5 Things That Surprised Me About Mothers

Though my husband and I had promised to be equal partners when we started out, once our first child was born, we both just automatically assumed that I was the one who should do most of the caregiving. I mean, as a mother, wasn't I just naturally "wired" for the job?
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When I began researching my book on time pressure, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time, I was a time-starved, guilt-soaked, exhausted, often cranky, over-involved -- did I say helicoptery? -- American working mother.

Though my husband and I had promised to be equal partners when we started out, once our first child was born, we both just automatically assumed that I was the one who should do most of the caregiving. I mean, as a mother, wasn't I just naturally "wired" for the job?

Turns out, a lot of what we automatically assumed was true about motherhood wasn't true at all. But it took a visit to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy at her Northern California walnut farm to set me straight. Hrdy is a Harvard-trained evolutionary anthropologist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and one of the world's foremost experts on mothers.

Here are five of the most surprising things about motherhood I learned from her:

1. Mothers have always worked outside the home.

When I went to see Hrdy, I had just spent time with conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan, who proudly explained his role in killing the first and only attempt at high quality, affordable and accessible child care for all in this country. He said he did so because it was just "normal, natural and understood" that American mothers belonged at home raising children, not out at work, like me. And I was thoroughly confused about what, indeed, was "normal and natural" for mothers, never mind understood.

I'd already discovered that guilty working mothers like me had given up virtually all their personal leisure time and were spending as much or more time with their children than at-home moms did in the 1960s and '70s. But, like any mother wanting to do right for her children, I worried that somehow wasn't enough.

Hrdy showed me a photo of a pregnant !Kung woman, part of a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Kalahari Desert in Africa who live much like early humans did some 200,000 years ago. The woman carries a 25-pound bag of mongongo nuts she's gathered, food, water and her four-year-old son. Hrdy estimates that the mother has carried the boy nearly 5,000 miles so far in his lifetime.

"This is a working mother," she says. "The whole idea that mothers stayed at camp and the men went off to hunt? No way! These women were walking thousands of miles every year." It took more than 13 million calories to raise a human child to adulthood, she said. And most of those calories came, not from the unpredictable hunts of the fathers, but from the fruits, nuts, berries and other food gathered by the mothers.

2. Mothers were never expected to do it all alone.

From the moment of birth, children in many hunter-gatherer societies are passed around and held by others. Mothers often go out to forage and leave their children behind in the care of fathers, older siblings, grandparents, relatives and other trusted, nurturing adults. These are people Hrdy calls "alloparents." (Allo in Greek means "other than.")

"It's natural for mothers to work. It's natural for mothers to take care of children," she says. "What's unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What's unnatural is not to have more support for mothers."

3. Women are not naturally "wired" to be mothers.

If anything, Hrdy said, women are wired to have sex. And if there's enough fat on her and she's ovulating, she'll get pregnant. That's why human babies evolved to be born roly-poly and cute and are good at staring deeply into adult eyes and reading emotions.

To survive, Hrdy said, human babies early on had to learn to counteract what she calls natural maternal "ambivalence," until they could latch on, breast feed and the flood of milk-producing prolactin and feel-good oxytocin hormones kicked in and bonded the mother to her baby.

4. Men have enormous physiological and neurological capacity to nurture.

Researchers are now finding that fathers, like mothers, produce high levels of the hormones cortisol and prolactin. Cortisol, the fight-or-flight stress hormone that, when it's constantly flooding the body, can cause so much damage, is also linked to infant bonding and empathy. Prolactin, which stems from the word "lactate," is what stimulates breast milk for a woman and, for a man, is associated with greater responsiveness to a baby's cry.

A father's level of the aggressive male hormone testosterone drops by about one-third in the first three weeks after a child's birth. And brain studies in certain primates are finding that fatherhood enhances regions needed for planning and memory, two critical parenting skills. What does that mean? Male parental care is so important that their bodies physically change to adapt to it. "Men," Hrdy said, "have tremendous capacity for nurture."

5. Time matters.

How is it, then, that mothers have come to be seen as the "natural" caregivers? Time, Hrdy said. Once a baby is born, women don't just instinctively know what to do. But with extended time alone with the new baby -- brought on typically because of breastfeeding, maternity leave, and custom -- they learn through trial and error and experience. So they're able to clue in faster than men to what a baby needs. Most men simply have not had as much time on their own, she argues, to develop the same competence and confidence.

And when fathers do have time and proximity to their children, they are far more likely to actively share in raising them. Researchers studying the Aka pygmies of Central Africa found that when the family lives near the father's family, where the mother has less support and his becomes critical, he takes on nearly two-thirds of the care.

To test men and women's capacity for nurture, Hrdy explained that social scientists timed response rates in new parents. Both mothers and fathers responded in a flash when they heard a recording of a wailing baby. But if the baby was merely fussy, the researchers found mothers responded just a little bit faster. (The opposite is true in the response times for some primates like titi monkeys, Hrdy found, and titi infants "naturally" prefer their fathers.)

Said Hrdy:

"What that means over time is, the baby frets and Mom picks the baby up and soothes the baby. The baby gets used to Mom. So then the Dad comes and, if Mom isn't there, picks the baby up. The baby is not quite as familiar with the father and keeps on fretting. And the Dad starts to think, 'Why do I bother? The baby wants its mother."

And, I might add from experience, the usually fried mother then snatches the baby back, thinking the father is an idiot, depriving him of an opportunity to develop that confidence and competence. That, I was to learn, is a self-defeating behavior called "maternal gatekeeping."

Imagine, what would it look like if changing workplaces allowed men and women to have flexible and reasonable work hours, and shifting gender roles enabled fathers to have more time alone early on with babies? Emerging research in Scandinavia is showing that when fathers take solo parental leave and develop that confidence and competence, the relationship with their children changes and, going forward, mothers and fathers are much more likely to more equally share work, caregiving and household chores.

"These are exciting times," Hrdy said.

Indeed. So mothers, haul up the gate, shed the guilt, find some alloparents and get some sleep. Fathers, roll up your sleeves. You're both naturals. You always have been.

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