There is pretty widespread agreement in the popular and academic worlds that women were made to be mothers. Picture Mother Mary, Jesus at her bosom (there were no breasts in the Renaissance images I am seeing), so designed to be a mother that she didn’t even have to participate in the act of conception to achieve her mothering perfection. There is such variation in the ways that women mother, however – from the 50s doting Donna Reed to mothers employing wet nurses and nannies to Andrea Yates, who drowned her 5 children – that one has to wonder: if mothering is so natural, why are some women so shoddy at or disinterested in it? And why do traditional societies, history, and comparative psychology contain so many examples of mothering requiring practice?
Humans possess relatively few, if any, skills that can be performed naturally, without practice. Even walking, once believe to just happen is now known to occur only after the infant has the chance to acquire other skills including balance and the coordination of upper and lower body. But walking is a skill that every normally developing infant eventually acquires, whereas mothering is not a skill that all women are willing or able to acquire – and there is much more variation in the outcome. Even still, a person can hardly think of a woman without picturing her as a mother. In fact, when men or mothers meet a married woman of reproductive age who has chosen not to have children, who among them doesn’t ask “why?” We even have many names for childless women, all pejorative (e.g. spinster, old maid).
Among hunter-gatherer groups, older sisters are often employed throughout the day to assist in childcare of younger siblings (Sear & Mace, 2008). In a Western context, we can see this practicing in the pretend play of (predominantly) girls with their dolls and accessories. Among the upper-class “founding mothers” generation of the U.S. colonies, upper-class teenage girls would often be apprenticed to new mothers to learn how to become mothers when their turns were up (Roberts, 2004). Even in other primate species, adolescent females yearn to get exposure to new infants, though humans alone among the great apes will share their very young infants with group members (Hrdy, 2009). Common chimpanzees will not share the infant until it is around 3.5 months, orangutans around 5 months – whereas in humans, it is mere minutes after birth. Women need training in all elements of parenting – from breastfeeding, which likewise does not just occur “naturally” (Volk, 2009) to dealing with a hormonal teenager. Feel free to leave a comment if you have tips about the latter!
Mothering can at times be overwhelming, especially when a mom finds herself with little to no help during most of the day. For those who have full-time careers, finding time to excel at work and raise a child can be daunting. Likewise, for mothers who stay at home with the children, dedicating yourself to the child at the expense of yourself, trying to complete daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning while tending to and entertaining a child, and trying to maintain a schedule that works for both you and the child (as in 5 am is too early, kids!) can be an exhausting challenge. This truth is inescapable.
Given the overwhelming nature of raising one of the most helpless and needy infants among primates, human mothers need others. In our modern world, we can see examples in Facebook, which has the support group Circle of Moms, where one can tag her friends who are also moms, and there are many mothers’ groups for finding playmates for mom and her child(ren) (such as the national group Las Madres). When new mothers were given support in the form of only 21 visits by RNs over the course of two years, their children benefited in many ways for at least the first 15 years of life, including cognitively (Hrdy, 2009). So, then, it is possible that when ‘others’ are around and help mothers hone their skills, both the mother and the infant benefit. In the Sear and Mace (2008) study cited above, for those infants who had older sisters to help in the childcare, they saw marked decreases in mortality. In other words, moms and infants both need moms who have help and support so that the moms may perfect their skills.
Switching from a natural mothers to practiced mothers perspective can be a real relief for modern moms. Perhaps a not so recent challenge is the feeling of isolation by being literally geographically isolated from friends and family. [I say not so recent because there are many times in history when women have been isolated from childhood friends and family by migrating due to marriage, and perhaps even woman have traditionally been the sex to migrate out of the group. I’ll save that for a future post]. Raising a human is at least the longest commitment among the great apes, if not the most challenging as well – humans are born completely helpless, unable to even cling to the mother; and require care well into adolescence. In fact, recent research suggests they need it much longer – humans don’t begin contributing as many nutritional resources as they consume until into their 30s (Kaplan, 2009). Accepting that mothering is a skill that takes practice can alleviate some of the stress of feeling like a fish out of water.
Similarly, accepting the practiced mothers perspective allows a new mother to accept help more readily. More often than not, mothers, mothers-in-law, and friends are offering help with childcare or advice because they’ve been there before and know how difficult transitioning from carrying a 25-pound bag of baby etc. in your uterus to caring for a 6-pound lump of baby can be. If a mother feels as if she should be a natural, then asking for help can be really intimidating.
So, are women natural born mothers? All signs point to no. Yes, their anatomy allows them to bear children, but that does not mean that they will be great mothers from day one, or ever. If you give a teenager a car, chances are through trial and error they’ll learn how to make it move – but that doesn’t mean that they’ll instantly be good drivers, and some might never even take the time to learn. So too, we need to remember that when it comes to mothering, perfection is not bred but requires a lot of practice.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Kaplan, H. (2009). Learning, menopause and the 70-year lifespan. Keynote address of the 21st Annual Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference, Fullerton, CA.
Sear, R. & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(1), 1-18.
Roberts, C. (2004). Founding mothers: The women who raised our nation. New York: William Morrow.
Volk, A. A. (2009). Human breastfeeding is not automatic: Why that is so and what it means for human evolution. Special Issue: Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 3(4), 305-314.