Jan. 15th, 2013

aslant: (elle s'amuse)
4. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Hrdy is justifiably the most influential, challenging voice in anthropology and evolutionary biology, and I found this book almost as enjoyable as her more recent Mothers and Others (see my 2012 review): where M&O was elegantly written and compact, Mother Nature tends to ramble in a few places, is much longer generally, and may have benefited from a more canny editor. But these are basically quibbles with what is an amazing, amazing book. Let me tell you more about how I learned to stop feeling guilty about my parenting experiences and love Hrdy even more than I did before.

Hrdy's central thesis is that maternal love as we know it is far from instinctual, it is in fact conditional, a phenomenon that emerges piecemeal and is "chronically sensitive to external clues." Humans do not, and have not over evolutionary history, nurtured every child that is born. We evaluate, at birth, both the baby and ourselves and the world around us. The bonding process is driven over the first couple weeks by the breastfeeding hormonal feedback loop, which is elicited by the newborn, and the whole thing is conditional on maternal acceptance of the child physically and emotionally, taking into account her perceptions of sufficient social support. Mothers who reject infants, fail to bond, abandon infants in dumpsters, commit infanticide -- as Hrdy explains, we can define these behaviors as mental illness, but in fact they are not aberrations but the finely tuned survival instincts of a species that has depended on a highly cooperative child-rearing model throughout our history on the planet (to read about that in depth, read her other book, Mothers & Others). Countering a couple centuries of Victorian-influenced anthropology, Hrdy musters a vast amount of evidence to point out that we aren't driven by the survival of our species as a whole (i.e. nurture all newborns by default, as some species do) but rather by context-specific decisions, hierarchy-driven maneuverings, and calculations over the long term. It was no contradiction in human history to abandon or kill a first child, perhaps even several early children, and then to rear a subsequent child (once social support is in place) with a perfectly "normal" amount of maternal love. It is how we have always survived and adapted to changing circumstances, since to rear an ill-timed or unsupported infant could mean death or ostracization (which may as well mean death in some circumstances).

Perhaps the hardest part of this book is the extensive exploration of the traditions and cultural practices of infanticide and newborn abandonment through history. There were many forms of sanctioned child abandonment, from the classic Greek "exposed on a hillside" practice to more prosaic hunter-gatherer tribes who simply abandoned a newborn in the bush, to a practice in early China of a special early-morning cart that would gather up babies drowned by midwives in milk buckets, to the extensive (and extensively fatal) system of foundling homes and orphanages in pre-modern Europe, like the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, which like many others offered an anonymous outdoor cradle or wheel so you could pass the child off anonymously. Fatality rates in these institutions were sky-high, with perhaps 20% of children surviving in a good year in a good institution. Rates of 99% mortality were not uncommon. Hrdy points out that while it might be preferable to reabsorb unwanted fetuses (as some species do), or in modern times to perform an abortion early on, we have actually evolved to have a ~72hr window after birth during which we are able to decide to abandon or expose a child, with fewer repercussions -- milk has not come in fully yet, and the cycle of prolactin/oxytocin has not been activated between mother and child. She comes back to this point several times: there is no "instinctual" birth behavior in humans that creates love in the moments or even hours immediately after birth. The cycle is primed in those early hours, and the infant itself is armed with a myriad of systems designed to help it to latch on (like the breast crawl phenomenon) or designed to make it irresistible (plump cheeks, wide eyes, calls of distress). What we have created as the "maternal love" phenomenon is a socialized phenomenon (one which was also conveniently used to argue that women are nothing but mothers in many Victorian and other early anthropological views), no more cemented into the human experience than our variable expectations and traditions around what we believe about the pain of childbirth and our ability to withstand it with or without help. This is not to say that no one experiences instant love; but that it is no more "natural" than ambivalence, and that we have many socialized beliefs that play into it.

There was also a section that fascinated me on theories about post-partum depression. One compelling theory posits that it is an artifact of a clash of instincts: a mother who was prone to depression, or who lacked sufficient help postpartum, may have chosen to abandon her newborn in another era. However, we have few culturally sanctioned ways to do that now. In this way, PPD may arise as a clash between systems designed to tell us "bad time to keep a baby" and our culturally conditioned belief that we want to keep the baby, or that we have no choice. Furthermore, PPD is also in some theories a remnant of lactational aggression: it appears as lactation ramps up, at a time when prolactin spikes and dopamine drops, sabotaging our ability to maintain adequate social relationships for postpartum support at precisely the time when we need it most. Either way, it seems exquisitely fine-tuned to remind us that no matter what, we did not evolve to sit alone in a house with a newborn all day long, and modern nuclear family patterns are often not adequate to the task of replacing the much wider systems of support available in extended families or near-kin tribal structures that we evolved to require.

One of the most interesting conclusions I drew from reading this book was how aspirational and ultimately impossible it is to achieve the reality of every child a wanted child. We know already, of course, that this assumes perfect foreknowledge, which is impossible even without Hrdy's theories; but it also attempts to circumvent an evolutionary instinct to keep fetuses to term and decide after the birth whether circumstances have improved, and whether to keep or reject a child. Abortion and birth control can go a long way to reducing the circumstances that led many women throughout humanity's history to abandon children, but they will never perfectly replace that 72-hour flexibility that became privileged through evolution.

Mother Nature went a long way towards helping me understand my own initial indifference (and occasional estrangement) from my own newborn: there is no perfect instant love encoded in our instincts. There is a waiting period, during which we are primed for love, and then we ride its hormonal track, so to speak, but only a little bit later. There is no magical missed opportunity during those earliest postpartum moments and hours -- though of course there is plenty we can do to make those moments either gentle and humane, or abstract and medicinal. I believe the homebirth movement has begun to correct the damages done by the industrialization and mechanization of birth, but we still have a long way to go to dismantle the (usually Western) socialized myths and beliefs about perfect maternal instincts and instant bonding. I recall so clearly when my mother said in the delivery room how much she loved watching Kirk and I fall in love with Penny Jane; it rankled because I felt no such thing, and felt guilty about it. I was interested in my newborn. Was it the start of the process? Yes. Was it a repetition of a received, socially encoded myth? Also yes.

There is much, much more in this book that I'm leaving out (to summarize: women prefer quality in birth spacing! men prefer quantity! settled living patterns and resource competition drove male-controlled reproduction patterns! grandmothers are the key to our species' longevity!) but if you are at all intrigued by some of these conclusions, I highly recommend delving into this rich, complex book. It explores history, anthropology, literature, art, sociology, evolutionary biology, plenty of monkeys, and lots of fantastic (but respectful) take-downs of the Victorian holdover theories that biased the early attachment theory researchers like Bowlby. If Hrdy's Mothers and Others was the best unintentional utopia, where I learned about how our species evolved to utilize large non-nuclear family structures to provision and support infants and mothers, then Mother Nature was a way to repair my entire set of assumptions and guilt over how I bonded with my child, and how to understand these processes in the context of our evolutionary history. I can't recommend it highly enough.

ETA If you want to read more about Hrdy's personal background and how it plays into her scholarship intimately, she talked about motherhood and 1970s Harvard in a two part interview with Scientific American last March: Part I and Part II.


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