The first time my husband introduced me (young, pregnant, uncomfortable) to his extended family, I blamed my fumbling Spanish for my confusion when he called his aunt "mom." However, I learned soon enough that he and his siblings do indeed regard her fully as a second mother. He said she practically raised them -- she was there as much as their own mother.
A year or so later, I made my first pilgrimage to Mexico to visit even more family. What I found was sprawling homes with several interrelated family members living within. Children seemed to wander around in small packs, and I was hard pressed to match them to their own mothers or nuclear families. Several different aunts or cousins cared for them, feeding or correcting whatever child was within reach at the time. Some of the female cousins worked outside of the home, some did not.
When I later visited homes of other family members (on both sides of the border), I noticed that even those who lived in nuclear family groups still seemed to have relatives and friends going in and out of the home at will. And, they often lived close enough together to make this a common occurrence -- usually a few houses away or across the street.
What I was witnessing in those early introductions to this Latino lifestyle was the concept of "co-madre." Formally, co-madre means "co-mother," and is often translated as godmothers. While the godparent connection can be very strong in Latino families, this cultural norm occurred outside of that formal definition, even for female relatives who are not specifically godmothers. The "co-madre" concept I saw practiced was the constant, hands-on care that female relatives or friends provide to one another, and the strong bond of friendship and support that forms between them.
When the recent furor over whether or not women could "have it all" came out, my friends and I joked that we could probably "have it all" if we could just have our own spouse -- the one who stayed back at our house while we concentrated on growing our businesses or pushing our careers. We needed someone who does what we do when we are home: Get the kids off the Xbox, put the laundry in, pay the bills, RSVP to various functions and make dentist appointments.
But what struck me is that most of my Latina friends and relatives do have this -- as a matter of course. They weren't raising their children alone, nor with just their spouse, but also with at least one, if not more, women who routinely and regularly backed them up.
By my observation, this "co-madre" lifestyle has two very distinct features that make it much more than just a helpful friendship:
1) It has geographical closeness. Although my Latina family members here in the U.S. don't necessarily share large homes with several generations of family members, they do tend to stay close to each other if possible.
2) It is an informal relationship that seems to spring up naturally between the female members of the family, but it is also expected and routine.
I am definitely not saying that this relationship doesn't exist among other ethnicities of women -- I've seen that it sometimes does. What I am saying is that I've observed this relationship as something that's ubiquitous, natural, accepted and damn helpful in the Latino culture. It's the "It Takes a Village" concept put into daily routine.
If we (mothers) are unable to meet this elusive goal of "having it all," perhaps it's because we've become too independent, isolated, and nuclear. Perhaps what we lack is that close bond to another woman who cares for our children as much as we care for hers -- a bond which gets lost when we move to far-flung places or become more insular. Perhaps, in order to have everything -- or at least a balance -- we actually have to let go a little bit, and turn to our girlfriends a little more.