Having it all is, of course, a tired phrase that crassly oversimplifies the stakes for most women, and yet, for the sake of shorthand, let's rename it "Winning at Life" instead. If winning at life is, say, balancing family, romance and power on something like your terms — then the ladies of the Mosuo got it all figured out, those sly dogs.
The Mosuo are an ethnic tribe of about 40,000 who live in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, bordering Tibet. They are noteworthy for having a matriarchy-like social organization — lineage is traced through the female, offspring are raised in the mother's house, and take the mother's surname.
This picture is what reasonably organized happiness looks like:
What makes it fascinating is that when you give women a little more say in the arrangement of things, the result is less dudes around and not more. Imagine that. Of course, as you'd guess, there is less slut shaming. Less prudishness. Less traditional Western style arrangements and more pragmatic ones.
For instance, it's common for women to have multiple sexual partners of her choosing after age 13, and the paternity of her children as a result of those partnerships is unknown by design. Fathers of those children do not live with their mothers. A woman's children are raised in the household she remains in with her mother and aunts and uncles. The father plays a role in his offspring's life, but not the glorified one we ascribe to him in Western culture as all-knowing chooser of television channels and irritability. Uncles are not isolated weirdos you have to buy old, out-of-print Deep Purple records for every year, but good dudes you want hanging around. They have nothing like traditional marriage, and yet, the world does not fall to the floor weeping. Oft-repeated fact about the tribe: They have no actual word for father or husband.
Over at Sociological Images, Jonathan Harris writes:
A father is allowed, but not required to provide financial support and he is usually permitted to visit the mother and their child(ren) only at night. They call it "Axia" or "Walking Marriage." The children's primary male role models are usually their uncles, who remain under the authority of the children's grandmother as they live under her roof.
From the Mosuo point of view, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Nor can the father wield power over the mother by threatening to withdraw from the marriage. Meanwhile, because the family of origin is never eclipsed by a procreative family, the Mosuo system reduces the likelihood that elders will be abandoned by their families when they need support in old age.
Uh, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Does this not solve every fucking problem ever whined about by any married people anywhere since ever? Does this not blow up everything we think we know about How Things Should Work?
Think about it. Here, you leave your family as soon as humanly possible and don't look back lest you dissolve into the dust of weakness and ineffectual shame. If anyone is going over to someone's house under the dark blanket of night and sneaking out in the morning to do the walk of shame, it's the woman. Here you are supposed to marry one person and attempt to remain monogamous; not living together would be "weird." You have a child that you love and organize your life around but insist must sleep on her own without comfort by 6 weeks old or else produce a weak, clinger child. You are constantly advised that the child should never get in the way of your romantic devotion to your partner. Later on, when your parents are old, you will argue with your siblings over who will settle the bill for their assisted living condo because you're really getting into glazing your own pottery lately and can't be bothered.
I hesitate to make sweeping value judgments about who is more right culturally, but um, we're dumb about things? Can you imagine if you just lived at home, and kept dating the dude you like the most the rest of your life, except only late at night in your room — your days free to do whatever! My god, you would get so much done.
And then had stigma-free kids by a couple different dudes if the passion strikes, but everyone in your family was invested in making sure they turned out alright, no matter whose they were? And the dudes pitched in and stuff but you weren't banking the entirety of your financial and emotional wellbeing on this one guy being willing to pick up around the house more?
The Mosuo have basically turned being a single mom with multiple children by different fathers into something totally bangin', EVEN FUN. At the Mosuo Project, they explain that this essentially makes divorce a "non-issue":
Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother's family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother's family, and take on her family name.
This does not mean, however, that the men get of scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many "aunts" and "uncles", as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.
And a particularly fascinating byproduct of all this is less emphasis on the gender of the child:
…among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home, there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender (or even for two households to 'swap' male/female children).
I know what you're thinking: How we can all become honorary Mosuo members by first thing tomorrow without doing a lot of paperwork? But let's not get carried away here. This is an agrarian, barter-style culture where one must work very hard and nothing is perfect. A recent piece at the Observer looked at the slow erosion of the way of life of "the world's last matriarchy" due to tourism and the sex industry, and the men still have more political power. Which means BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.