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Reality Show “Polygamy, USA” Boggles Then Opens the Mind

Screen shot 2013-05-06 at 10.45.47 PMDuring the pilot episode of the documentary series, “Polygamy, USA,” two women are out on a date with their husband talking about how they need a new wife.

Wife One says to Wife Two that she’d prefer a new wife who can cook interesting meals, maybe a Mexican? They chuckle and consider other attributes, maybe she could be a massage therapist? They settle back on the Mexican concept. “Dude,” says Wife One, “it’s all about the food.”

This glib moment is revealing about several things:

1. Though it’s essentially patriarchal, women in polygamous families do have “a voice.”

2. Fundamentalist mormons use the word “dude.”

3. Mothers of young children care more about getting help around the house than pretty much anything else.

Watching Polygamy, USA– the real life version of Big Love–  didn’t inspire much envy in me. Though the women in this community do get to choose which men to marry and some get to work outside the home as teachers or nurses, mostly they seem to spend their entire lives circling granite-topped islands in suburban kitchens. It’s a hardcore domestic life with plural families sprouting upwards of 10, 16, 35, 38 kids… lots of plates to be scraped and stacked. But I couldn’t help noticing that in all this intensive housewifery, there’s one sad sight we never see: a lone mother fretting (dare I say “hovering” or “helicoptering”) over her one or two precious children. Here, on the border of Arizona and Utah, in a fundamentalist Mormon community, there seems to be a bonafide “village” of women and children sharing the chores. It happens outside the home, too. The young men work together to keep the streets clean (literally, they pick up garbage.)

This made me think, as I have before, often while alone with a crying baby, that parenting is not really meant to be done in isolation.

In Mother Nature, a groundbreaking book on the history of childcare arrangements, sociologist Sarah Hrdy writes that mothers working alongside several or many “allo-mothers” (additional care-givers)  is actually far more “normal” than the more recent phenomenon of a mother being home with a baby all day by herself.  I get that entirely. And I feel deeply grateful for the various daycares, babysitters, family, friends, enlightened fathers, empathetic and knowledgeable grandparents and neighbors and atypically flexible employers I leaned on during the first 8 years of my life as a mother. But boy was that hard to wrangle– at times I felt I had to literally pound the pavement to find that elusive village I craved.

I would not wish polygamy on even my most stressed-out and isolated new mom friends, but I do think it’s important to regard our nuclear family model of parenting as possibly the freakiest of all. Maybe there’s some other way we can work to support families: Hmmm. Off-the-grid neo-hippie communes? Socialist revolution? Maybe some decent parental leave benefits would be a good start.

If you’d like to boggle, and then perhaps open, your mommy mind, watch Polygamy, USA which premiers tonight at 9PM on the National Geographic channel.

 

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