Allomothers Across Cultures

While learning much about allomothers, a recently learned word to add to my vocabulary, I started thinking about their roles across different cultures.  Being originally from another country, and coming to the United States at a young enough age to still have the experience of allomothers here, I finally realized how very different my experiences were.

I am originally from Brazil, a country in which the culture is very much of a tribal nature, meaning it is close knit and community oriented (it is customary to call close family friends “Auntie” or “Uncle” – I grew up thinking my parents had several siblings).  Despite growing up in the big city of Rio de Janeiro, I would often spend vacations in the Northeastern states of Brazil (a more rural region) to enjoy the company of two of my same age cousins.


In Brazil, whether you’re from a big or small city, urban or rural, allomother’s are essentially the same.  They tend to be live-in nanny’s and/or a family member (such as a grandmother, or an aunt).  In other words, women that are part of the family, or become part of it by employment.  That is, women whom the child is able to bond deeply over a long period of time.  Additionally, the children most interact with are family members (siblings, cousins), children of “Aunties” and “Uncles” (parent’s close friends) or neighbors (who through the “tribal” community are almost like family) whose relationships are also built over a long period of time.

Having moved to the United States at the age of three, my experience with allomothers was quite different.  In the U.S., instead of staying in the house of a family member, or having a nanny (a quasi family member) stay in my house, I would get sent out to daycare.  A totally different experience that forced me to engage with strangers (that is, non-family members) at a younger age than most Brazilian children would.  The teacher was almost nonexistent (insert Charlie Brown’s adult voice mumble in the background) and the bonding experience with my day care friends was of a different nature.

While socializing in the U.S. was not hard, it was hard to establish a deep and continuous friendship.  While most parents didn’t bond with my own, thus limiting the friendship closeness, and others moved away often, thus terminating the friendship early on, my exposure to allomothers was insubstantial.  Additionally, I had a baby-sitter for some evenings or weekends. She was cool and loved to play with me!  This fourteen year-old was more like a peer that would hangout at my house – sometimes her boyfriend even tagged along – while my parents were out.  Again, while a fun companion, not one of a deep and continuous connection.

To much of my curiosity, based on the number of people children are exposed to in these two cultures, I wonder why is it that most Brazilians are more sociable, outgoing, and community based than the individualistic, competitive natured Americans?  This is a generalization of course, because I have met Americans that are very tribal in their lifestyle and Brazilians that are quite individualistic.  However, generally speaking, would an early life experience of connectedness and interaction with other individuals, mold you to become the adult with the qualities I mentioned?  I would think so…

Then why would those who are exposed to an environment of interaction with various individuals of the same age, or at least a non-adult, end up less likely to engage easily with strangers, thus be more individualistic in nature?  While those exposed to only one or two allomothers (or other children), that are close of kin, become more sociable and easily engage with strangers?  Is quality more important than quantity?

Again, the above observations are of my own individual experiences.  My thinking or observational skills could be off, hence the questions posed to you all.  Any takers?

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About Sil

ODU student
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2 Responses to Allomothers Across Cultures

  1. Wow! That video was amazing. A friend of mine, actually we went to college together and both became professional anthropologists, is especially interested in human/ non-human species interactions. Typically he frames this as another way of looking at how people interact with their surrounding natural environments. As you might suspect this has a lot to do with how people disturb their environments to the detriment of other creatures. But it also includes looking at how people interact with, say, pets or farm animals.

    I’m a bit stunned, so I’ll try to reframe this about your written piece on allomothers. What does this video tell us about the people in this Indian village and how they perceive mothering? I’ll take a stab at answering my own question. Relative to other animal companions, like cats and dogs, the monkey’s interaction with the baby can be interpreted as “like a mother” because of the long duration of their close physical proximity. Our cats and dogs like interacting with us and sometimes sleeping next to us, but like a mother the monkey latches on to the baby.

    I don’t know, I’m just thinking as I write here. It’s really weird actually. We just don’t usually think of animals in that way. Maybe if we had more monkeys in our houses it would change our minds?

    • Sil says:

      I think that monkeys and/or primates are especially likely to take on the behavior observed on the video. Cats and dogs (or other pets) perhaps play more a role of protector, “cuddler” or play-mate – if at all. Like we read in Hrdy, primates are the closest to humans when it comes to their nurturing and motherly behavior. Yet, as it was said in the video, the monkey’s behavior was also considered unusual or unlikely. In other words, I don’t think it is especially common in India. What is common though, is their humane and accepting perception of animals. Therefore, the real mother views the “allomother” as an auspicious event that she is not to interfere with. As you stated, perhaps if humans had more monkeys living near or in their households perceptions would change. Side note: Have you seen the documentary “Project Nim”?

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