When Did We Monetize the Village?

Beauty

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We’ve all heard the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But what does that mean for modern parents, who are so often siloed from the people that once provided essential support? In ELLE’s It Takes a Village series, we’re exploring the intersection of parenthood and community, including the costly services that have sprung up in the village’s wake and the many resources still available for birthing people. As Cleo Wade wrote in an original poem for this series: “Big love (the kind that changes the world) is group work, always.”


This past summer, I welcomed my first child 8,000 miles away from my family and friends, who live on the East Coast of the United States. Becoming a mother is a foundation-rocking experience even when you’re not living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, but that’s how I went about my matrescence. Luckily, our new home in Taiwan comes with a culture that greatly honors the experience of new motherhood, and local parents recommended night nurses, sleep trainers, lactation consultants, nannies who specialize in a baby’s first 12 weeks, and postpartum confinement centers (or “mommy hotels,” from the Chinese tradition of zuo yue zi, or sitting the month, for after birth). But seeing as I was already busy anxiously researching bottle sterilizers and a crib and nipple pads and a stroller, finding—and paying for—additional help was a task I just couldn’t handle pre-baby.

Of course, there was a time not so long ago when couples didn’t need to spend their final, deeply uncomfortable months of pregnancy scouring their contacts for recommendations and deciding whether to drop four figures on human assistance. “It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb that now seems to be stated with irony, or an eye roll, because how many modern women have one? In Western cultures, family and friends might visit new parents to see the baby, but there is less expectation that they’ll step in to run errands, do laundry, and cook meals, not to mention change diapers, rock the baby at 3 A.M., or give the new mother a nap break. In response to this increasing isolation, dozens of companies have sprung up in recent years to help new parents out—though these products and services tend to come with a wild cost.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a proverb that now seems to be stated with irony, or an eye roll, because how many modern women have one?”

So, where did the village go? There’s been a constellation of factors that led to its collapse over the last century, but most relate back to women working. “As women have moved into the workplace—and not just as single, childless women but women in their prime childbearing and child-rearing years—we have not confronted the shifts that requires in our social-support system,” says Kathleen Gerson, PhD, a sociology professor at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family. It’s not just that mothers of new babies are working, she explains, but their own friends, sisters, and aunts are also at work, as is the baby’s grandmother, and thus unable to help. “There was a world of domesticity that made it possible for women to support each other, and that is no longer the case.”

Then, of course, there are the aspects of American infrastructure that are irrefutably hostile to new mothers: We are, notoriously, shamefully, one of the only countries on the planet without national paid parental leave. “We also have no public, affordable child care system, which is the norm in other wealthy Western countries,” says Caitlyn Collins, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. “The U.S. conceived of child-rearing as a personal, private responsibility, and this really means mothers’ personal, private responsibility, since they still do the lion’s share of child-rearing and housework.”

Perhaps the most common person to hire for postpartum help is a night nurse or nanny, who typically feeds or cares for the baby overnight so new parents can get some sleep. “I had an unexpected C-section and no idea how painful the healing would be. That first night, I could not have imagined my husband and I being alone with our daughter,” says Robyn Berkovits of Queens, New York, who works in social media marketing. She hired a night nurse, who was also a major help when Berkovits wound up hospitalized with a postpartum complication. “Because I could sleep all night, I was a fully present mother. I woke up, got myself ready, and was so giddy to see my baby and hold her all day,” she says. Though both her parents and her in-laws live within a 45-minute drive, the low four-figure expense (picked up by those in-laws) kept her and her husband from “feel[ing] like a burden for even a second,” Berkovits says.

mother and child

Heritage Images//Getty Images

The U.S. conceived of child-rearing as a personal, private responsibility, and this really means mothers’ personal, private responsibility, since they still do the lion’s share of child-rearing and housework.”—Caitlyn Collins

Spending $1,250 per week on a night nurse was “the best thing we ever did,” says Krystal Sauer, a management and communications consultant in Chicago, a sentiment repeated by many moms. “In addition to sleep training and caring for our daughter overnight, she tidied the space, did laundry and dishes, and helped set up and cleaned my pumping supplies,” she says. Sara Scott, who works in finance at a tech company in Boston, invested a whopping $20,000 both times she gave birth, but she credits the cost with quite literally saving her life when she was suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. “Being able to get a good night’s sleep was everything in helping me recover. I would fear the nights so much when I didn’t have any help, and my whole day would be ruined,” she says.

After nurses, there are loads of companies offering to help with postpartum food delivery, now that neighborhood meal trains seem like a quaint fixture of the past. Tiana Tenet, the co-founder of the New York-based meal-delivery service The Culinistas, says her business started offering postpartum packages out of customer demand, while Holly Stein created the Southern California-based service Mama Meals after her own experience with postpartum eating. “We chose a birth center with a midwife, we had a doula, and I researched everything for pregnancy nutrition, for the birth, [for] exercise. But no one talked to me about postpartum food,” she says. As a result, she struggled with constipation and sluggishness, even though she was eating seemingly healthy fresh salads and smoothies.

At a moms’ group, Stein met a woman who referenced The First Forty Days, a traditional Chinese medicine cookbook by Amely Greeven, Heng Ou, and Marisa Belger that emphasizes “soft, easy-to-digest meals like soups and stews and oatmeals,” Stein recalls; through Mama Meals, she delivers dishes like lentil stew made with beef tallow, lactation brownies, and creamy chicken congee. The popular New York-based company Chiyo is also based around the principles of Chinese medicine. “Our broths and tonics change based on what week of recovery they’re in, following Eastern medicine,” says Irene Liu, Chiyo’s co-founder. Aside from foods like shiitake and tempeh porridge or astragalus and goji berry bone broth, customers can alter their deliveries as common postpartum symptoms pop up, like hair loss and constipation. “We emphasize that every ingredient has a purpose,” Liu says.

Elizabeth Kiefer, a writer in upstate New York, was ambivalent about opting for postpartum meal delivery when she had her daughter in 2022. “It seemed decadent, because I could have definitely batch-cooked and prepped plenty of delicious things myself,” she says. “But it was one of those moments in life where I felt like I could embrace taking something off my plate and not overthink it.” She ultimately hired a postpartum chef to prep seven meals a week for three weeks, enjoying dishes like beef borscht to build back iron and cock-a-leekie soup, known to keep the bowels moving. “In the first weeks at home, not really having to think about dinner allowed us to just relax,” she says. “My husband fed me; I fed the baby.”

These village voids, and the desire to fill them, aren’t uniquely American, but other wealthy nations certainly do a better job of helping new mothers.”

Instead of meal delivery, Kyla McCarthy, a yoga teacher in New York City, hired a postpartum doula whose services included five hours of meal prep once a week for a month, ultimately a $700 expense even before groceries. “The meals were designed for the postpartum body, as well as foods that I could eat with one hand while holding my baby,” she says. “It was a lifesaver, and I credit her services to my recovery physically and mentally. My mother passed away four years ago, so I did not have the privilege of having my mom take care of me. The doula filled that void.”

These village voids, and the desire to fill them, aren’t uniquely American, but other wealthy nations certainly do a better job of helping new mothers. In addition to comparatively generous paid leave, some European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Norway, outright pay for or subsidize nurses, midwives, or doulas who check on mothers in their homes within the first two weeks after birth. The institutional support continues into the child’s early years. “Sweden and Germany, for instance, guarantee a spot in high-quality public child care for all children starting at the age of one. Parents have paid parental leave for a year or so, and those days can be used flexibly until their children are 8 years old,” Collins says. “This isn’t rocket science—there are excellent models, some better than others, that are working well in peer countries,” she continues. “What we need is the political will to pass better policies by seeing children as a public good who deserve our collective support.”

And until that political will arrives, the market fills in the gaps: The various East Asian systems of round-the-clock postnatal care are now finding traction in the U.S. in the form of posh new postpartum centers (or “retreats”), which have made waves in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles in just the last year. That their services have been met with ridicule or incredulity on TikTok and in The New York Times comments section shows just how much Americans expect moms to do it alone.

Jennifer Darwin, a former labor and delivery nurse, opened The Village Postnatal Retreat Center in San Francisco. “When I was working in the hospitals, I would discharge patients to go home and they looked horrified. They were like, ‘Wait, we just go home?! What do we do if it cries?’” she says. “I wanted to crawl in the car and go home with them, and I couldn’t.” Launched last summer, The Village offers round-the-clock doula support, lactation consultants, newborn education and CPR training, and on-site massages and facials. Stays begin at $890 per night.

interior with mother and child

Heritage Images//Getty Images

We wouldn’t expect someone who just went through a traumatic experience or surgery to just be up and running right away. The fact that we think of giving birth as something different than that has always shocked me.”—Esther Park

Prioritizing support during this fragile time was a no-brainer for Esther Park, who grew up in South Korea and just opened the postpartum retreat Ahma & Co, housed in the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club in Orange County, California. “In Korea, about 80 percent of moms utilize this kind of model, and I think that hints at how successful it could be in the U.S.,” she says. “There are some moms who definitely feel like this is a luxury, but the thing is, we wouldn’t expect someone who just went through a traumatic experience or surgery to just be up and running right away. The fact that we think of giving birth as something different than that has always shocked me.”

Ahma & Co offers a 24/7 nursery, lactation support, meals and snacks geared toward postpartum nutrition, massages, laundry service, and more. “The best way to describe it is: Imagine being in the best version of your home, away from home, in a clean space where you don’t have to worry about all the chores,” she says. Yes, it’s a business—packages begin at $1,200 per night—but she hopes it will contribute to a societal shift.

“I’m really proud to be part of this process—to change that mindset from, maybe, if you can afford it, you get postpartum care, to postpartum care is a universal right that every mom deserves to have,” Park says.

At present, though, all of the services mentioned here, including Ahma & Co, remain a luxury for the vast majority of new moms. “In the U.S., because we consider these issues to be private-market concerns, rather than part of the package of citizenship that all American families have access to, it becomes another form of social inequality, where only a very few people can afford it,” Gerson says.

And what happens to these mothers outside the lucky few? “They make do on their own, often to the detriment of their psychological and emotional well-being and physical health,” Collins says. The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. significantly outpaces peer countries—at nearly three times higher than the country with the next highest rate, France. More than 80 percent of maternal deaths are preventable, according to the CDC, and the majority happen not during labor but in the year postpartum, with mental health issues representing a leading underlying cause of death. “The market is not the solution here; government support is.”

In Taiwan, I did have that government support; the island’s stellar universal health care meant that I gave birth nearly for free and thus could handle the cost of a mid-range postpartum center for two weeks. When our stay was over, though, I found myself calling my mom and begging her to move up her planned trip so she could help me sooner and for longer. Even with seemingly the most extravagant assistance at my disposal, I still needed so much help—the kind that only my loved ones could provide.

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