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The denial of our mammalian nature

May 8th, 2004 · 8 Comments

Richard at Just a Gwai Lo linked to Girl Talk: why I’m tired of the cautionary advice by books… by Meghan O’Rourke. In her book review of Cathi Hanauer’s anthology The Bitch in the House (subtitled 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage) O’Rourke asked

Is there any useful guidance to be found in this new wave of female anger?

and described the dilemma of women today

Certainly no woman in her late 20s these days can complain she wasn’t warned. Instead, we—I’m 28—can complain that we’ve by now overdosed on cautionary tales about the travails that lie ahead. On the one hand, conservative commentators like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead gloomily predict that all the “good men” will be gone by the time we’re 30 and counsel that our eggs will be past their prime when we reach 35. (Better get cracking on that ring.) On the other hand, liberal-minded writers like Allison Pearson (author of I Don’t Know How She Does It) and Hanauer’s “bitches” encourage us to go ahead and make unconventional choices—but when push finally comes to shove, we better beware that living with a man is “claustrophobic,” that marriage involves tedious negotiation, that children will impinge on our careers and sex lives, and that co-parenting is a wishful “myth.”


After a lifetime of hard-won autonomy, the everyday negotiations a woman encounters in a relationship are psychologically fraught in ways that they aren’t for men—not because we’re hardwired to care more about domestic niceties, as some of these essays imply, but because women feel caught in a double bind that men (much as they may lament a lost bachelorhood) seem to be spared.

I’m sorry that women are feeling “mad, mad, mad” and trapped. I don’t feel this way but I can see how others might. Below I’ve written my response after reading this article. My experience and education have given me a different perspective.

First I disagree that men are completely spared the “double bind”. Many men do care about relationship, family and fatherhood. They feel guilt when they can’t be with their kids, and they structure their lives in order to be an available dad. My husband has a wonderful job where he can work from home. But I know that in the past he has made choices and sacrifices for our family. He’s had to say no to other things so he could say yes to his wife and children. I’m grateful that my husband sees the software industry (and work in general) as ephemeral – who will remember what got shipped twenty years from now? how long does it take version 1.0 to become irrelevant and useless?- compared to his family.

This quality of my husband is one of the ones that drew me to him in the first place. I remember having a conversation with Ted before we were dating on a beach at Cape Cod (a long story) in which he told me he wanted to be a good father. I knew then I was attracted to him. Do women who are getting married or seeking a lifetime mate look for men who want to be fathers? Is this a criteria women use? Sure, time can change people and children themselves change their parents. But I think that women who want their husbands to be involved with their family should talk about these issues before making any commitments to each other or a baby. Couples who assume they will work it out as it comes, who cruise into serious commitment, or who fail to take into account possible changes in their relationship with parenthood and time may turn the corner and find themselves both feeling “trapped”. Especially valuable to Ted and me were our friends who already had children; we enjoyed hanging out with them and seeing what life might be like. It helped us discuss and plan for our own family. Women can choose their mates – no one is usually forced into commitments – and if they want involved dads, they should seek men who want to be involved fathers, men who are willing to make the sacrifices to be there for their kids, and men who demonstrate these qualities in their character even before fatherhood. (I’m not alone in this – Halley Suitt said “looking like a good dad” makes women “putty”..)(and, yes, I think men should have similiar criteria for women…!)

Second, I do believe that while men can be concerned, caring and involved fathers, they will never have the same “double bind” that women do, due to the biological differences between men and women. Pregnancy, birth and the care of young children require an enormous investment from the mammalian mother. It’s basic biology.

Young mammals spend a long period of their early development within their mother’s uterus. After birth, they are provided with protein and fat rich food (milk) and are protected until maturity. Pregnancy and milk production require mothers to significantly increase their calorie consumption in order to provide nutrients for their infant. A nursing human female normally uses about 30% of her body’s energy just to produce milk. link

Naturally, a mammalian mother, having invested both time and biological material in her progeny, will have a special relationship with it, and the young can expect a more tolerant attitude from her than from any other individual. link

Denying this difference is denying our mammalian nature and scientific fact. I’ll always have more invested in our children than my husband does. I carried them and fed them with my body. A father, try as he can, cannot have this intense physiological connection that the mother does. It is the way we are as humans, as mammals, as mothers and fathers, men and women. Men will never have the “double bind” in the same sense because they will never have babies. They don’t have a “ticking biological clock”, at least not as much as women do. They don’t have to “climb a mountain each day” as one friend describes it – for nine months of pregnancy and beyond. Biology demonstrates that babies come with a high cost and the mother is the one who pays it with her body and her time.

Complicating these truths of our mammalian nature is our current society and economy, the way work and culture are structured. To be employed and earn income, many women must leave the home, and that also means leaving the children. I would argue that this is not “natural” for women or mothers to do, especially when Baby may be only six weeks old. Although I haven’t had to do so myself, I have heard from other moms who wondered how they would be able to go to the office and leave their little one during the day. Biology works against 9 -to-5-in-the-office-work. Breastfeeding, the nourishment of the young, is particularly dependent on the proximity of the infant for frequent feedings. Formula and/or pumping may suffice, but it can be difficult, certainly less than ideal. As my high school biology text noted, adrenaline counteracts the hormones needed for nursing, stress shutting down the food supply. Even after infancy and breastfeeding, human children are still quite helpless and require attention and traning for years but many current work arrangements require the separation of mother/father and child at an early age.

“Primitive” cultures, I imagine, allowed mothers to work with their children close to them, perhaps tied onto their backs, or may have provided built-in community to care for their offspring. Some argue

our distant ancestors began to orient their manner of living around extending this mammalian-mother-child relationship….our ancestors found themselves living in small close groups that were centered around the mother-child bond.

The ways we live and work in society today seem far from being centered on the mother-child relationship (or father-child relationship) – if anything the way we work and live seems to pull against this bond.

We women can resist the pull as much as possible. We can try to choose good fathers for our children and begin to build family and consider career issues even before marriage and babies occur. I think we need to recognize our biological differences and what they require. Our current work culture runs counter to the maternal needs of mammals. I’m not saying that women can’t work. Or that women shouldn’t work. Not at all. But what work culture demands of mothers – including how careers compete for women’s time and energy and require years of investment during the window of fertility – denies our mammalian nature and what women, mothers, fathers and families need. I am hopeful that new revolution and innovation will provide new ways to work that can compliment the lifestyles needed rather than forcing people into boxes biology never intended . Some of these more creative solutions are beginning but it may take time (see Ben Hyde’s post today on these bizzare new forms of work)

I find it ironic that our culture celebrates the female body with its curvaceous shape that is suited for particular childbearing functions. Now the navel has become fashion, adorned for adoration, pierced and bejeweled. What is a bellybutton but a reminder of the physical connection to a mother – and her intense investment?! We celebrate breasts, we celebrate navels but we don’t celebrate or encourage the investment a mother must make into her children: instead we deny the biology that gave her her body.

Tags: motherhood

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Phil // May 9, 2004 at 3:18 am

    > A father, try as he can, cannot have this intense
    > physiological connection that the mother does.
    As a single, childless male, this leads me to ask a question: does this mean all fathers are doomed to feeling at some level alienated from their children due to the lack of the biological bond the mother & child share?

  • 2 Julie // May 9, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Hi Phil,

    I’m not sure I can answer your question since I’m a mother. What I wrote was mostly exploring the biological aspect of humanity – and how our work and culture don’t accommodate it. Definitely a biologist would say that the female has more invested in the young. But there are so many other aspects to who we are as people. And so many other experiences that a father and child can share. Depending on personality and life events, etc. I think the father can build very strong bonds with his kids – perhaps stronger than the ones with the mom. Sure the mom may carry and nurse the children. But I don’t think the dad is doomed at all. Although I spend most of the days with the girls, I see Ted creating his own way of relating to our daughters, his own special times and activities, the way they interact with him different from me. Each parent plays a unique role and has a unique relationship, each powerful in its own way.

  • 3 Jenny On The Spot // May 9, 2004 at 9:17 pm

    I love her stuff…

    I love reading Julie Leung’s blog. She write on diverse topics and has a beautiful writing style. She’s smart, she nearly became a doctor! Some of her topics are a bit intellectual for my thick head, but I thoroughly enjoy the challenge and oppor…

  • 4 Julie Leung: Seedlings & Sprouts // May 10, 2004 at 12:43 am

    P.S. – postscripts to yesterday’s posts

    Anita Rowland posted some links describing “the intersection of real brain science and fantasy in the movie Eternal Sunshine”. I wonder how this storage(erasure?!) of emotional memories in the brain fits with some of the studies I linked in…

  • 5 Phil // May 10, 2004 at 4:16 am

    Thanks for taking the time to respond Julie. I do very much enjoy reading your blog, and appreciate the time you take to make it interactive. 🙂

    Would you like to expand your thoughts on the following?

    > I think the father can build very strong bonds
    > with his kids – perhaps stronger than the ones
    > with the mom.

    Any chance of getting Ted’s thoughts also? 🙂

  • 6 Katherine // May 10, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    I love this entry. You’ve expressed a lot of things I think about too. I’m with you, Julie.

    I would add that dads are extremely important to children.They may not be as biologically necessary after conception as moms are, however, they are psychologically and emotionally super-impactful in the growing up years, as a role model, leader, sounding board and fortress, to say the least. I’m thankful for my dad, and also for my husband being a great dad to my kids.

  • 7 Ted Leung // May 11, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Some thoughts…

    I think that there’s a preoccupation with words like better or stronger in our society. When I look at the Mother/Child or Father/Child bonds, I see *two* powerful bonds, but the nature and style of the bond is different.

    Personally, I don’t feel at all alienated by the bond between Julie and the girls. I have my own set of interactions with them. They all want to climb up in my lap every morning during breakfast. They all swing by my office and beat on the door from time to time, or play some peekaboo or other “making eyes” game. We have our wrestling and throwing them up in the air. I have the moments where the hurt child wants to crawl up in daddy’s lap. I feel close to them.

    Mother and Father is not a competition for the kids, its a wholeness in interacting with them. There’s a nuancedness of the relationshop between kids and their Mom and kids and their Dad. You can’t replace one with the other, or say that one is more important than the other (even though so much of what is said today is about who is more important or replaceable).

    Bonding is not automatic. It takes time, both for the mother and father. By and large our society doesn’t recognize this. During the years that young parents should be investing in their small children, they also have to contend with getting their careers all lined up and onto the fast track. This creates a conflict that’s virtually impossible to resolve. Quantity of time does matter — it should go without saying that quality does too. Without quantity of time there are things you just miss out on. There’s a reason that I choose to work at home, and this is a big part of it. I’ve been very fortunate to find a very good job where working at home is not a problem.

  • 8 Julie // May 11, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    Phil – not sure I have much more to say other than what Katherine and Ted have written – thanks everyone! 🙂