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Motherhood began when the world began.
Being a mother has never been easy.
An important question: why do we insist on elevating mothers of human children over mothers of other species?
What about bacteria mothers, for example?
Bacteria reproduce by dividing themselves into two identical daughter cells, a process called binary fusion (this does not sound pleasant). Humans reproduce by combining genetic material from two separate individuals (sometimes this is pleasant, but not always). Sure, the reproductive process is different, but how many daughters do you know who are (more or less) exactly like their mothers, or sons who are just like their fathers? Is there not some subconscious, remnant desire for binary fusion going on in human child rearing?
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy claims that approximately two million years ago, when our ancestral mother apes enlisted the help of other apes to raise their young, the foundation was laid for the development of the human empathetic mind. Around this time, hominoid brains began to grow larger as well, perhaps as a result of this growth of emotional empathy toward others. It took 13 million calories to raise an ape child from birth to nutritional independence, and Hrdy points out that mothers could not do this alone. But neither could fathers. Thus the need for “alloparents” – outside caretakers – was born. Still, it is worth noting, a mere 50 percent of ape offspring survived. After all, alloparents could only do so much.
Somewhere along the way, hominoids figured the whole parenting thing out, and today, 95.4 percent of human infants survive to the age of 15, even though, of course, human children remain shockingly needy. We must wipe their bottoms for two years, for example. And that large brain capable of empathy? Let’s just say that’s a skill that needs a lot of honing.
Social economists say it takes $233,610 to raise a child from birth to age 18.
My sister used to say, referring to her children, “When we get these people out of the house, we’re going on a vacation.” I pointed out, “You won’t have any money left.” My brother, who has never raised a child, laughed. He had never heard anyone refer to their children as “these people.”
Eighteen years is a long time to engage in child-rearing. We might compare this to dolphin offspring who stay with their mothers for five years, or alligator babies who leave their mothers after three. Cows can be on their own in eight months. Kittens and puppies can leave their mothers in two. Some newly hatched fish can just swim away.
I hate to be an alarmist, but I find it telling that our world is full of species that regularly commit infanticide. In fact, across the animal kingdom, from microscopic plankton to insects, from fish to reptiles, from birds to mammals, this practice has been observed. Mice fathers, for example, will eat their young. Hens will eat their own eggs. Mother bears will kill – and then eat – their weakest cub.
But it’s a two-way street: desert spider babies will devour their mother alive.
In ancient times and up until the 19th century when the baby bottle was finally invented, it was common practice for upper-class mothers to hire wet nurses. Alloparenting, it seems, could be useful even if you didn’t have to forage for food. It could be useful, for example, if you just wanted to be left alone.
Queen Victoria had nine children although she was known for not appreciating the whimsical and illogical natures of the small creatures. Much consideration was taken before hiring a royal wet nurse; she would be chosen for her physical strength and moral virtues as the attending belief was that breast milk would transfer these desired qualities.
Mary Ann Brough, who had seven children of her own, served as the wet nurse for Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII. Later, she murdered six of her children by cutting their throats. She attempted suicide at the same time, but survived. At the time of the murders, her children were stricken with the measles and her husband was threatening to leave her and take custody of the children. She lived the rest of her life in an insane asylum. I’d say Mary Ann Brough – the queen’s alloparent – could have used some alloparents of her own.
For many in the West, alloparents are no longer grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Instead, they are day care workers and teachers. They are also TV and movie actors, and Internet Influencers.
I stopped doing each of my children’s laundry when they turned 11 years old. I had read somewhere that humans begin to develop the ability to understand and think about abstract concepts at that age. Operating the washing machine is not abstract at all, but that wasn’t the point.
I never used a wet nurse, but I did use television to get supper on the table. Or to clean the house. Or to drink a cup of tea before it got cold. Or to breathe for a few minutes. Now my children are teenagers, and I employ cell phone tracking as an additional helper. You’ve got to get your alloparents where you can, in whatever form they come in.
I love my three children with a depth of emotion that I never could have imagined until they appeared in my life.
I probably love them as much as a bacterium mother loves itself split in two.
Julie Boutwell-Peterson is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of South Dakota. She has taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition in South Dakota, Georgia, and Alabama for more than 10 years. A former journalist, Julie has also lived and worked in England, France, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, and Senegal. She is currently working on a children's fantasy novel as well as a collection of creative nonfiction essays that blend cultural critique, literary criticism, memoir, and popular science.