Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about paid family leave. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Vicki Larson is a longtime journalist, blogger and co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.”

There was much celebration recently when San Francisco approved six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents (including new adoptive parents) — the first city in the United States to do so. But regardless of whether other localities follow San Francisco’s lead, there’s something essential missing from the discussion of paid parental leave: What happens after the leave ends?

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There’s a whole lot of caring that follows the first weeks, months and even years of a child’s life. In fact, a recent study suggests that mothers of middle-school-age children are even more stressed than sleep-deprived new moms and more in need of support.

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What parents need is help. Instead, they are left to their own devices to figure things out, and all too often this means that women — who still do the bulk of child care — are opting out, forsaking career opportunities and income.

It isn’t always a happy situation. And history shows us that it needn’t be the norm.

For thousands of years, mothers have relied on others to help them raise their children. Cooperative child-rearing, or alloparenting — related and unrelated members of the species helping to care for and provide sustenance for the children of others — not only enabled mothers and children to thrive, but also shaped human evolution.

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Mothers in hunting-and-gathering societies had alloparents to watch the kids while the mothers farmed and hunted. “Othermothers” — women who care for children not biologically their own — have been a tradition in black families dating back to the days of slavery in the United States, and even longer in some African societies. So have fictive kin — close friends and neighbors who act like extended family. In other words, mothers used to have a village to raise their child.

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But today we idealize the nuclear family — Mom, Dad, kids — as the gold standard. That model may have been helpful in the preindustrial age, when parents relied on their own children to work on the family farm or business. It may have been sustainable in the 1950s, when wives — many unhappily — stayed home to raise the kids and husbands, often just as miserably, were the breadwinners.

But that is not how we live anymore.

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According to the Pew Research Center, just 46 percent of minors today live with “two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage.” Others live with single or cohabiting parents, in blended or polyamorous families, with grandparents or in multigenerational homes. Some families don’t include children at all. The majority of mothers with minor children work outside the home — 64 percent for mothers whose children are under 6 years of age and 74 percent for those whose children are 6 to 17 — compared with 53 percent in 1970.

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Paid leave policies that don’t allow for other forms of caregiving, such as for an elderly parent, sick spouse or disabled sibling, exclude many of today’s families. And paid leave policies that do allow for such care often aren’t available to low-income workers — many of them single mothers, who now typically spend a third of their income on child care.

Clearly we must do better. But how?

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The past may be able to provide us with a solution. What if we took alloparenting to the next level to address today’s nontraditional families and created policies that established a community-based “village” of quality, trained, ongoing caregivers? Why shouldn’t caregiving be a communal obligation and not just left in the hands of families, no matter their form? Not only would it help parents by giving them support beyond even the most generous family leave policy, but it also would provide children with a variety of mentors, and parents – even non-biological ones — with caretakers as they age.

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Some communities are already taking baby steps, whether through intentional intergenerational communities, the Village Movement for seniors or single-mother co-housing. But it’s not enough.

Some suggest that communal caregiving could take the form of formalized and regulated, but nonreligious, godparenting. Others say it could happen through a volunteer program similar to the Peace Corps but geared specifically toward caregiving. Unfortunately, because caregiving is typically seen as “women’s work” and is thus undervalued and underpaid, voluntary programs will most likely not attract men. But what if we considered caregiving a civic duty and offered young Americans free college tuition and health care in exchange for two years doing paid, monitored caregiving?

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It would require a new mind-set around child-rearing, what prominent feminist writer bell hooks has called revolutionary parenting. But it would also create a more nurturing and more just society of modern-day alloparents, and finally give caregiving the respect it deserves.

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Explore these other perspectives:

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