Margaret Mead said,
“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.”
And she looked and listened alright.
Equal parenting roles is really only now starting to take hold in our society, meaning that it is not as looked down on as it once was. The rise in stay-at-home dads in charge of infant development is certainly evidence of this.
National Public Radio in the United States reports the Census Bureau’s finding that 3.5 percent of stay-at-home parents are dads, and this number has doubled in the last ten years. This percentage doesn’t include dads who work part-time, and the figure is likely largely unrepresentative of the larger, true number of dads who are their children’s primary caregivers. Parental roles studies in the United States may take an interesting turn as men begin to take care of their children more and spend more time with them outside of work.
Arapesh Motherhood seen by Margaret Mead
Around the world, however, this is not necessarily the way that all societies operate. Margaret Mead, the famed cultural anthropologist who started her work in the 1920’s, observed societies in Papua New Guinea in which our cultural norms and parental roles were seemingly turned upside down and inside out.
One people group Mead studied was the Arapesh. This group had gender role expectations and parental roles than were different from some surrounding groups, and they were definitely at odds with the expectations for men and women in society in the West. In general, the male and female Arapesh were cooperative, calm, and helpful toward one another. This contrasted with the Mundugumar (Biwat) people, a group in which both men and women were more aggressive. The Tchambuli (Chambri) were even more distinct in that the women were more dominant than the men.
Ideas on parental roles were also very different. Much of Mead’s work was criticized for being too neat and fitting in easily into her nurture over nature theory, but this was how she initially described these groups of people.
Infant development and parental roles
Infant development and parental roles was a key component of Mead’s research. She noted that the Arapesh and Mundugumor mothers carried their children around in containers attached to their foreheads, according to the Library of Congress website. The Arapesh used net bags, while the Mundugumor used more rigid baskets that were likely more uncomfortable for the infants. Older children among the Mundugumor were carried around on their mothers’ backs simply by their holding on to their mothers’ hair.
Nature and Nurture, the start of a debate that lasted a century
Mead’s field work over 24 trips to the South Pacific indicated that cultural environment was at least as strong an influence as biology on gender and parental roles in a given society. She viewed humans as a whole, and she thought that all facets of life were connected. She believed that all cultures could learn from each other, states the Intercultural Studies website. In her works “Male and Female and Growth and Culture”, Mead laid out her ideas that personality differences between men and women are in large part due to how they were raised instead of biological tendencies, according to the Biography.com website.
Infant development among the Arapesh centered around adults considering it important to tend to their needs, despite inconvenience to themselves. Adults take care of babies by holding them and tending to their needs.
Even though the Arapesh considered childrearing the duties of both men and women and saw equal parental roles, R. F. Fortune, Mead’s second husband noted in an “American Anthropologist” article he penned in 1939 that
“The biological multiplication of the clan is, however, a definite Arapesh ideal maintained by the clan. The Arapesh express more concern for replenishing the land with children than they do for finding land for their children. . .They give a barren woman an intentionally shameful burial.”
Today, as gender roles change, as they have in decades past, it is important to remember that raising children in a world where two incomes is essential for many families requires men and women to pitch in. Each family should decide whether the primary care of children falls to the man or woman, how to best attend to infants’ development, and each member should be comfortable with that decision. Society’s views of parental roles, working women, stay-at-home men and any combination of the two will ebb, flow, and change direction based on the way the wind is blowing at any given moment.
What is important is that the children are getting the best the parents can offer them.
Here you you will find more about the Navajo, a maternal society.