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?