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.


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