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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Happy Mother s Day: To All the Allomothers

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The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

Once a week I get four allergy shots and then sit in a small waiting room for thirty minutes to make sure I don’t have any adverse reactions. Today, my husband came along to spend some time with me and make use of the free wi-fi. We chatted quietly while he did some service work and I finished up my grading.

I noticed an older white woman, fifty or sixtysomething, balancing her checkbook while sitting at the kids table a few feet from us. She couldn’t seem to resist commenting on each patient as they came in to sit down (To one man: “Are you Egyptian? You’re dark!” To a probably male newborn: “What a strong boy you’ll be!” To my husband: “You must be smart, I don’t know all the words you are saying!”).

Eventually, a young woman enters with a little boy in tow. She starts to read to her child in a singsong voice. “Now can you find the TREE?!?!?” she almost screams. “How about the bird? DO YOU SEE THE BIRD?!?!?”

The older woman interrupts the book. “That’s so good that you read to him. How old is your boy?”

“Two.”

“And he already likes to read! That’s amazing. You must stay at home with him.”

“I sure do. I have three boys.”

“Oh, wonderful!”

“Yes, I quit medical school to be with them.”

“Oh well, yes, that is good. You know, God blesses mothers who stay at home.”

My jaw tenses, but I continue to grade.

“Yes, it’s where I should be. My husband is studying to get his MD/PhD, so it makes more sense for me to stay at home with the boys.”

My teeth begin to grind, but I continue to grade.

“That’s good, dear. School can always wait but your children cannot. I wish more mothers knew that. The children always turn out better when the mother stays at home. I used to be a teacher so I know.”

The mother nods and goes back to reading to her child. “Is that Oscar the Grouch? What COLOR is OSCAR?!?”

I try not to fantasize roller derby hip checks, and continue to grade.

The older woman’s time is up before mine and she leaves, which I regret. Because when it’s my turn to have my injections checked, I turn to my husband, calling him loudly. “Come on, FELLOW WORKING PARENT, it’s time to go!”

And I storm out.

* * *

Drawing by the kiddo that features her parents and her aunt.

Last week, the kiddo decided to draw a picture of her family. From top, clockwise: my sister, the kiddo, my husband, me.

In the car on the way to work, my husband and I talked about how often I come across this perspective, that there is a higher value in mothers who stay at home, and how he never hears from colleagues or friends that he would have higher value if he were to stay at home. But rather than enter into some debate that tries to place a working or non-working mother on the higher pedestal, I think it’s worth noticing that all mothers have help. All of them. Childcare and babysitting, school, camp, government support, a partner with a paycheck, family members’ time or money, all of these things support a mother as she raises a child. No mother does it alone, which means a mother who stays at home is not automatically more blessed or noble than one who does not.

Perhaps more importantly, our ancestral mothers did not stay at home and watch their children alone, the TV or radio the closest thing to adult company. My last post discussed the concept of pooled energy budgets, which requires cooperative breeding and transfers of labor and energy to maximize reproductive success. Our ancestral mothers likely got help from fathers (Marlowe, 2004), other mothers , lovers, friends, community members (Hill and Hurtado, 2009), grandmothers (Hawkes et al., 1997), even younger siblings (Kramer et al., 2009). Entire books have been written on this topic (Hrdy, 2009; Kramer, 2005), and conversations have bridged across genetics, anthropology, psychology and biology (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Fox et al., 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010).

There is substantial evidence to support the idea that in our evolutionary history, mothers who had helpers did far better than those who did not, and that the social and cognitive skills needed to give and receive help are part of what make us uniquely human and intelligent (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010). When children receive allocare it helps their development of social coordination and tolerance as well as positive social behaviors, and when those allomothers (which I’m trying to use in a gender neutral way) learn to care for children it helps them build attentional biases and responsiveness to others. Allomothering, to some researchers, is the foundational mechanism for what has made us a socially intelligent species.

So today, soon after Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate Allomother’s Day and thank all of my allomothers.

  • Thank you to my husband, who brings home a salary, shares equally in housework and childcare, loves our child tenderly and fiercely, and is my staunchest supporter.
  • Thank you to my salary as well, for helping us to afford food, shelter, care, and fun stuff for our daughter.
  • Thank you to my sister, who lived in Illinois with us for a year and a half when our daughter was younger, and watched the kiddo many an afternoon or evening.
  • Thank you to my parents, who shower the kiddo with gifts, hugs and kisses and who help with pick ups and drop offs when they visit.
  • Thank you to my husband’s parents, who introduced the kiddo to Fancy Nancy and Angry Birds, and who cook up many inventive games when they visit.
  • Thank you to my roller derby leaguemates, who keep my kid out of danger, out of seeing when I get hurt on the rink, who take her to the potty, and who help to tire her out so she sleeps well. They have done this without being asked, out of sheer kindness and love, over and over again.
  • Thank you to our many babysitters who have loved our kiddo, taken her to the park, fed her dinner and tucked her into bed.
  • Thank you to the kiddo’s amazing, progressive, loving preschool teachers, who have taught her more social and emotional skills in two semesters than I ever thought possible, all while keeping her safe, building her motivation, and getting her to stick up for herself.
  • Thank you to our daycare provider, who loves the kiddo like her own and teachers all the children she watches to love and nurture one another.
  • Thank you to my friends and neighbors, who have taken the kiddo on play dates to their house when they see the haunted look in my eyes that I am behind at work, and who have said they will be my family and my backup because I live so far from my parents and in laws.
  • And finally, thank you to my internet posse, who provides emotional support even though I’ve met so few of you in person.

These kindnesses bring me to tears whenever I stop and think about it. It’s hard for someone like me who, though a potent swirl of genes and environment, has become a very, very independent person who does not like to rely on anyone. I have learned a lot about building a network and trusting others because of the cooperative breeding in my life.

References

Burkart JM, Van Schaik CP. 2010. Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding in primates? Animal cognition 13(1):1-19.

Fox M, Sear R, Beise J, Ragsdale G, Voland E, Knapp LA. 2010. Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277(1681):567-573.

Hawkes K, O'Connell JF, Blurton Jones NG. 1997. Hadza women's time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans. Current Anthropology 38(4):551-577.

Hill K, Hurtado AM. 2009. Cooperative breeding in South American hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276(1674):3863-3870.

Hrdy SB. 2009. Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding: Belknap Press.

Kramer K. 2005. Maya children: helpers at the farm: Harvard Univ Pr.

Kramer KL. 2010. Cooperative breeding and its significance to the demographic success of humans. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:417-436.

Kramer KL, Greaves RD, Ellison PT. 2009. Early reproductive maturity among Pumé foragers: implications of a pooled energy model to fast life histories. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN BIOLOGY 21(4):430-437.

Marlowe FW. 2004. What explains Hadza food sharing. Research in economic Anthropology 23:69-88.

van Schaik CP, Burkart JM. 2010. Mind the gap: cooperative breeding and the evolution of our unique features. Mind the gap: tracing the origins of human universals:477-497.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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