Sparenting

Parenting is a huge job and RUTH AGNEW discusses the value of calling in a few extra adults to help.

It’s one of those nights: lying in bed, absolutely exhausted, but every time sleep comes close, I am shaken awake by the thought of an unsigned permission slip, or that lost school jacket, or by a four-year-old who has had a bad dream or wants a drink of water. Finally I fall asleep, grabbing a couple of hours before I have to get the children up for the morning routine, making breakfast, finding the elusive soccer socks and doing the school run. Then I will call their parents. Because these are not my children; I am a sparent.

A sparent is a person who plays a significant role in raising a child, in addition to the parents or primary caregivers. I’ve been an aunty, nanny, and whanau carer, but never a mother. I’ve held baby during vaccinations, attended countless parent teacher interviews, debated boundaries with a teenager, and witnessed countless milestones.

Inter-generational households have always been the norm in many cultures with a grandparent taking on responsibilities of childcare, giving the parents freedom to focus on paid employment outside of the home. Economics has made shared households more common in varying forms, such as single parent families house sharing to ease financial pressures and assist with childcare.

This isn’t a new phenomenon of course. ‘Sparenting’ enabled my awe-inspiring mother-in-law to go back to school as a single mother of two extremely demanding sons, and earn her nursing qualifications. She and her sister (also a single mother of two) united their families under one roof, in effect co-parenting the four cousins. By the time I married into this family, the ‘sparenting’ household was a distant memory. The repercussions are evident to this day, however: the cousins are as close as siblings, and Aunty’s advice carries the weight of their mother’s.

Professional babysitting services can cost more than a low income wage earner will bring home. And, even if money isn’t an issue, parents working shifts such as those in hospitality and healthcare, are often unable to access affordable childcare as their work hours fall outside of conventional office hours. Independent providers may not offer proof of satisfying the rigorous industry standards that preschools and daycare centres adhere to. In these situations, many parents lean on the assistance of close trusted friends and whanau, aka sparents.

The increase in blended families has also meant more adults without conventional titles playing significant roles in a child’s upbringing. When Manakau writer Shirley separated from her husband, she maintained the close relationship she had with his five daughters. One lived with her until recently, they play an important role in her son’s life, and as she puts it, “we are all whanau and it’s lovely”.

Christchurch teacher Louise enjoys a special relationship with her niece: “She views me as somewhere between a big kid and an adult. She can play with me and test out new behaviours and games, but she also relies on me to take care of her and set rules”.

Sparents are definitely here to stay, in the form of flatmates, ex-step-parents, honorary aunties and uncles, and countless others. I reached out to a number of people who fall under the sparent umbrella. Some were grateful to finally have a title, while others already considered themselves “alloparents” or “bonus-parents”.

I’m in two minds about the term sparenting. When I am responsible for a child, whether it’s in-loco-parentis as a teacher, full time as a whanau carer, in a paid nanny position or taking my niblings on a day out with Aunty, I will protect them with my life. Call me an ‘extra-parent’, because hell yeah, I am extra. Or an honorary Aunty, because when I am caring for your child, they are my family. When I started looking after my niece full time, Whāngai parent and whanau carer made me feel like my role had historical and cultural legitimacy. My issue with ‘sparent’ is the implication that I am ‘spare’. Any role I play in a child’s upbringing isn’t insignificant. I may be a sparent, but I am not spare, I am essential.