maternal myth

Motherhood: To Be or Not To Be Should Remain the Question

“Surely all women must have a maternal instinct or the human race would die out.”

–Gillian Rossdale

Modern Motherhood & Maternal Myth

Elisabeth Badinter‘s 1982 book, The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct” is one of five books she has written that challenge the maternal myth surrounding women lives. It’s forerunner, published in 1980 was “Mother Love: Myth and Reality: Motherhood in Modern History”. In addition to being an author and considered one of the leading feminist intellectuals of Paris, she was also featured in Forbes magazine as a billionaire after inheriting 19 million shares of Publicis Groupe, a public relations company. Her 2010 book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women was a topic of hot debate after it became a bestseller in Europe.

According to an article in the New Yorker, she believes that young women are undermining the progress they’ve made in achieving a degree of social, political, and economic equality. The maternal myth is a social construct in which women’s primary value lies in their accepting complete responsibility for child rearing. Her concern is that the resurrection of that myth in modern form will result in a loss of life options for women, including the option not to become mothers at all.

She refutes the importance of the scientific findings of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy regarding the role of hormones in determining maternal behavior. Similarly, she also questions many of the benefits of breast-feeding, such as increased immunity and potential for increased cognitive development. Neither does she believe that breast-feeding is a necessary element for mother-child emotional bonding. Further, despite our genetic similarities with the primate world, she does not believe that the results of studies of primate behavior translate to human society.

Badinter uses the phrase “motherhood fundamentalism” to describe the development of a new maternal myth in which mothers are all-important in child development. She regards this idea as having originated in the West in response to economic hardship, and supported by the religious right until it became a socially contagious cult. In an article in the Globe, she likens the modern version of motherhood to

“spending all day in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective…”.

While her style may alienate many mothers, her level of concern that women’s rights to financial independence and a social identity separate from motherhood is evident.

A piece in The Nation seems to confirm Badinter’s belief that a right-wing backlash against many of the modern conveniences that contributed to women’s freedom originated in America. It points out the maternal myth that childbirth imparts parenting skills rather than the reality that parenting skills are learned. Most American parents live in a different city than their parents and many have no childhood experience with infants. The large number of immigrants also points to a lack of traditional transmission of parenting skills from generation to generation. This phenomenon makes American parents more susceptible to manipulation from child care “experts”, who often present conflicting advice that results in guilt, rather than improved parenting skills.

Badinter uses some disturbing statistics to challenge the maternal myth that childbirth results in maternal love. She makes the point that the pendulum of modern society has swung to the opposite extreme– from not valuing children’s lives at all, to valuing them more than the lives of women. For example, in 1780, wet nurses outside the city cared for 19,000 of 21,000 infants born in Paris, and that more than half of them died before they reached their second birthdays.

In response to the assertion that mothers did not bond with their children due to high infant mortality rates and fear of losing them, she counters that perhaps

“It was not so much because children died like flies that mothers showed so little interest in them, but rather because the mothers showed so little interest that the children died in such great numbers.”

Those same statistics show that the children who remained with their mothers to be breast-fed were twice as likely to survive.

At the heart of her arguments lies the belief that neither children’s lives, nor the ecology, should not be valued more than women’s lives. As the mother of three grown children herself, in her view, modern inventions such as bottle-feeding and disposable diapers make it possible for motherhood to be just one aspect of a woman’s life, rather than consuming it completely.

One common criticism of Badinter’s books is that many view her devaluation of the maternal myth as devaluation of motherhood itself. However, most agree that the concept of motherhood has been often been subject to sentimentalism and maternal myth. That sentimentalism is most evident when society states that motherhood is the most important job in the world, yet provides no financial compensation or social support for mothers doing this valuable and important work.

Despite its benefits to society, the work of raising children remains largely a labor of love. So long as the number of mothers and children living in poverty continue to rise, there will continue to be a need for voices that advocate for a greater number of options for women’s lives.

maternal myth
Mother and Child in a Boat, by Edmund Charles Tarbell

June 13,2016  |

alloparenting style

Alloparenting and How It Really Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

“Alloparental care and provisioning set the stage for children to grow up slowly and remain dependent on others for many years, paving the way for the evolution of anatomically modern people with even bigger brains”

–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

There has been a great deal of research on the topic of alloparenting. An alloparent is defined as

“an individual other than the biological parent of an offspring that performs the functions of a parent”.

One study found that 88% of 63 species live in family groups that utilize alloparental care. According to one article, alloparenting evolves in a species whenever it benefits, when multiplied by genetic relatedness, outweigh the costs.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Animal World

Studies conducted with vervet monkeys, tamarins, and various species of rodents have concluded that there is a definite link between alloparenting experience and reproductive success. Researchers hypothesize that this success could be the result of several factors. One hypothesis posits that alloparenting decreases the workload of breeders, allowing them to produce another litter more quickly. Studies have also shown that the greater the number of helpers, the greater the likelihood of survival.

In the case of older siblings caring for younger ones, helpers increase their own fitness as eventual parents through practice, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that the young will survive. In an experiment with oldfield mice, those that remained in the mother’s nest longer and helped care for younger siblings displayed better nest-building skills and had a greater number of surviving offspring than those without that previous experience.

Adult mammals without offspring of their own have often been observed seeking opportunities to groom and care for the young. This behavior is viewed as preparatory educational play and an alloparenting style. In addition to increasing the likelihood for survival of the group as a whole, alloparenting style behavior also creates advantageous social bonds between the members of the group. In the animal world, this is believed to have a genetic component, since siblings, cousins, and other closely related young share many of the same genes. In one experiment it was found that alloparenting behavior improved competitive ability in social interactions as well as spatial memory in negotiating a maze.

The Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Global statistics show in many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America, more than 40% of children lived in households with other adults in addition to their parents. In the U.S. and other developed nations, the number is much lower. According to U.S. government statistics, in 2014, 4% of children lived with neither parent, the majority of them living with grandparents. However, this statistic doesn’t takin into account the number of children who live with a grandparent in addition to one or both parents. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau, 10% of all grandparents lived in the same household as at least one grandchild.

However, there has been an alarming increase in the number of single mothers in many parts of the world who do not receive parenting assistance from either extended family members or their children’s fathers. These women and children are often relegated to extreme poverty.

Erin Deihl, author of “Cross-Cultural Perspective on Adolescent Parenting: Efe and Korea” believes that an alloparenting style can result in reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy as well as contribute to making teenagers better parents later in life. On a physiological level, the possibility that, like in the animal world, alloparenting behavior alters levels of gonadotropin-releasing hormones, it may even contribute to teens choosing to delay having children. Providing maternal care has been shown to alter endocrine and brain functions of rodents, which is linked to a change in behavior.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Just as in the animal world, alloparents make it possible for human parents to travel further to earn a living, gather needed parenting supplies, and participate in beneficial social activities. It also provides children with more opportunities for crucial social education by exposing them to a greater number of people, all with different skills and talents. They also have the advantage of learning social norms from a variety of individual perspectives, thereby increasing their cultural sensitivity.

One researcher offers an alloparenting hypothesis that sexual fluidity in women may be an adaptation that historically, increased women’s ability to form pair bonds with female alloparents to help them raise their children without the assistance of a male partner. This theory suggests that like bonobos, which frequently engage in same-sex sexual behavior that results in more alloparent bonding, the same may be true for humans. In the ancestral human community, rape, abandonment, and higher male mortality often left women without male support for their offspring. This may account for the fact that 84% of 853 societies studied permitted some form of polygyny, within which the alloparenting style is a common practice.

While more research is needed to determine whether this theory is correct, the research that has been conducted demonstrates that both children and parents benefit from having a greater number of caregivers actively involved in a child’s life.

alloparenting style
The Hatch Family, Eastman Johnson, 1870–71, Credit Line Gift of Frederic H. Hatch, 1926

April 27,2016  |

cooperative family life

How Cooperative Family Life Can Change the World

“The desire to psychologically connect with others had to evolve before language…We still have to explain why humans are so much better than chimpanzees at conceptualizing what others are thinking, why we are born innately eager to interpret their motives, feelings, and intentions as well as care about their affective states and moods—in short, why humans are so well equipped for mutual understanding.”

–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

The First Development in the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life: Compassion

There has been a great deal of discussion among evolutionists about whether compassion is the product of the evolutionary process. Charles Darwin, one of the founders of evolutionary theory, argued that humans’ highest moral achievement was concern for the well-being of others. Further, he pointed out that compassion is also found in other species. For example, in one experiment, rats would only be fed if they pressed a lever which would deliver an electric shock to their littermates. The rats refused to press the lever, despite their hunger.

While it may be most common among family members, demonstrations of compassion are often observed in interactions even between members of different species. These demonstrations support Darwin’s theory that compassion begins in the family, spreading outward into the surrounding community, further into a nation, and eventually, around the globe. His theory seems to be proving correct. According to one 2011 article, researchers studied 32 modern foraging societies and found a high incidence of cooperation despite most of their members not being genetically related.

Evolutionary psychologists like Martin Daly and Margo Wilson as well as anthropologists have contributed to our understanding of how human compassion evolved. Anthropologist, professor, and mother of three Sara Blaffer Hrdy is among those dedicated to using the lessons of the past to improve parenting in the present. Her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding” sheds new light on the societal evolution of motherhood.

The Evolutionary Basis for Cooperative Family Life

There are several theories regarding how humans developed the compassion necessary for cooperative family life.According to one theory,ape intelligence within stable societies is partially defined by the ability to determine social status, recognize deception, and cooperate. These attributes and skills within a competitive social group help insure reproductive success.

One of the most important and distinguishing differences between ape mothers and human mothers is that while ape mothers maintain constant contact with their infants, human mothers allow other people to hold their infants from the moment they are born. The extreme helplessness of the human infant, coupled with their slower rate of growth and development, resulted in the evolutionary necessity for cooperative family life. Since humans take many years to reach adulthood, it was necessary to acquire the capacity to understand others, and therefore determine who is safe to participate in the process of caring for the child.

The Effect of Longevity on the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life
Another important biological difference between human mothers and other species is that human females live for many years after menopause. Female apes don’t survive very long past their reproductive years. That difference led to the “Grandmother Hypothesis“, which postulated that the assistance of grandmothers made longer periods of dependency, and greater social intelligence, possible.

This theory was one of the influences that led to Hrdy’s cooperative breeding hypothesis. Because human babies are cared for by a number of individuals, termed alloparents, they develop skills specifically designed to maintain contact with their caregivers. One of those skills is the ability to effectively read and respond to particular facial expressions. That ability, developed over the many years of human dependence upon other members of the community for survival, provided the basis for the human trait we know as compassion.

Another feature of the cooperative breeding theory in the animal kingdom is that some members of the community forfeit their own reproductive success to contribute to the reproductive success of others determined to be more reproductively “fit”. That fitness is determined by those having genetic traits most conducive to the continued long term survival of the group. Those forfeiting become helpers. Generations of exposure to a variety of caretaking helpers ensuring their survival led to the natural selection of humans with a greater capacity for successful interpersonal engagement. This could be called the survival of not only the fittest, but the kindest.
Compassion leads to cooperative family life, which then expands to include others. Hopefully, it will one day expand towards the creation of a cooperative global society.

cooperative family life
Andromache and Astyanax, Pierre Paul Prud’hon, (French, Cluny 1758 1823 Paris), Artist completed by Charles Boulanger de

November 16,2015  |


Explaining Motherhood: Is it Instinctive?

Motherhood does not come with an instruction manual, yet somehow women take to their motherly duties seemingly by instinctive ability. Many who are thrust in this role by choice or by circumstance face a lot of anxiety but pursue their role tenaciously regardless of the self-doubt. Reflecting society’s high expectations for mothers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“Men are what their mothers made them.”

Is Motherhood Instinctive?

In 2013, close to 4 million births were registered in the U.S., indicating a slight decline in birth rate. Even as women pursue high-flying careers outside the home, it remains clear that motherhood is a milestone integral to the story arc. While blazing new trails in the professional world, women have displayed their capacity to cope with the traditional role as nurturer and primary caregiver to young children.

An interesting study conducted by researchers in Tokyo used magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs to monitor the reactions of mothers shown silent films of their own infant in comfortable and under stressful situations. The mothers’ reactions to seeing their infant in distress were particularly strong, suggesting an instinctive biological response to certain infant care demands according to the authors of the study.

On the other hand, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis takes a different view based on her research. Instinctive maternal responses exist, but her research propounds that maternal instincts are more correctly described as biological conditioning rather than true instinct. Hrdy believes that a woman can care for any child regardless of biological connection if she had the existing desire to be a mother and was given time to be with the child. She has been involved in primate research for at least three decades and “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection” discusses which maternal behaviors are biological, instinctive or wishful social constructs. For a more in-depth article on Hrdy’s views, go here.

Instinctive and Learned Strategies

It is understood that the tasks and responsibilities of mothers are varied, expansive and ever changing as the needs of the children evolve. Nonetheless, mothers are able to navigate this pathway with aplomb, adjusting to the demands on their time, physical, mental and social capabilities.

The so-called maternal instinct could best be described as a predisposition to a range of strategies and responses to certain circumstances. These responses could be learned from other mothers and mother figures. Personal experiences often provide social cues and the framework through which mothers can negotiate the tasks associated with being a mother.

Maternal behavior in the animal kingdom

One of the ways that scientists in various fields seek to explain the nuances of maternal behavior is by observing the behavior of mothers in the animal kingdom.

Giraffe mothers are known to sacrifice their own lives to lions that are after their calves. African elephants will attack vehicles that they perceive as dangers to their young. North American killdeer will lure predators away from the nest by faking a broken wing and sometimes losing their life in the process. There are also documented instances when mother animals would step in and take care of babies that are not theirs, which is something that human mothers do all the time.

Understanding what makes mothers tick is a fascinating subject as mothers have been romanticized and idealized in many ways. In the end, what matters most is that mothers are given ample opportunity and adequate support to define their own place in society.


July 13,2015  |