More on pregnancy: the nitty gritty

One major thing that distinguishes us from primates is the knowledge and ability to choose whether or not to become pregnant.  When my husband and I were ready, we chose to “start a family” (stop using birth control), and I was grateful when it happened. I didn’t enjoy the nausea, the back pain, the stomach constriction, the reflux, but I did want to be pregnant. And though not everyone becomes pregnant on purpose, the methods or preventing pregnancy are readily available to people in this country.

As far as I can tell through my reading (mostly Frans de Waals primate behavior books), female chimps don’t really choose to become pregnant. When they ovulate, they get this enormous swelling on their bottoms that is essentially a biological advertisement that they are fertile. They cannot hide it, it is a blatant invitation to males to come and cash in on their biologic destiny. Then they mate, with multiple males, or are mated with, I’m not sure who is doing the asking but it sounds like female choice doesn’t play a huge role. Male chimps are pretty dominant. Multiple males can mate with a fertile female (leading to paternity questions, more on this in later posts). In bonobos, another close relative of ours, the situation is different, and it sounds like females are sexually receptive much of the time, and sex is a very regular part of the social dynamics. Even so, though ovulation and sex are not as linked, sex and pregnancy are related as in any other animal, and nothing I’ve seen indicates that females have a choice to be anything other than pregnant if they are sexually active during ovulation.


A female primate (chimp, I think) in estrous, found at a cool primate behavior blog, here . Never have I been more grateful for concealed ovulation. 

So already, the modern woman is pretty different in being able to choose to be pregnant. (Thanks, birth control!) Maybe it’s why we celebrate it so much, buy books about it (I still remember buying my first pregnancy book, appropriately titled “I’m pregnant!”) In chimps, anyway, pregnancy is apparently a totally normal effect following female fertility cycles. When a female chimp finds herself pregnant, does she feel joy? Annoyance? Fear? Does she complain? That I cannot answer.

Humans who choose to become pregnant often do so when it is a relatively good, stable time. Stable jobs, stable housing, a partner to help, all of these things if and when possible. Other primates don’t have this luxury. And, biologically, females are very much on the hook for gestating the fetus. Is there evidence that other primates get help feeding themselves, escaping predators, during this vulnerable time of increased energy needs and decreased mobility?

How extreme are the energy demands of a gestating female? How many extra tacos, so to speak, must one eat daily to make that beautiful baby after 266 or some odd days?

In the paper “Energy requirements during pregnancy and lactation” (Butte and King) the authors use much available data and several different modeling techniques to come up with a total figure for energy cost of pregnancy. They make the general points that energy costs will differ depending on your health/nutritional status pre-pregnancy, your body size, BMI, and metabolic rate, etc. Makes sense. They break down where this extra energy has to go, besides simply to the fetus: amniotic fluid, placenta, extra blood, bigger boobs, extra fat tissue that will reside permanently like a cottage cheese pillow around your navel. They combine data from things like skinfold tests, BMR tests , studies of protein and fat composition, and some molecular labeling tests that were beyond me. But the interesting thing is, using two different methodologies, they arrive at about 320,000-370,000 kJ of energy for the total cost of pregnancy (this range describing different weight gains for pregnancy).

What is amazing is that I understood only about half of the paper, but when I did a back-of-the-envelope style calculation, using an average pregnancy gain of 25 pounds, and the old diet benchmark of 3500 kcal/pound of flesh, which, when multiplied, gives you a total of 87,500 kcal. This converts to 366,100 kJ. Which is right in the same ballpark, and which is easy for a dummy like me to understand and is perhaps, if the similarities are an indication, not so far off the mark. Dividing that total 87,500 kcal total pregnancy cost over 266 days of pregnancy, you get an extra 330 ish kcal required per day. (Which is not news; any basic pregnancy book has guidelines for calorie intake.) As you might imagine, this average is not evenly spread, but is lower initially and increases as the baby grows in the second and third trimesters. So when you are “eating for two”, an idea most OBs now try to counsel you out of, you are eating for two, it’s just that the second is a lot, lot smaller.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics breaks down the three trimesters in this way: they say no calorie increase is needed during the first trimester, an increase of 340 cal/day in the second trimester, and 450 extra cal/day in the final trimester. So these are all in the ballpark.

In evolutionary terms, this extra 300 something cals a day is significant. I mean, in today’s terms, eating that extra slice of pizza solves the problem, and feels awesome. (I still remember going, after a full dinner, to a school advisor function at my high school. There was free pizza, and I embarrassed myself by eating multiple pieces while we discussed upcoming school dances. I literally could not resist.) But to hunter gatherer humans? That’s a significant fraction of daily calories. To a primate eating leaves and fruit? That’s a challenge for the female who has no access to or appetite for free pizza. To a pregnant chimp, who is more or less making a living on her own, that is a serious energetic burden to bear.

What does this all mean? How has evolution prepared the female body for dealing with this energetic hardship? Has social structure favored help, in the form of male partners (in the form of monogamy, and yes, this shows up not just in certain mammals but in birds) or has it favored strong female-female bonds, like mother-daughter bonds (certain primate societies have matrilineal social structures). Or are our bodies equipped to store extra energy, in the form of fat reserves and lower metabolism (thanks, cellulite!) Do we mobilize energy differently, and are different different appetites or eating strategies selected for? Really I am just looking for something to justify my dark chocolate/peanut butter addiction.

A good daycare is hard to find

(I have been on a pregnancy theme, which I plan to continue, but the timeliness of this story struck a nerve with me.)

There was a story in the past few weeks I heard on NPR that really resonated with me. It was about how most parents polled in a new study describe the childcare for their young children as “above average.” There are a number of reasons this could be, and the story goes into them, those being primarily 1) parents don’t have a good concept of what young children need, development-wise, and 2) parents don’t want to admit they are warehousing their kids in anything other than “excellent” childcare facilities. I am going to add my own 3), that parents know what their kids need but have blinders on to the sub-par (or average) circumstances because the process is so guilt-inducing and horrible feeling and expensive to boot.

My kids all had childcare when they were babies/toddlers. I still remember touring different childcare places when I was pregnant; big centers, smaller in-home places, nanny-share type things. My impression was not that they were all above average. Some of them felt like little baby jails; I walked through double security doors into hallways that smelled of chicken nuggets, saw runny-nosed, pale babies standing up in their cribs and looking plaintively at me. One afternoon I visited a small in-home facility. When I got there, the director wasn’t even there and no one seemed to be able to pin down where she was. I made conversation with the young-looking, not especially informed young lady who worked there and, it turned out, was a student at the high school where I taught.

We found a place. It was an in-home situation, one woman (teacher? caretaker?) with a couple of other kids, and my daughter went there from when she was about six-months old to when she was about three. She had a good relationship with the woman, and she had a lot of fun with the other kids there. I felt pretty good about it all, and was happy to be able to work at my job, which I loved, and have my daughter in what seemed a pretty good situation.

But. But. There were those things. Things that I chose to ignore, because it was easier to, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of good options. When my daughter started talking, she started saying names I didn’t know. “Martha,” she kept saying.

“Martha?” I asked. “Who’s Martha?”

I asked her care provider about Martha. Turns out Martha was…a talking dog. From Martha Speaks, on PBS kids. So, they were watching tv during the day. At least it was PBS! They also drove around during the day. Which, logistically, with four or five kids under five, had to be a huge challenge. And the caregiver was not young. Like, I have three kids now, and I have a lot of energy, and errands and parking lots are still a challenge. How did this lady take all the kids across the parking lot? Was she ever tempted to leave them in the car? Would I know if she ever did? Going down this road is not fruitful, and it scares me now. There were signs that it wasn’t excellent care, and I ignored them.

Then there was the time when my husband picked our daughter up, and he asked if something was burning. He was informed that one (of the three) cats had just knocked down a lamp, and the lamp had started burning the carpet. The fire was out now, everything was fine.

This happened about the time my son was born, and at this point we gave notice. It felt terrible; we had a relationship with this woman, who had cared for our daughter for over two years. And when there is one caregiver, and she was taking the children into her home, there’s no way to keep it from being personal.

We all know, from watching Daddy Daycare, that setting up and running a great daycare is no easy feat. It requires lots of bathroom jokes and montages. 

We found a situation we felt was better for our kids, and pretty much nullified every bit of my income, and we were happy with it. Recently, due to a life change (large move across the country) I am staying home. My youngest is not quite two, and it is an amazing luxury not to have to take him to daycare. He’s at that age where I have to pull him off me to get him to go to anyone else, and I rarely have to do that. I had to do it with his siblings, and I always just took it as a matter of course. Oh yeah, separation anxiety,  I would think as I composed my face walking away from daycare, listening to the subsiding wails of my child. It will pass.

Now that I have a little distance from that, I have more questions about it. If separation anxiety is an evolved behavior to keep the mother near, what does it do to the baby to override it? What does it do to the mother? I know that long-term studies don’t stand by the idea that babies in daycare/preschool do any worse than babies with stay at home moms. But I do sort of wonder whether our modern society serves mother and child (and family relationships in general) the way it should.

Do primates have daycare? I think some species have group-care tendencies, but I don’t think it’s the norm. There is a paper with a lot of gathered primate data (Life history variation in primates, Harvey and Clutton-Brock) that I like to reference for basic comparisons. Like the hard data on weaning; what is the average weaning period for humans, historically, and how does it compare to, say, chimps? Human average wean time (don’t know how the data was gathered, clearly this is referencing historical and traditional cultures and not modern US) is listed as 720 days, which works out to about two years. Compare that with chimps, whose average wean time is listed as 1,460 days (exactly 4 years) and gorillas are about the same. Interestingly, average interbirth interval tends to be very closely related to wean time in chimps, gorillas and orangutans (about 3-4 years), whereas average human wean time is listed as two years, but average interbirth interval is closer to four years, more like our close primate relatives.

Why do we wean our babies so quickly? Why do we have a mere 12 weeks of (unpaid) leave before having to drop our helpless babies off with people who are basically strangers to us? Are we serving the needs of our children? I am generally a live-and-let-live type more than a crusader, but few things seem as important as those first months, and even years of a human’s life.

My kid never got left in a car, that I know about anyway. The fire from the fallen lamp, it got put out. The worst injury any of our children ever suffered at preschool was a bite on the back (bruised, but not broken skin) and it didn’t come from a caregiver. But all this could have turned out differently, and I’m aware that that it is dumb luck that has made it so, not our vigilance or our commitment to have to best for our kids. Everyone wants what’s best for their kids, it just seems like society isn’t set up right now to make choices that are best for them.

Gestation length, tacos, and why can’t my husband gain the weight instead

Pregnancy feels like it lasts an eternity. I remember counting not just the days, but actually the hours. Like “ok, I’m four months, one week and two days, but in four more hours I’ll be four months, one week and three days, so that’s progress.” Maybe I just didn’t have enough to think about but despite work, other children, being exhausted, I could never keep my mind from cycling over and over back to the slow progress of gestating this offspring.

So, how do we compare, in gestational period, to other mammals? And why nine months? Should I celebrate my kinship with other mammals, and/or primates, or are human women exceptional in some way? I found a random webpage, of mammalian gestation times; I’ve confirmed some of the primate ones (in Harvey and Clutton-Brock, 1985) but not all the others so I’m on tentative ground here. Gestation clearly relates somewhat to species size…elephants are more than double human gestation time, so I guess that puts my bitching and moaning into perspective. According to that random webpage above, humans (266-ish) are most similar to orangutans (260) gorillas (257) and kinda close to chimpanzees (227). We’re actually really similar to bison (270, WTF) and cows (284) so that seems weird because even if I sometimes felt like a bison during pregnancy, I’m pretty sure they are, on average, larger. The real female warriors here are the elephants, the Asian elephants putting us all to shame with a gestation time of 645 days. So we are certainly not outliers among primates, and probably not necessarily amongst mammals. (I’m still interested in the finding of the similarity between us and bison. I think I’m on to something there. Maybe my investigation will be about the hidden wisdom of bison maternal instinct and what we can learn).

So we are not special in being pregnant for a long time. The fact that we share close gestation periods with chimpanzees and gorillas indicates that primates have had this 9-ish month gestation period for 5-10 million years.  So why does it feel so hard? To put it in simplistic terms, why couldn’t my husband gain some of that weight?

I have no idea what anything on this poster says but I want to see this movie.

To get down to the bottom of, why do women have the babies, and how are our bodies adapted to do so (and I won’t get anywhere near the bottom, will actually dip in the surface waters only) it’s hard to escape that initial union between two packets of genes, the maternal packet (egg) and the paternal packet (sperm). We are a biology-centric household. My husband is a physician/microbiologist, and I am a biology teacher. So we take pride in answering our kids’ nature-related questions, to the best of our abilities. For my second and third pregnancies, we enjoyed talking to my daughter, and then my son also, about the baby developing inside, how big it was, which organs it was developing this month, and so on. This was a good strategy until my oldest reached a certain age of more developed reasoning. Then she started asking, “how does the baby get into mommy’s tummy?” We talked about how there has to be a mom and a dad, and the baby started as one cell from each, and when the parents decided to have a baby those two cells joined to form the first baby cell. After a pause, she said, “Yeah, but how do the cells get together? How does the daddy cell get into the mommy?” This one so far has us stumped, so we’ve switched our tactic to changing the subject.

Nonetheless, the question of cells is an interesting one in light of parental contributions to offspring, and what we do and do not share with other primates, mammals, and animals. We also talk with our kids about “blood relatives” which is very hard for them to understand. We’ve told them that though we, their parents, are related to each of them by blood, mom and dad are not related to eachother. This stumps them, and it’s hard to understand without starting to explain DNA, those cellular instructions that are in their cells and are equally from both their parents.

And this one always brings up what, to me, is such an interesting paradox, in that their share of genes or DNA is equally my husband’s and mine; as far as we are two carriers of DNA experiencing a competitive world, our genetic legacy is equally reflected in our three children. And yet, starting with the first cells that made our offspring, our contributions are very unequal. The maternal contribution, in terms of strict energetics, is so much greater than the male contribution, a pattern that is mirrored not just in primates and mammals, but most of the animal kingdom. I remember holding each of my newborns and marveling that, aside from that first cell contributed by my husband, every single building block of every single cell, every tiny piece of lipid that made up the cell membranes, all the protein building blocks of that baby’s cells; each element, each building block of each molecule, started and was routed through my body. All those tacos I ate were somehow transformed into these beautiful babies.

This isn’t meant to be a “girls rule and boys drool” exercise. It’s just another question I’m following through: what is the contribution of the different sexes in the production/rearing of offspring, and when inequalities exist, how can that be explained in evolutionary or cultural terms?

Let’s list the fundamental inequalities. Perhaps in your high school health class you watched footage of sperm swimming up the vaginal canal, a million miniature cells traveling rapidly to reach the egg. The egg is like a sun, it dwarfs the sperm, and typically one sperm only will get through and the others are shut out (this may be the first step of competition; the genes of the sperm themselves are competing against each other.) But assuming that every biological product represents an energy cost, the larger female egg represents a greater energy investment, right from the beginning. This is certainly not unique in humans, in fact our eggs are tiny relative to our body size when compared with, say, birds. (Look at the chicken eggs we eat; those are some freaky sized eggs compared to the size of a hen, and we’ve bred them to lay them daily!)  The eggs of birds represent a huge investment on the part of the female.

How has evolution selected females to invest so much more in their reproductive cells? I think at first glance this isn’t as unequal as it looks. Females produce a large cell, but males produce many reproductive cells, all of which compete with each other to fertilize that one egg. All but one sperm are genetic losers. (Male primates will often mate without resulting fertilization, right? Hence evolutionary pressure on males protecting/fighting for fertile females) Sperm and egg seem to have been selected to follow different strategies: egg as a large, viable gamete, sperm as a “shot in the dark” strategy. So, OK, females produce a few large, viable cells, and males produce many cells, few of which will ever result in an actual offspring.

Then comes pregnancy itself, and now we’re talking placental mammals. Between the time of the two cells coming together, every bit of energy resources required for the zygote, the fertilized egg, to divide, and divide again, and so on until it  becomes a seven-ish pound baby…all that energy invested comes directly from the mother. That’s not to say that she might not be getting help in those energy needs from a partner, but the mother is directly on the hook to make that baby from nothing but the food going into her mouth.

So, how much extra food is it? And why is it that it’s so dang hard to eat during pregnancy, when it seems most important to get good nutrition? Between the nausea, the stomach constriction and the reflux, eating is difficult. For me, I’d vacillate between periods of nausea and sudden hunger so extreme that I would have eaten an actual baby if someone had wrapped it in a tortilla and slapped some hot sauce on it. I’d eat with embarrassing enthusiasm, only to get about half way through and realize that I couldn’t get any more down without it coming back up.

So how do human females do it? How do primates do it? What do chimpanzees do when they don’t have a convenient taco bar around?

The beginning of motherhood: pregnancy

I never considered myself a parent until I actually had a baby in hand, but from a biological perspective, the physical act of mothering kind of starts with pregnancy. Pregnancy for me was paradoxical; it seemed hard, not for the faint of heart, and yet, most women of a certain age had done it. I had new respect for women in my life, who all the sudden seemed hardcore just for getting through pregnancy and birth.

Pregnancy seemed like such work. Every once in a while I’d run into someone who would look at my belly with fondness and say something along the lines of “Isn’t it fun? I always loved being pregnant.” And I think I must have answered them with a blank stare like…lady, you and me are different.

Every pregnant woman on the web is smiling, doing yoga, and/or eating salad/cutting vegetables. It’s all a lie!

I mean, sure, the conceptual part of pregnancy was fun. I felt proud of what my body was doing. I think I’ve never actually felt more confident and comfortable about the way my body looked than when I was pregnant, which is weird, because there’s something freakish about it, the swollen belly, the salami nipples, all the veins and stretching. And it was exciting to contemplate the baby at the end.

But day to day, moment to moment, I just felt bad. And I had a totally normal pregnancy, no actual vomiting, no bedrest, nothing complicated. But I felt like complaining all the time. I didn’t, at least I don’t think I did , because I know the complaining pregnant woman is something of a cliché and I had enough self-awareness to know that no one wanted to hear me bitch about my voluntary condition of pregnancy.There were times when I just felt sorry for myself and had to throw a little pity party. I remember being nine months pregnant, drawing the shades of my classroom at lunchtime, laying my head on my desk and just spending the lunch period that way, musing on whether it was more funny or more embarrassing that my students had to talk to my protuberant belly button when I stopped by their desks to help them with their work.

When I felt tired and nauseous and sorry for myself, I thought of every other woman who has ever been pregnant. Which is, like, a lot. I thought of that evolutionary line of women, from my mother to her mother to my great-grandmother and her mother, etc etc, doing that evolutionary backwards march in my head back to the earliest human women, and then back further still to our primate ancestors. And I wondered, how has evolution shaped this process that seems so far from ideal? And while evolution doesn’t necessary engineer ideal or perfect solutions, how have women evolved to bear the weight (pun intended) of gestation in such an asymmetric fashion? The man contributes a cell, a really puny one at that, joining the woman’s egg to make a zygote (fertilized egg). From that moment of conception, the woman then foots the energy bill 100% for that growing fetus for nine months when boom, out comes a baby* that is 50% the father’s genetically even though the father only contributed one cell (directly). Seriously, if you’ve never contemplated the apparent unfairness of this, think about it. It is crazy. But I say apparent unfairness, because if women really had a bad deal evolutionarily, being a woman would theoretically be selected against, and you would drift away from a 1:1 sex ratio of females do males. Which doesn’t happen.

So. More on pregnancy, it’s energetic costs, what it’s like in primates, to come.

*Spoiler alert: birth doesn’t actually happen like boom, you’re done. Wish it did.


Parenting instincts, opioids and Mickey Mouse

There’s an article in the New York Times today covering a study of opioid addiction and parenting instincts. Any study about parenting instincts grabs my attention, because that’s what I am so curious about. What parenting instincts do we truly have, what behavior is learned, and what do we invent on the fly?

The article describes a study where people in two study groups, opioid users and a control group, respond to something called baby schema. It turns out baby schema is a way of measuring baby cuteness, with higher baby schema meaning cuter babies. Opioid addicts apparently don’t respond as strongly to changes in relative baby schema, suggesting that opioid dependence may dull this particular feature of parenting instincts.

I don’t know a lot about opioid dependence, and to me there’s nothing immediately surprising in the idea that drugs, which change the way the brain functions, would alter parenting behavior. What’s interesting to me is the idea of baby schema, which I remember learning about in college biology lecture, although it was described by a different term, neoteny.



Neoteny describes the evolution of juvenile features that remain even until adulthood. The essay by Stephen Jay Gould about the evolution of Mickey Mouse to become “cuter” over the decades is a little tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a little thumb-on-nose, but it makes the point that “cuteness” in humans is not actually subjective. There are highly conserved features (big eyes, mega-heads, stubby appendages) that universally trigger the “Awwwwww!” response that is the verbal expression of parental protective feelings. In the essay, Gould cites Konrad Lorenz, who believed the distinctive features of babies triggered “innate releasing mechanisms,” which were those hard-wired, automatic parenting behaviors. Big head, big cheeks, large eyes, clumsy movements, would trigger parental instincts, and Gould suggests Mickey’s evolution occurred, likely unconsciously, to make him seem more lovable. (Does anyone see Mickey Mouse as lovable? To me he has always been creepy.)

So, if we really have parenting instincts, it seems like there’s a history of agreement that baby features trigger those instincts. If Konrad Lorenz was right, what are the innate releasing mechanisms that are triggered by a baby’s chubby cheeks and stubby legs? Picking them up, touching them, seems like a big one. Everyone wants to touch a baby, especially one with those fat pinchable thighs. But what is it that compels you to want to pick up (or pinch) that baby?

I think there must be limits to the idea that baby features trigger automatic parenting behavior. I’m sure it’s part of the story, but there has to be a lot of other stuff going on. For one, and I want to be delicate here, newborns aren’t at peak cuteness when they arrive. They don’t yet have the chubby, pinchable thighs, or the massive jowly cheeks they develop in those first months. They are red, wrinkly, somewhat geriatric in appearance. They get way cuter over time, right? If those cuteness features are so essential to parenting instincts, are newborns more vulnerable? I doubt it. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t been overwhelmed by love and protective feelings at the sight of their new slimy, squalling baby. But maybe there is an initial vulnerable period. Another question to be answered, or not.




On trial-and-error learning

As I’ve been ruminating about maternal instincts, and maternal learning, I thought about the different strategies my husband and I used with our newborns. As we got more experienced, the crying baby didn’t fluster us so much. When she cried, we just started the sequence.


This flowchart is a basic depiction of my personal sequence; my husband’s may have differed slightly, but the basic principles are the same. 

My husband and I both had some version of the sequence, and generally if we picked the baby up, or fed her, or changed her, about 90% of the time, that worked and she calmed down. Sure, 5-10% of the time we had to be slightly more creative, and yes, I hear of some babies that cry and cry and these simple steps don’t work. But my basic point is that most parents arrive at a simple checklist that works most of the time.

Grandparents and other caregivers also have these ways of figuring out what a particular baby needs. Which is significant, because maybe it’s not so much down to maternal instincts, or paternal instincts either. Maybe all we need, to be successful parents, is the ability to problem solve, to use the fairly simple tools of trial-and-error learning to meet the demands of a particular situation. We already know humans are capable of solving novel problems that they’ve never seen before. If you’ve never seen this in action, hand your nearest toddler an iPhone and see how long it takes them to master the push/swipe. It doesn’t take long, and they will stick to it until they figure it out.

Other animals certainly can learn through trial-and-error learning. That isn’t unique to primates. So how much does that play a role in parenting? Do we need instincts at all? Does there need to be a genetic basis for parenting behavior, or does it make more sense for there to be a genetic basis for basic problem solving and the ability to think up and try different solutions to novel problems?

Learning to mother: who do we learn from?

I brought up the idea last post that mothering behavior, as a variable trait, could be selected for via natural selection, assuming that there is some genetic, heritable aspect to the behavior. That’s not necessarily proven, but like many behavioral traits it isn’t unlikely for some part of it to be genetic.

And, like most traits, much of it may be environmentally determined. In the case of highly social, intelligent humans (and other primates) it’s likely learned as much (or more so) as it is genetic. It’s possible that the genetic part is totally dwarfed by the learning part; a similar example of such a trait would be language. We clearly have some genetic underpinning to learn language, but we have to learn all the words, and we do that by hearing LOTS of talking around us. Kids who don’t hear a lot of talking around them don’t talk as much or as well as kids who hear a lot of talking.

So how did I learn, if I did, to be a mother? This was a real question I asked in those newborn days, and still ask, although with less frequency. The obvious answer would be that I learned from my mother. I definitely think of her as my model, and she tends to be the voice in my head when I am pondering a real stumper (is cake ok for breakfast? Is brushing a toddler’s teeth two times per day always required, or is one acceptable? How many nights per week must we wash hair?) My approach to mothering is pretty close to hers, and yet this wasn’t a resource I could really draw on when I had newborn children. I don’t remember her mothering style from when I was a baby. I don’t know what kind of “sleep training” she did with us (she doesn’t remember, and generally objects to the idea of “training” a baby.) Did she have me, and my siblings on a nursing “schedule” or did she just pull out her boob whenever? Did she make us nap in the crib, or was the car ok?

No one can convince me I have memories of how she mothered me when I was a baby, and I don’t have any much-younger siblings that I helped care for/watched grow up. My younger brother is three years younger than me, and I can’t imagine I did a lot of note-taking, mental or otherwise, about what my mother was doing with him when I was a toddler. I didn’t grow up around lots of cousins or extended family, so I wasn’t around babies when I was at an age to reasonably learn what you do with an infant, how you quiet it, how the heck  you swaddle it (an art I never perfected), what kind of crying translates to what kind of emotion.

I went to a few new-mom groups when I had my first baby, and it felt odd to be swapping intimate details about birth and nursing with a group of strangers, but there was camaraderie too. It was so lonely and isolating to be the mother of a newborn, I was desperate for reassurance and understanding. I called my mom and sister often, but we were far apart geographically. All the earthy doulas/nursing coaches at the moms groups talked about how women in other cultures are around their mothers and sisters and other women. I heard stories of nursing circles, where mothers sat around, nursing their babies and chatting. I don’t know where this supposedly happened, or when, but the idea was certainly appealing. There was certainly a logic to the idea that people in other times/places were less mobile, and new mothers were more likely to have the support and advice from family and what we call “extended family” but I have no research to prove that idea.

Wow I love this picture. My nursing support groups always met in random yoga studios. The outdoors with flower crowns is way cooler.

How do other primates learn to be mothers? I guess it’s not by reading “Happiest baby on the block.” It probably partly depends on the social structure of the primate group. Some primates are male-dispersal oriented, which means males leave the home troop at adolescence, leaving the females to keep their strongly bonded relationships with their mothers and families of origin. Amongst these primates, if you could watch you own mother, your sisters, your cousins, etc, as you became a mother, it seems like there would be ample opportunity to learn mothering practices by direct observation, and learning that way.

But some primates have female-dispersal patterns, notably our closest relative the chimpanzee. Chimpanzee females tend to leave at adolescence, and don’t spend a lot of time around their troops/families of origin. Female chimpanzees roam around solo with their babies a lot of the time. So how do they learn to be mothers?

Could there really be learning that occurs in those first years of life, some imprint in the way you have been mothered, that appears as “instincts” when you have a baby? Or does learning to be a mother have to happen later, through direct observation of other mothers? And where does that leave us, in our highly mobile culture, where many of us go a large period of our lives without being around babies? There was a very long portion of my life when I wasn’t thinking about having babies, wasn’t interested in babies, was never tasked with caring for a baby. Did I miss out on a critical learning period? Am I a worse mother because of it?

Does anyone know the answer to these questions?

Maybe the answer is that I should have read more parenting books.