animal mothers

Wolf Animal Mothers – An Excellent Role Model of Motherhood

“Wolves are extremely intelligent beings, having great curiosity, the ability to learn quickly, and the full range of emotions people like to attribute to humans alone,” from Running With the Wolves, INc, Ronkonkma, NY.

While most people, especially women, don’t necessarily appreciate being related to wolves, particularly when it comes to intellect and emotional intelligence, the reality is that these animals present an important correlation to both our skills in interacting with one another and our emotional connection to our young. At least the relationship here is more positive than being compared to a monkey, right? In fact, there is actually a great deal we can learn from the mother wolf, in particular. Female wolves are excellent animal mothers who actually demonstrate many of the same stages of preparing for motherhood that human mothers do.

The Stages of Mothering In Animal Mothers

The female wolf presents a unique perspective on mothering, especially as it relates to a human mother. These animal mothers demonstrate excellent motherhood skills as they prepare for and eventually take care of their young. Like human mothers, the wolf mother begins preparing for her young long before the babies or pups, as wolf young are called, are actually present.

Once a wolf mother becomes pregnant, she goes through a phase of furthering her relationship with her mate. Most human mothers go through this stage as well. The wolf mother will spend a great deal of time cuddling, playing, and hunting together with her mate. It is as if she spends this time “focusing” on her mate to prepare for the time that she will focus the majority of her attention on the babies. This phase is a natural extension of the stages of mothering and usually lasts several weeks.

Following this stage of courtship and play, the wolf mother begins denning. This stage can be related to what most human mothers know as “nesting.” The wolf mother looks for a suitable place to whelp, or give birth to, and later care for her pups. The female wolf spends a great deal of time sniffing around for a place to make a den. The mother may reuse the same denning ground as other female wolves if she is part of a large pack. Otherwise, she may find a suitable area and dig her own den. Inexperienced females may dig a shallow pit; however, the knowledgeable wolf mother will dig a deep, large pit to adequately protect her babies. The female claims this area for her and her puppies, not even allowing her mate into the den. She may, however, select a suitable assistant from among the other female wolves in the pack. In time, the entire pack will support and nurture the puppies.

When it is time, the wolf mother enters her den to whelp. Her innate knowledge of caring for her pups is immediately demonstrated in her ability to facilitate the birthing process. As the pups are born, the mother chews off the umbilical cord and licks each pup clean. After all of the pups are born, the animal mother eats the placenta. This demonstration should be a good reminder to human mothers that their bodies naturally know what to do when giving birth. The process is natural, and the body knows how to facilitate the process if only it is allowed to do so.

In order for the pups to survive, the female wolf devotes a great deal of attention to her young in the early days. The mother generally remains in the den with her pups for several days straight following birth in an effort to support their early development. The mother continues to lick and feed the brood and only leaves the pups for a short period after several days. The wolf mother is very protective during these early days and keeps her pups in the den for at least three to four weeks before she will let them out into the light. Again, this protective tendency is much like human mothers demonstrate in their early days immediately following giving birth.

The wolf mother also sees to it that her pups are fed sufficiently. Pups usually nurse five to six times a day for periods of three to five minutes each during the first several weeks. Between five and eight weeks after birth, the mother begins the weaning process during which the pups are fed regurgitated food. The care and attention the mother wolf demonstrates during nursing and weaning are important characteristics from which human mothers can gain insight about providing for their young.

Important Characteristics of Animal Mothers

As is demonstrated throughout the many stages of wolf mothering, these animal mothers are intrinsically good mothers. The female wolf is born with the instincts to prepare for, birth, and later take care of her young. In so doing, she demonstrates important characteristics of motherhood.

The wolf mother is extremely intuitive when it comes to raising her pups. She knows their needs and follows her instincts to provide. The wolf mother is also protective of her young, keeping them in the den until the pups are sufficiently capable to survive outside of the den. The female wolf is also extremely unselfish, demonstrated in her willingness to remain in the den herself to provide for her young.

As mothers we can learn a great deal from the wolf mother and other animal mothers. Her intuitiveness toward motherhood as well as the many honorable characteristics she embodies definitely serve as aspects from which we can learn. Knowing all of that, it’s not so bad to be compared to a wolf, now is it?

Here you you will find more about the Panda mother, who does a pretty lousy job actually …

animal mothers
Wolf and Cub, by Tambako, Zurich – Flickr CC 2.0


Slow Social Change

Darwin, The Empowerment of Women and Slow Social Change

Empowerment of women definitely took a nose dive in the 19th century and slow social change for women followed. Most of us are familiar with the creation vs. evolution theory which is almost always associated with Charles Darwin, a scientist of the 19th century. While there were other scientists who supported his views even earlier than Darwin, he remains the predominant scientist of evolution.

He had other influences on social science besides evolution and two that still affect us to today are eugenics and the inferiority of women. Because of his huge and lasting influence slow social change for women was an indirect result. It is still hard to believe, but his beliefs about women and eugenics elucidated in his writings were not challenged until the 1970s in the scientific and public arenas. His beliefs have greatly influenced all theories, including the ones on childcare, motherhood in general and more particularly our concepts of the Ideal Mother.

Darwin’s Scientific Approach

One of the last things on the mind of Charles Darwin was the empowerment of women. While raised Unitarian (one of the Christian theological movements, known for its rejection of the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, predestination, and biblical inerrancy) due to the early death of several family members, Darwin became and stayed an avowed atheist. Since his work led him to disavow the Genesis account in the Bible, this made it easier for him to support his work. However, unlike Genesis which states that

“Then the lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”

Darwin finally established that if evolution was the survival of the fittest, then certainly man was the ultimate goal of evolution.
Darwin felt the following,

“My object … is solely to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”

Comparing an assortment of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic arguments, Darwin placed Savages, who were said to possess smaller brains than the higher races, and whose lives were led by instinct and less by reason in an intermediate position between animals and man. Darwin extended this placement to include children, congenital idiots and women, whose intuition, perception and imitation were

“characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.”

Darwin, then felt that empowerment of women was only gained by serving under their master or caretaker. His view of marriage was that a wife did not set to be her husband’s intellectual companion, but rather to amuse his leisure hours and look after his person and his house, freeing and refreshing him for more important things. Although he had revolutionary thoughts on many levels, and accepted the social consequences pf these thoughts, on other matters social change was slowed down because of him.

Darwin’s theory was picked up by Carl Vogt, an anthropologist of the time who wrote,

“hence we should discover a greater [apelike] resemblance if we were to take a female as our standard… and because her evolution stopped earlier, a woman was “a stunted man.”

Vogt felt that the gap between males and females increases with civilisation’s progress, and is greatest in the advanced societies of Europe. There were other scientists who wrote papers along a similar viewpoint. The fact that their country was ruled by a queen during this time seemed to be of no mind to the scientific community, nor the other female rulers during this time including Catherine the Great.

Darwin’s Theories Spread in the Scientific Community

Moving along on this path, Darwin’s main point was that women were essentially a stilled part of the evolutionary tree. Further, Darwin felt males were not only

“more powerful in body and mind than women”

but had even

“gained the power of selection”.

Evolution was in the males’ hands. Women, consequently, were less evolved and this is why instinct and emotions dominated women, her “greatest weakness”. 

Clearly, Darwin had no knowledge of genetics as it relates to inheritance of genes from both parents. He seemed to feel that since all evolution was taking place through the male, the female was merely passing on the results of evolution as determined by the needs of the male of the species. Once genetics was more thoroughly understood (see here), it underscored the difficulties with Darwin’s theory on women, people of color and his theory of evolution itself.

Slow social change for women as a result

Why were such easily disprovable theories clung to for so long? The answer is and has always been a loss of power and fear of the unknown. During the early 20th century, most of the world was at war, experienced several economic collapses and other disasters which led to a changed world. Many people associate change with chaos, slow social change with stability and history does bear this out to some extent.

A review of the history of the Mideast or Asia bears this out. However, in the 1970s, most longstanding views were being challenged, including the view of women as inferior. Study after study refuted the long held views on brain size, emotions and intelligence. Yes, men and women do look at things differently, but there is no proof one way is better than the other in every situation.

Thus, we have arrived at where we are today, where women can do many things that their grandmother’s or parents generation could not. This does not mean all is settled. Empowerment brings responsibility along with choices. It is clear that empowerment of women will empower the rest of the human race as well.


Slow Social Change
Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier
animal mother

Is the Momma Bear Really the Most Protective Animal Mother?

As the author N.K. Jemisin has said,

“There is no greater warrior than a mother protecting her child.”

While there are many characteristics that make up a good mother, protecting their young is a common quality that both the human and animal mother share. The mother bear has always been the quintessential example of a mother’s love, and this is mainly because of their fierce, protective nature. It is a widely accepted belief that the most dangerous place to be is between a mother bear and her cub, but is this really a well-established fact or just an exaggerated myth? I’m not sure that I would want to be the one to test this theory.

Species of Bears and their Location

There are eight different species of bears; the two most common include the American black bear (Ursus americanus) and the brown bear or grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), according to BearSmart. Both of these species can be found in North America. The American black bear’s territory extends throughout the United States and Canada. The brown bear is located in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Canada. The more common of the two is the American black bear, with a population of approximately 900,000 in North America.

Black Bears and their Cubs

Black bears are solitary creatures that only come together during mating season. Mating season begins in June, but the actual implantation of the embryo is delayed until October. If the mother bear does not put on sufficient weight during this time, the embryo will not attach to the uterine wall. The typical gestational period is 220 days, and black bears usually have a litter of three or four cubs. The mother bear gives birth in the den during hibernation, and she tends to her young for a year and a half, until her next estrous cycle begins. According to, as soon as she is ready to mate, she will immediately start pushing the cubs off on their own, chasing away the startled cubs if they try to return. This seems cruel, but it may be a way to protect the cubs from being attacked by male bears that are interested in mating.

Are Black Bears the Most Protective Animal Mother?

Black bears may be the most common in North America, but do they provide the best example of a protective animal mother? Much research has been done on this topic over the years, and biologist Stephen Herrero summarized many of the results in his book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. In his book, Herrero discusses Al Erickson’s pioneer research of black bear mothers and cubs, which was done in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Erickson captured 96 black bear cubs, and found that the mother bears did not exhibit the strong maternal instinct that one would expect from an animal mother. Instead, the mother bears would often abandon their cubs during an impending threat.

Additional research was conducted by Lynn Rogers, which served to further corroborate Erickson’s results. Rogers found that out of the eighteen bear cubs that were captured in the presence of their mothers, none of their mothers attacked. Most of the time, the animal mother took cover and hid under tree brush. To date, there is no evidence of a black bear ever defending their cubs by killing an aggressor. Instead, mother bears are much more likely to run away or hide when faced with a possible human attack.

Grizzly Bears and their Cubs

The mating and reproduction cycle of a grizzly bear is very similar to that of the black bear. However, grizzly bears have a slower reproductive rate, and they only have one or two cubs at a time. The cubs stay with their mother for at least two years, and they may stay up to three or four years if the mother does not get pregnant during her next estrous cycle. When grizzly bears get pregnant, it triggers them to push their cubs away, just like black bear mothers.

Are Grizzly Bears a Protective Animal Mother?

Grizzly bears symbolize everything that is treasured about the great outdoors and wilderness life. They are admired for their fierceness and brute strength. These same qualities are what make the grizzly bear an extremely protective animal mother. While black bear mothers tend to abandon their young if someone is bothering them, grizzly bears are much more aggressive and will attack. According to, seventy percent of human deaths caused by grizzly bears are related to a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. Whereas all bears may not be the perfect example of a protective animal mother, grizzly bears definitely exhibit this trait.

Grizzly bears also display other characteristics that can be attributed to good mothers. While the cubs are with their mother, they learn many important life lessons. The cubs will sit and watch their mom as she hunts for food and catches fish. By watching their mother, the cubs learn skills that will allow them to survive on their own.

Not all momma bears are not the picture-perfect example that we have grown to believe in. It looks like humans are closer to the grizzly bear. Mother’s love is for them really all about protecting from and preparing for a harsh world, and lead by example.

Here you you will find more about the Wolf mother and her excellent motherly behavior.

animal mother
Grizzly Bear Sow and cubs, by Denali National Park and Reserve CC BY 2.0


genetic mutation

Hugo de Vries: Genetic Mutation Theory’s Role in Modern Motherhood

It is hard not to notice that children often look and act like their parents. For centuries, people have been aware, for example, that a man and woman with blue eyes generally produce offspring with blue eyes. Let that same couple produce an heir with brown eyes and rumors swirl.

Only in the last 150 years or so has science dared, or been able, to ask why. One person to thank for that is Hugo de Vries. He was a botanist and one of the first geneticists. In 1889, he postulated that different characters have different hereditary carriers. He specifically postulated that inheritance of specific traits in organisms comes in certain particles….

Botanist to Geneticist to Gene

Born in the Netherlands in 1848, de Vries studied botany at the University of Leiden in the Hague. While there, he discovered Darwin‘s “Origin of a Species” and became curious about variations in species and the role those variations play in evolution. After graduating with a doctorate in plant physiology in 1870, de Vries continued his studies in Germany. His experimental work shifted to heredity and in 1889 he published “Intracellular Pangenisis”, a work that used Darwin’s term “pangene” and defined it as a particle of heredity that produced the individual traits of an organism. Today, we know the term simply as “gene.”

Genes, Heredity and Genetic Mutation Theory

De Vries, as a pioneer geneticist, was widely-known in his time for the introduction of genetic mutation theory. Noticing that individual plants of the evening primrose, Oenothera lamarckiana, growing in his garden were different enough to be a separate species, de Vries began to cross-pollinate them. The resulting variants of the plant he called “mutants.” In his 1901 work, “The Mutation Theory”, de Vries proposed that his mutational jumps better explained evolution than Darwin’s natural selection theory.

De Vries Got it Wrong

There are no fancy monuments to de Vries and, with little mention in literature and no standard biography, he has largely faded into oblivion. Partly, that is because de Vries got it wrong. He thought that the mutations he saw in the evening primrose represented a large genetic mutation rift and thus could explain evolution differently from Darwinian theory. It turns out that is not true. The evening primrose differences that de Vries noticed are now known polymorphisms, a genetic mutation that occurs in more than one percent of a population. Polymorphisms are responsible for normal individual differences like eye and hair color.

The Foundation of Modern Genetics

Although de Vries’ theory was wrong from an evolutionary standpoint, his work, along with others, laid the foundation for modern genetics. He is partially responsible for the term “gene” and the recognition that such a particle determines the characteristics of an individual. His studies also showed that a genetic mutation can be inherited from a parent and that same genetic mutation can be passed to future generations.

Genetic Mutation Theory Today

Today, genetic mutation is defined slightly differently. According to the National Library of Medicine, Genetics Home Reference, genetic mutation is a

“permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene, such that the sequence differs from what is found in most people.”

Thanks to de Vries, much is now known about the human genome and the specific role of genetic mutation in disease and birth defects. Genetic mutations are now known to be either inherited (hereditary mutations) or acquired (somatic mutations). Both can cause disease or genetic disorders and both are off course of concern to motherhood.

Genetic Mutation and Motherhood

Knowledge is power. Potential mothers need to consider the risk of both inherited and acquired genetic mutation. Testing is available for many inherited diseases. Often a quick blood test can determine if the mother carries a certain gene and its risk of passing to future offspring. Once pregnant, other tests can determine if the fetus is healthy allowing the mother to be proactive in healthcare.

But inherited genetic mutation is not the only concern to mothers. Environmental factors play a role in acquired genetic mutation. For that reason, mothers are cautioned about smoking and drinking during pregnancy as both alcohol and tobacco can cause acquired mutations. Nutrition also plays a role in acquired genetic mutation. New mothers are urged to take folic acid, for instance, to avoid known birth defects.

Recent studies have also shown nutrition in motherhood is even more important than previously thought—and not just during pregnancy. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine published a study in “Nature Communications” that revealed, for the first time, mother’s diet has a permanent effect on her offspring’s genetics. In the words of Dr. Branwen Hening, Senior Investigator Scientist involved in the study,

“Our results represent the first demonstration in humans that a mother’s nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child’s genes will be interpreted, with a life-long impact.”

Thank you, Hugo de Vries, for starting the marvelous trip into genetic mutation.

genetic mutation
A Mother’s Pearls, Thomas Seir Cummings, 1841
biological clock

The Biological Clock Ticks Faster than Most Think

“Though it seems hard to believe, the biological clock begins ticking before female babies are even born.”  Dr. Marie Savard

In researching this subject, I found that some young women today are still unaware that you cannot have a baby too late in life. But there is an unalterable number of oocytes (eggs) with which a woman is born. Techniques to aid in in conception, such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and hormone treatments, cannot change the fact that her eggs are depleted and are of a lower quality later in life. Many factors are involved in fertility as a woman ages.

Facts on the Female Biological Clock

A twenty week old fetus has about seven million eggs, but at birth there are only one to two million left.  By age 30, 90% of eggs have been lost, and the clock begins to tick. At 40 years old, only about 3% remain. Only about 450 of the eggs she was born with will mature.

Common Misconceptions

“I plan to be super fit, super in shape when I’m 40, 50,”

says Lisa Bourne.

“And if I’m physically able to do it, then I will have a child at 55.”

Women delay pregnancy during their highest fertility ages for various reasons, such as career focus, lack of financial stability or they haven’t found Mr. Right. Dr. Pasquale Patrizio, professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Yale School of Medicine and director of the Yale Fertility Center, noticed that women ages 43 or older were coming to his fertility clinic and expecting to easily become pregnant, only to be disappointed. They believed that being healthy and exercising was the big factor in fertility, but it isn’t.

Although IVF procedures for women 41 and older saw a 41% increase during 2003-2009, the pregnancy success rate stayed at the usual 9%. Successful pregnancies still face complications, such as miscarriage and birth defects. By age 37, fertility drops drastically. By age 44, pregnancy with her own eggs is virtually impossible.

Skirting the Biological Clock

There are ways to skirt the ticking of the biological clock, such as oocyte (egg) freezing. The egg contains a large amount of water. Ice crystals will form within the egg, which destroys the DNA. The egg is dehydrated before freezing to prevent this from happening. Cryoprotectants replace the water inside the cell. DNA damage can also occur during thawing. Vitrification is a method that uses a “super-fast cooling” technique, and over 2,000 healthy babies have been born as of 2012. Results are best for women 35 or younger. The cost is pretty high at $10,000 a pop and $500 per year for storage.

Embryo Freezing is another option to outsmart the biological clock. An embryo, a fertilized egg, is frozen for later implantation into the uterus. The younger the parent’s sperm and egg, the more likely it is that they will have a healthy baby later on. Approximately 25% of babies born using IVF procedures are from frozen embryos.  An advantage of freezing embryos instead of eggs is that presently the eggs cannot be tested for defects, while an embryo can.

The ovaries hold the ticking clock, not the uterus. Ovarian tissue cryopreservation is an option. It possible to extract strips of an ovary, or the entire ovary, and freeze it. It can be transplanted into the uterus when the woman is ready. More on this, here on WebMD.

Assessing Reproductive Age

There are hormones that are responsible for egg maturation and conception. These can approximate when the clock will run out. Anti-Mullerian hormone can estimate the remaining egg supply. It peaks at age 24, is half that at mid-30s and practically gone by 40. IVF is less successful when the anti-Mullerian hormone levels fall too low.

Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is a standard test of how fast the biological clock is ticking, but it is not definitive in its fertility assessment. This is because the eggs may not be quality. FSH is less predictive in younger women. |

New techniques are being developed now that may be able to make primitive cells, called primordial germ cells, which become sperm and egg, from skin cells.

As  shown, the biological clock still tick-tocks, but there are now ways to measure the time left, and sometimes to get around the clock altogether. It seems the message is the earlier the better when it comes to fertility and having a baby. New technology cannot beat the biological clock, but it sure can get around some of the more difficult problems. Nothing is fool proof.

biological clock
Figure of Mother Holding Child, Date 3rd–5th century, Geography Peru, Culture Moche
Stepfamily parenting style

Cinderella Effect: the Startling Truth of Stepfamily Parenting Style

Named after the popular fairy tale, the Cinderella effect has anything but a happy ending. Statistics suggest a strong correlation between stepparents and higher incidences of child abuse cases. Hence the Stepfamily parenting style.

Stepparent relationship or stepfamily parenting style

A variety of different evolutionary and social theories offer explanations for the connection, though the very emotional nature of stepparent relationships or stepfamily parenting style makes such issues difficult to discuss.

Cinderella effect

The Cinderella effect was first summarized in the early 1970s by P. D. Scott, a forensic psychologist who made a shocking observation about a small sample cases in which a child was killed out of anger: 52 percent of them were committed by the child’s stepfather.

Further evidence compiled from official reports of child abuse cases and homicides, clinical data, and victim reports showed that non-biologically related parents are up to 100 times more likely to be abusive than biological parents. A stepfamily parenting style came to be. The strongest evidence supporting the Cinderella effect appears in households with both genetic and stepchildren. In two separate surveys of abuse cases, parents in such households exclusively targeted their stepchildren with abusive behavior: 90 percent in one survey, 86 percent in the other.

Studies have also suggested that stepparents are less likely to display positive behaviors toward their children than biological parents, including investing time in those children’s education and do have a different and defining stepfamily parenting style.

But why?

Evolutionary Explanation for Child Abuse Cases by Stepparents

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, evolutionary psychologists, suggest and evolutionary basis for the Cinderella effect. Citing the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness and parental investment theory. They expect parents to discriminate in favor of their genetic children and invest less time in children in their care that aren’t biologically related as a means of insuring their genetics are passed on to future generations. There seems to be  biological bassis for the stepfamily parenting style.

Parallels exist in the animal kingdom. Daly and Wilson cited lions in their famous example. Adult male lions entering a pride have been known to kill cubs fathered by other males. This serves two purposes: they guarantee more of the pride’s limited available attention for their own cubs and speed up the timeline for female fertility.

This phenomenon is a bit more complicated in humans and may be an extension of mating behavior. Since humans risk losing their partners by refusing to tolerate children unrelated to them but related to those partners, they invest the minimum time and resources necessary to meet their partner’s expectations. This explains the tendency of abusers to spare their biological children and have a different stepfamily parenting style.

Stepchild to stepparent relationships are also strained: children are less likely to approach their stepfathers for advice and support than their genetic fathers.

Alternative Theories and Criticisms

While the evolutionary theory is the forerunner for explaining the existence of the Cinderella effect, these theories provide alternative explanations for the effect:

The selection theory offers bias in the individuals involved as an alternative to Daly and Wilson’s evolutionary theory. It argues that the people most likely to become stepparents, divorcees, are more likely to be violent. They are more likely to have aggressive impulses, self-esteem issues, and emotional disturbances, and these biases, rather than evolutionary relationships, predispose them toward abuse. Child abuse cases that result in the child’s death have been correlated to parental factors such as lost custody battles, prior convictions for violent crimes, drug abuse, and mental health concerns. The stepfamily parenting style is more defined by the identity of a person more likely to become a stepparent.

The social theory suggests that stepparents are less likely to invest in unrelated children because such investment costs time and resources that could be directed toward their biological children. The stepfamily parenting style is now influenced by economic reasons. Further, stepparents are less likely to feel bound to their stepchildren by attachment or parental love, which are both factors in the emotional mechanisms that allow parents to tolerate the costs of investment in their children.

Other alternate explanations for the Cinderella effect or the stepfamily parenting style point to additional stress inherent in step families. In cases of sexual abuse, the normative theory posits that the strong social taboo of incest is overcome by the lack of genetic consequences to relationships with unrelated individuals.

Research about the Cinderella effect using runaway and juvenile detention data has shown that the correlation between stepfamilies and abuse transcends the trends in social and economic backgrounds. Critics, however, argue that the stepparent relationship isn’t necessarily the defining factor in the higher occurrence of child abuse cases in those situations. Other factors include the family’s social and economic situation, the child’s age, and disabilities.

Daly and Wilson expect parents to discriminate in favor of their own children over unrelated children in their care. Evolutionary theory provides the scientific framework for that expectation, though a variety of other explanations complement and compete with it. Despite this understanding, the higher rates of child abuse cases in step families is a painful reality for parents.

Stepfamily parenting style
Cinderella Castle at night with moon
nurturing primates

Motherhood Among the Trees: Nurturing Primates and Parenting

Orangutan babies look straight into your soul and are just like human babies, helpless,

said Willie Smith, a Dutch scientist. In many ways these higher primates are much alike. These higher primates are actually the Nurturing Primates. For example, their gestation periods are between eight and nine months, so female orangutans understand big bellies and swollen feet just as much as anyone in lamaze class. But they approach motherhood in ways that are also dissimilar to humans.  Orangutans have to teach their children how to hide from pythons, something I’ve never taught my kindergartner how to do. Orangutans can also breastfeed for up to eight years. Can you imagine?


According to the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), orangutans have one of the longest and most slowly-maturing life cycles of any animal. Females don’t become sexually active until they’re 12 or so, which is a long time for higher, nurturing primates, and most don’t become mothers until 15 or 16. For comparison’s sake, marmosets only live an average of 15 years.

As previously stated, orangutans are generally pregnant the same amount of time as humans. They also give birth to a single baby in the way that most humans do. There are only a few recorded instances of Sumatran orangutans giving birth to twins.

Infancy and Child Rearing with Nurturing Primates

Baby orangutans are utterly dependent on their mothers for the first 2-3 years of their lives. While they can grip, sit and even roll around on their own, they spend the majority of their early years riding on their mother’s back or clinging to her stomach as she moves.

Most of the orangutan childhood is spent learning how to survive. Moms teach their kids how to find food, create shelter, groom themselves and move gracefully from tree to tree. This learning usually takes place until they’re 10 or so and the child is mature enough not to need constant supervision. It’s worth noting, however, that mothers act as parents and protectors even after that. They sleep with their offspring in the same trees and defend them against predators no matter how old they are.

Bonding Among Nurturing Primates

Why do orangutans grow up so slowly? Experts suggest that it’s a combination of socialization and pragmatism. On one hand, there’s a lot to learn about being an orangutan. Mothers act as teachers first and foremost, and a bond develops after years of guidance.

There might also be a more emotional aspect to it. Orangutans aren’t hugely social creatures once they’re fully grown, so they may be “stretching out” their adolescence to enjoy that bond with mom while they still can. Young females have been known to come back and visit their mothers even when they’re fully mature and self-sufficient.

Occasionally, however, tragedy can strike between parents and offspring. Do you remember those rare twin orangutans? One such pair was born in Indonesia to a female Sumatran orangutan named Gober. After a period of observation, conservationists released Gober and her babies back into the wild, but they were left stunned when Gober abandoned one of them just hours later.

“She barely tried to keep (the twins) together,”

explained the head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

“The mothering instinct is really strong, but in hindsight, seeing how difficult it was for Gober to travel around with one twin, expecting her to do that with two of them was probably a little bit ambitious.”

Nature or Nurture?

Would Gober have taken care of both babies if she could? Did circumstances force her to make a decision against her instincts as a mother? According to the personal reports of a primatologist on the scene, Gober abandoned the weaker twin, the boy, after he repeatedly fell behind his mother and sister. Was the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom at fault? Or did Gober abandon him with sadness in her heart after deciding to expend all her energy on her daughter, the one child she thought could make it in the wilderness?

There’s simply no way of knowing what went on in her mind as she left, and this is one of the reasons it’s so important to study higher and nurturing primates when considering the question of motherhood.

What Motherhood Means

At the end of the day, nurturing primates aren’t so different from the rest of us. Orangutan mothers carry their children for nine months and raise them until they’re teenagers. They bond; they socialize; they love. You might be asking yourself why you should care about motherhood among higher primates. But what if the orangutans have something to teach us?

Motherhood is a complicated and many-varied thing, and we can only hope to understand it through a critical examination of motherhood as experienced by all species. Higher primates or the nurturing primates are simply one type of mother to study.

Plus, the next time your kid complains, just remind yourself: It could be worse. I could be an orangutan mother still breastfeeding him.

nurturing primates



Epigenesis: Another Reason to Blame Mom?

Women have long been held accountable, sometimes to an alarming and inaccurate extent, for the health and well-being of their offspring. Media coverage of scientific research, especially when condensed to a sound byte, often seems to support this accountability.

‘Mother’s diet during pregnancy alters baby’s DNA'(BBC),

‘Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children’ (The Guardian).

The latest pop science fad, epigenetics, also appears to blame the mother for much of a child’s health and development. However, is this fair? Is this even accurate?

What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of traits that result from changes to a chromosome without altering the DNA sequence (Berger, S.L., Kouzarides, T., Shiekhattar, R., & Shilatifard, A. (2009). “An operational definition of epigenetics”. Genes & Development, 23: 781-783. Retrieved ). Research has found that genes can be switched on or off by a variety of mechanisms, such as methylation. Many of these switches are flipped on or off during the earliest periods in development: pregnancy.

As more and more traits are attributed to epigenesis and inheritance, from diabetes to cancer risk to personality to homosexuality, mothers are increasingly being scrutinized for the way even their smallest decisions affect their offspring. Indulge pregnancy cravings? Your baby might get cancer! Catch a flu? Your child could be bipolar! Is epigenetics really a blame game? Or is the media, once again, looking for ways to stoke the flames of the mommy wars?

The Roots of Maternal Blame

This age of epigenetics is not the first time that mothers have been blamed for factors that are more or less out of their control.

Mothers in the early through mid twentieth century were blamed for being too cold and causing a range of mental illnesses from autism to schizophrenia, which are now known to have a biochemical origin (Kanner L (1943). “Autistic disturbances of affective contact“. Nerv Child 2: 217–50. Reprinted in Kanner, L (1968). Acta Paedopsychiatr 35 (4): 100–36.).
Similarly, mothers were later discovered to be the cause of the syndrome now known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Historically, the mother is assumed to be the source of both a child’s nature and nurture until proven otherwise. While maternal health and mothering are both important to child development, they are not the only factors in a child’s development.

Misrepresentations of Research in Epigenesis

Much of the problems with mother-blaming in epigenetics are a result of reporting mere sound bytes from complicated studies. For example, a 2012 study found that the second generation offspring, or grandchildren, of rodents eating a high fat diet had an 80% risk of developing cancer (Richardson et al, 2014). Headlines were dire:

“Why should worry about grandma’s eating habits,”

and similar scare tactics.

However, when the full study is examined, a more nuanced perspective appears. The rats were bred to have a higher rate of developing cancer, and positive health effects were shown in the third generation of offspring from the fat-craving pregnant rat. In short, there is little cause to blame mothers and grandmothers for cancer, as the popular media seemed to suggest.

What About the Dad?

While epigenesis in the womb is being studied and reported intensively, there is little media interest in a father’s role. Recent research has found the diet and health of a father at the time his body creates sperm can influence offspring’s chance of diverse factors such as heart disease and mental illness. Why aren’t these findings as aggressively reported as similar ones pertaining to the mother? People seem less interested overall in blaming a father when the historical target is female.

How to Avoid Blaming the Mother in Epigenesis Reporting

There are a few ways that the media can fairly report the epigenesis of health and disease. Best not to oversimplify. The international weekly of science on had a great article on this same topic. Most studies are more complex than headlines suggest and involve non-human subjects with a variety of mitigating factors. And, discuss the roles of both mothers and father in epigenesis. Third, examine confounding factors such as culture and economics. This is not revolutionary, but rather good science reporting

Epigenesis is a complex and interesting topic that is becoming increasingly studied. The media can and should choose to report study findings in a way that doesn’t unfairly blame women and mothers.
Enrique Simonet – La autopsia – 1890 by Enrique Simonet. Under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
mother and child

Female hormones influence the initial bond between mother and child

It is necessary for a newborn’s survival to have a mother who cares for it and looks after its well being. Ask any mother if they love their child and you may get some strange reactions because it is expected for a mother to inherently love her offspring. What you may not know is that female hormones are responsible for much of that loving feeling between mother and child that is created when your baby is born. It is very much about chemistry.

What female hormones are responsible for strengthening the bond between mother and child?

There are several female hormones responsible for this biochemical attachment process between mother and child, but the main culprit is oxytocin.

Oxycotin  has many different effects on the mother and ramps up when it’s time for labor to begin. Pitocin, the synthetic form of oxytocin, is a tool used by doctors to mimic oxytocin production and induce labor.

Females aren’t the only ones experiencing a hormone surge

Vasopressin is produced by both the mother and the father, but the effects are greater in males. The father experiences an increase in this hormone from closeness and touch, and it is responsible for increasing the desire to protect and care for the mother and child.

Prolactin is also present in both the mother and father and promotes caregiving behaviors, conditioning the mother and father to feel rewarded by family relationships and activities beneficial to the livelihood of their offspring.

Pheromones also play an important role in the bonding process, of which the bond between mother and child. Fathers become sensitive to their pregnant partner’s pheromones and instinctually prepare for creating the hormones necessary to promote attachment between mother and child. Mothers are encouraged to hold the baby on their chest, with no blankets or clothing separating them, because “skin-to-skin” contact increases the hormones that bond them to each other. These pheromones also help your baby to learn to survive and adapt to the world around it.

All of these hormones work together to orchestrate an intense bond between parent / mother and child.

The bonding between mother and child that occurs also leads to feelings of stress and unhappiness when mother and child are separated. The baby may even become physically uncomfortable if a strong bond between mother and child has been established and may exhibit symptoms similar to withdrawal when separated from its mother.

Why do mother’s bodies create these female hormones?

When a woman gives birth, she will experience the largest singular rush of oxytocin in her life. These female hormones are instruments used in many different aspects of a woman’s life, but they are integral keys to childbirth and motherhood specifically. In addition to starting uterine contractions and facilitating childbirth, when the nipples are stimulated oxytocin is produced stimulating lactation and milk ejection (Ott and Scott 1910). Both the mother and child experience oxytocin surges every time the baby breastfeeds, fortifying their bond.

Why is Oxytocin so important in building the bonds between mother and child?

Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone“, and for good reason. Most studies have been performed on animals, but recently scientists are focusing more on how this hormone impacts humans and reproduction.

One of the first discoveries made about oxytocin was that it was proven to stimulate uterine contractions (Dale 1906). Sir Henry Dale, the scientist who discovered this effect after injecting a pregnant cat with Oxytocin, named the hormone after the Greek words meaning “swift birth”.

Forty-seven years later, Vincent du Vigneaud was able to sequence and synthesize oxytocin, making it the first polypeptide hormone to be lab created (Du Vigneaud 1956). Both scientists were awarded a Nobel prize with Dale winning in 1936 and Vigneaud winning in 1955.

Oxytocin and maternal behavior

Beyond that, oxytocin plays a part in what is called “maternal behavior”. In one study, rats and sheep were given oxytocin suppressors to impede their natural female hormones and the rats failed to demonstrate typical maternal behaviors. A cerebrospinal fluid infusion was administered to sheep which had never reproduced, and the sheep exhibited maternal behavior to lambs of no relation to them (Kendrick 2004).

Additionally, studies that measure the levels of oxytocin in mothers before and after birth show that mothers with higher oxytocin levels during pregnancy exhibit more maternal behaviors postpartum.

Not surprisingly, the same female hormones that are responsible for you feeling inseparable from your mate in a new relationship are the same hormones responsible for helping create the bond between mother and child. While oxytocin plays a part in so many of our bodies’ different physiological functions, its importance cannot be understated when it comes to childbirth and inciting the necessary initial bond between a mother and child.

The American Psychological Association’s Science Watch had two great quotes from scientists about oxytocin that warn us not to oversimplify a chemical formula:

“Oxytocin is not the love hormone,”

says Larry Young of Emory University.

“It’s tuning us into social information and allowing us to analyze it at higher resolution.”

Shelley Taylor of the University of California in Los Angeles adds:

“It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.”

mother and child
The Artist’s Mother, Umberto Boccioni, 1915

One of the many misconceptions of biology is the passivity in maternal mothers

The ideal of the maternal mother

One of the many characteristics of the ‘ideal maternal mother’ is her passivity. When we look at art depicting maternal mothers this quality is often shown. This state of maternal calmness has been taken for passivity. It is with certainty one of the many myths about maternal motherhood.

The french evolutionist, Paul Topinard, student of Paul Broca, taught that males have

all of the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow [and are] . . . constantly active in combating the environment and human rivals, and thus need] . . . more brains than the woman whom he must protect and nourish . . . the sedentary women, lacking any interior occupations, whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive (quoted in Gould, 1981:104).

Passivity means insouciance, calmness and peacefulness. Although it is clear that those characteristics are quite beneficial for newborns, babies and maternal women, it is wrong to think this is natural beyond the lactation period. And often comparisons with the animal kingdom are given to illustrate . There are indeed the male hormones and males might be more aggressive because of them. This does not imply that maternal females are more passive.

Passivity and primal choice

There is also cultural belief that males in the animal world males are really the more active sex and more interested in sex. More so that males will decide when and who and how, make the primal choice. The male doings are far more visible. And it is all about how males are rivaling for the possession of certain female. But  Charles Darwin himself actually agreed to the contrary. But our society was not ready to hear this at the time and so he was far less known for this discovery than for his others.

It is true that the male is often showier both in behavior and in looks. But it is really female animals that are often the active sexual pursuer. In certain species they are insatiable ones. They very often make the choice or the primal choice. They will decide who they prefer as father of the offspring. They will device their own selection criteria and that can be the looks of the male, but with other species the choice will be made after the inspection of nests or territories, or after a chase to check out the vigor and healthy perseverance of a male. It can also be the quality of the food the male provide during courtship or she will simply go for the more aggressive or powerful male of the group.

The research and studies are overwhelming in this area. Their subjects are all over and vary from chimpanzees, African wild dogs, Uganda kobs,  bongo fireflies, baboons, weaver birds, pigeons, marmots, chac-mas, rhesus monkeys, porcupines, roadrunners, jumping spiders, mountain goats, bower birds, squirrels, guppies, those most popular of aquarium fish to the most aggressive of all apes, the gorillas and many more.

In all these cases the female is the more active and in many cases males apparently have no choice but to play subordinate and even take on infantile behavior to have a share of the sexual satisfaction. One could say, males are an enormous but wonderful breeding experiment run by the females. The female choice was long dismissed as minor, even nonexistent however it seems that females are running the show and decide in most cases in what direction evolution takes off and which offspring will form the next generation. They do have the primal choice.

Passivity is also a lack of initiative. It is resignation or some kind of submission to people around them and outside influences; it is also unresisting capitulation. However babies and young children have many demands that come in a constant flow and to react to theirs can be a handful. Can we now say that any form of passivity might even endanger our species.

Poor mother and children during the Great Depression. Oklahoma, 1936, by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress