Monday, June 13, 2011

Mother Nature: The isolated suburban mother

Despite having just had a baby and therefore having little time for blogginess, my mind is still awhirl. Read on.

I have this tendency to talk about books I haven't read or haven't finished (witness: here, here, here, and here). Today I'm honestly in the midst of reading a book by an author, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, I've talked about admiringly in the past, despite having never read her actual writing. (But, no, I haven't come close to finishing it yet…)

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species was published in 1999 and at 541 rather large pages (not including the 50 pages of notes, the 87-page bibliography, and the 32 pages of index) is a humdinger of a book to have picked up when I have a newborn, a tandem nursing preschooler, and therefore not much lap space to spare.

But Hrdy would approve of my ambitions.

Sarah (may I call her Sarah?) is an anthropologist who has studied extensively the role of mothers in nature. (Oh! See? The title of the book!) She's challenged prevailing pat answers about what the nature of motherhood is (see, the title has many meanings), both in various animals and particularly in primates — and, even more particularly, in humans. She has wrestled firsthand with the need to balance her own passions with her decisions and desires to bear and nurture children, and she's helped me understand how our society limits women by giving them such a terrible choice (against, let it be said, how it naturally should be).

Anyway, I'm on page 58 of Mother Nature, but let's dive in, shall we? I wanted to share one particular insight that spoke to me so far.

Through the 1960s, comparative psychologists isolated mother rats, hamsters, cats, and other animals in discrete cages with only their offspring for company. Subjects were buffered from the complexities of larger social networks and the need or opportunity to forage (what one might call "breadwinning"). These mother-infant units were eerily reminiscent of model suburban housewives of the same era. [p. 28, emphasis all mine, baby]

I started to wonder just how much what we understand about mothering and, more specifically, attachment parenting, stems from limited observations of mothers in cages. These animal mothers were given pretty much no choice but to sit around nurturing their children. They didn't have to fight for survival (gathering food, fending off other animals) or jockey for position among their own group (against males or against other females). And they also weren't given any help or interaction from other members of their group when it came to rearing their young, such as might have been seen in their natural environment.

The correspondence of these caged mothers to my own culture — the "model suburban housewives" — struck me as eerie, too. There's pressure for us as mothers to abandon foraging/breadwinning — and if we can't or choose not to, there's ambivalence at best, if not intense guilt from within or condemnation from without. (I'm not fanning the mommy-war fires here; I realize there are pressures in both directions.)

And in my culture — middle-class, white, U.S., urban residential — as I'm sure in many of yours as well — I do sometimes feel just as isolated as those lab rats in their sterile enclosures. We're tucked away and brought up not to rely on other relatives, neighbors, or friends for childrearing. Even if we asked, they've been brought up not to offer, or to feel confused or out of their depth or even offended at the request. I'm talking not just occasional babysitting here, but day-in, day-out coparenting.

Humans, as "cooperative breeders," have evolved to expect that sort of long-term assistance, and it's a huge challenge for one woman to parent by herself as our independence-minded western culture now expects of her. Our babies take a looong time to mature, and that's where having other trusted hands around gives them the stability and care they need while at the same time giving the gestational mother time to pursue her own needs and desires for work, rest, play, and connection.

I appreciate that Hrdy's expanding the understanding of what mothers are and the great variety they come in — and the way we have to make compromises and decisions based on our circumstances, since we don't in fact live in cages but in a complex and social world. As Hrdy puts it:

"Real-life" mothers were just as much strategic planners and decision-makers, opportunists and deal-makers, manipulators and allies as they were nurturers. [p. 29, again with the bolding for fun]

So we're up against the expectations from these limited laboratory experiments that we'll sit around docilely nurturing our young by ourselves all day — but we really can't, given our much more complex environments (our necessities of breadwinning and social navigation, among others) — and we really don't want to, given our biological and anthropological expectations and very real human desires, needs, and dreams.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this as I continue reading (and it's certain my own comprehension will be broadened and perhaps altered), but I thought I'd share that for now. And there's been a lot otherwise in the book that I'd love to expound upon, but I'm short on free hands at this point, as mentioned. (At the moment, I am slyly trading a proffered nap time for writing time instead, but a wail below alerts me my window is closing.) A lot of the introduction was devoted to criticizing earlier Darwinian thinkers (e.g., Darwin) for being sexist and, perhaps more egregious for scientists, entirely unobservant. For instance, when confronted with women of intellect, they tended to waft in their direction the frustrating praise that they were unnatural creatures who were, strangely, almost as smart as men. Which makes me want to build a time machine just for the pleasure of rapping them on the nose, but I don't suppose I'd be able to change their minds, given that I'm not pretty enough. (Did I mention that they thought ugly women were less perfectly evolved? Yeah. Who's with me on the time machine trip to lay a smackdown?)

Read anything good lately?


Kitty said...

Sign me up for that smackdown :)

I've always found it strange that western culture expects a woman to essentially bring up their children with no support but then again I grew up in a large extended family with some alternate views on family life. I have always thought that the tribal way of the family/village helping to raise the child makes much more sense both for parent and child.

Michelle said...

I just finished reading Orgasmic Birth, and Ina May's new book "Birth Matters", both were fantastic, inspiring reads. I'm currently reading "Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy" and so far it is very interesting. :)

Michelle said...

Also, Mother Nature sounds like a very interesting book.

Inder-ific said...

I love this book. I found it absolutely riveting and incredibly challenging. I was incredibly impressed by how rigorous the research is.

But, since you haven't finished it yet, I feel bound to compelled to warn readers - it requires a very strong stomach at times. To the point where I don't usually recommend it to new moms. The chapters on infanticide, wet-nursing, gender preferances, and 18th and 19th century "foundling homes" (where most babies died quickly) were VERY HARD TO TAKE.

I love this book so much. I think it's incredibly well researched and I think about it often. But there are some realities that many of us mothers would rather not think about, you know? So be warned. :-)

Inder-ific said...

But, going back to your post, one of the things I loved best about this book was the way that she challenges the all-consuming attachment parenting norm (along with any other norm you can think of), painting mothers as free agents, making difficult choices for their own and their childrens' survival.

It's the darker and far more realistic big sister to "Our Babies, Ourselves."

Lauren Wayne said...

@Kitty: Yes! The tribal/community model just makes so much more sense. I'm envious of you for your extended family experience!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Michelle: I should have read Orgasmic Birth before my last birth. I'll try to get to it still! :) The spanking book definitely sounds intriguing.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Inder-ific: That's a good warning to put in there — thanks. I did expect that it would contain that sort of thing, what with all the animal deaths so far, but forgot to warn anyone. I'm a sort of true crime buff so have been fascinated/repelled by instances of infanticide in the western world. I don't mean fascinated in a good way — I mean I can't wrap my head around it, and it hurts trying. So I'm hoping this book will shed some light on those aspects of mothering (without just freaking me out).

But, yes, as to your second comment, that's what I appreciate so far, too. That mothers are individuals confronted by circumstances and are not monolithic. It's the darker and far more realistic big sister to "Our Babies, Ourselves." — that's a great description.

Inder-ific said...

@Lauren @ Hobo Mama

I think you will enjoy it, and get a lot out of it, you sound like me. I was an anthropology major, so I find different cultural practices fascinating even when I also find them disturbing, all the more when it is my culture that is being discussed. But there is some disturbing stuff, that's for sure! Don't read while pregnant unless you are made from very sturdy stuff! :-)

Rachael @ The Variegated Life said...

I think you know how much I love love love Hrdy's work! The BEST book I could have read within the first year of the Critter's birth. Any excuse I have to feel guilty about something, I certainly take it up, and, as we know, mothering is the mother lode of guilt. So I credit Hrdy for saving me from a lot of guilt.

I second Inder-ific's warning about some of those middle chapters. They were so distressing that I actually couldn't read them then and haven't ventured to go back to them now.

And also, when you're finished with Mother Nature, you must must must read Mothers and Others!

Terri said...

Sounds like a fascinating book and look forward to hearing more from your review. I continuously dream of a more consciously created village environment to raise my kids. I find it so wierd to have to balance all of their needs with all of mine plus house, hubby, and all the rest that life throws in each window of 24 hours, mostly alone. I'm already lining up a rota of friends with particular skills to send my kids to for lessons - herbalists, yoga teacher, photographer, farmer etc so they can get a broader experience of life that I can offer alone...I'm digressing here...was just sparked by the post so far.

Olivia said...

For me, the need for a "tribe" to help raise my child(ren) alleviates most of the ambivalence I have of working and sending my daughter to daycare. In a perfect world I would work part time and share child care with a friend more equally. But, in our society hiring a daycare to take on some of the child rearing is the next best thing.

So, about that 500+ page book. If you can afford it, I highly recommend an e-reader. I don't know if this book is available in that format, but with such little lap space you would love being able to read one-handed. :)

Michelle said...

@Lauren @ Hobo Mama

@Lauren, you totally should read Orgasmic Birth. I was a little wary at first, but I LOVED IT. It really has changed my thinking and understanding of my body. In fact, because of it, I'm going to counseling to just deal with any past issues that might have affected my first labor (ended up with a 4th degree tear, but lovely home water birth besides). I can't wait to put it to use in a year or so. :)

Thanks for visiting my blog :) You must live in or near Seattle, yes? I'm in Ballard :)

Lauren Wayne said...

@Rachael @ The Variegated Life: Well, just reading (in the page 200s now — go, me) one of the precursors to the infanticide chapters describing male warriors practicing infanticide pretty much icked me out. So, yes.

And I second the idea of being saved from mother guilt. It's so prevalent, and it's nice to get a dash of common sense from this book about how what we're trying to do, alone as parents and/or as working parents, is HARD.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Terri: Love that idea of intentionally creating a village community!

Lauren Wayne said...

Second thought to Terri! :) I'll need to consider that for unschooling. It sounds perfect!

@Olivia: Exactly! Daycare isn't perfect, but it's not always possible to have the ideal. I have that same ambivalence over our daycare/preschool choice.

I totally agree about the e-reader. I don't have a legitimate one, but our library has ebooks for checkout, so I read them on my computer and on my phone. I like the idea of having a "real" one, though. :) Unfortunately, this book isn't available for ebook checkout, so I'd have to pay actual money (gasp! I'm so cheap) if I went that route. I might have to pony up, though, because my wrist hurts from trying to hold the book over my baby's head. ;)

Lauren Wayne said...

@Michelle: That is really interesting. Have you written any about that experience and your subsequent thoughts?

We're in West Seattle! Come on over to the beach. :)

Inder-ific said...

Lauren, I know the passage you are talking about - it is unfortunately burned into my consciousness and I will never forget it. *Shudder.*

But, inspired by your post, I am reading Mothers and Others now. And loving it.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post so much I'd like to share it in my own blog! This is the first time ive felt that way about a post or had an urge to share another's post on my blog-so how do I go about doing that? I mean is it rude? I just credit Hobo Mama and back link To the orginal right?

Lauren Wayne said...

@Impossible Mom: Your comment somehow got lost in moderation till now! Yes, it's as easy as that — not rude at all. Very much welcomed, in fact! Thanks for sharing! :)

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