Moxie in which a woman from Austria commented that it was almost impossible to find child care for a child under the age of three. Long maternity leaves are the norm, there. I can only speak for myself, but I think that if I lived in a country like that, I would not be having a second child. I don't want to spend that much time out of the workforce, not because I'd worry about my ability to get back in, but because I'd miss the work. Not all women are cut out to be stay at home mothers. Perhaps the key to our relatively high birth rate is that, despite our occasional squabbles about what type of mother is "best", we do actually allow each woman (whose family has sufficient means....) to find her own way.
Now, if we could just learn a little bit more from our evolutionary past, and actually provide societal support to ALL mothers, not just those with the means to purchase it. I think that would make us an even more successful society.