What Is Alloparenting All About?

By Sara Stewart
May 31, 2024

It sometimes seems like women have two choices over the course of their lives when it comes to motherhood: Become one or not.

But there are choices in between, too. Many women have caregiving relationships with other people’s kids—whether of a relative or a friend—and it can be one of the most uniquely rewarding experiences you can have, particularly as you reach midlife, past the point where these decisions are often made.

What Is Alloparenting?

Claudia Zelevansky, 47, manages a nonprofit theater company in New York City. In her free time, she often takes her young niece and nephew, who live nearby, on outings. It’s the perfect relationship for Claudia, who doesn’t have children of her own and is at a place in her life where she’s established a thriving, busy career—but loves being able to spend quality time with her sister’s children.

“You get to love them so much, but you’re not responsible for them in a day-to-day way,” says Claudia. “Especially for my niece, I’m the adult in her life that she feels the closest to, someone who doesn’t have the complications or the immediacy of being a parent.”

This relationship has a name. It’s called alloparenting, and it is defined as caregiving for children from someone who’s not a biological parent. Alloparenting is a particularly hot topic at this moment, when the pandemic is still forcing many families to scramble to figure out caregiving.

The joy to be found in alloparenting was recently showcased on the second season of the Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso. In one episode, team owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) spends time with her goddaughter, Nora (Kiki May), and learns that, as good-hearted curmudgeon Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) tells her, kids don’t need to be entertained all the time—they just want to hang out with you.

The Origins of “Alloparenting”

The term “alloparenting” was coined by biologist E.O. Wilson, and has been written about extensively by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. It’s the subject of her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, in which she writes, presciently, that "the tougher that times become … the more pronounced the psychological benefits from alloparental support seems to be."

And the benefits aren’t just to the parents and their children. Childless women who have caregiving relationships with kids find them to be immensely rewarding.

Alloparenting in Middle Age

Middle age can be the absolute best to be an alloparent. Your siblings or friends likely have offspring who are now edging into their tweens and teens. It’s a time of life when they're increasingly independent and more interested in reaching out beyond the bounds of their nuclear family.

Sarah Slack, a 45-year-old science teacher in New York City, has found common ground with her boyfriend’s teenage son, whom she’s spent a lot of time with, especially during the pandemic. “I haven’t ever felt this overwhelming urge to have my own kids; I never wanted a baby or a toddler,” she says.

But Sarah and her boyfriend’s son “talk about fantasy football a lot,” she says. “We’re going to start our own league. It’s a good bonding thing.”

Rise of the PANKs

This moment in time is also a fantastic era for being in touch with your nieces/nephews/godchildren/kid friends, says Melanie Notkin, author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids and coiner of the acronym PANK: Professional Aunt No Kids. They can connect via text, FaceTime, or DM (direct message).

Kids are “much more independent in the way they're able to communicate,” Notkin says. “There are so many ways for them to reach out, so you can have this very special individual relationship once they get their own phone or social media account.”

“I think as kids become old enough to be more curious about the larger world, you become a potential portal for them,” says Claudia. “When I was growing up, a friend of my parents was an actor, and that was amazing for me.”

Sometimes, being an involved alloparent can blossom into full-time caregiving, as it did for Amy Berks, a 47-year-old attorney in Fairfax, Virginia. She says she initially did want to have kids of her own, but Amy didn’t meet the man she wanted to marry until she was 40. Her close relationship with her niece turned into legal guardianship, with the mutual agreement of their extended family, when her niece was a teenager.

“I think it worked because I had been a very involved aunt, even though far away, and she had spent several weeks for a couple of summers with us,” Amy says, adding that there have been a few surprise benefits to having a teenager in her life. “K-pop? I've been to a concert. Animal Crossing? Played it.”

Alloparenting Advantages of Middle Age

Middle-aged women without children have more to offer kids than they might have 10 or 20 years ago, says Notkin. “One woman told me she may not have as much energy as when she was in her 20s, but she has more money.

“Also, once you’re in your 40s and 50s, you’re often feeling more confident about a lot of things, and being an aunt figure is one of them. Some of the things you might have worried about—what if you said the wrong thing, what if you couldn’t be there for them—now you’re able to handle these situations more confidently, maturely, and honestly.”

And if anyone doubts the value of your contribution to society as an alloparent, just quote Hrdy on the necessity of individuals in a society who help to raise kids who aren’t theirs. “Without alloparents,” she writes, “there never would have been a human species.”

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