We Are Not Chimps; or, In Defense of Day Care

by Rachael on September 7, 2010

Tuesdays at The Variegated Life: a look at how I’m making this working-at-home-while-mothering thing work. Or how I’m trying to make it work, anyway …

Tomorrow will be the Critter’s first day at his new school, a Montessori preschool in a neighborhood just north of ours. He’ll be going three full days each week. I feel ambivalent about his being there so many hours of the week (roughly 27, depending on exactly when we drop him off and pick him up). After all, don’t I work at home in part so that I can spend more time with the Critter? On the other hand, it’s a marvelous school for our very active, hands-on, social little guy, and maybe I’ll get more sleep.

My ambivalence, of course, is hardly unique to me. In the preface to Mother Nature, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy recalls the ambivalence she felt in the first weeks of becoming a mother — “trapped” if she did turn her life over to her newborn daughter and “damned” if she didn’t. She writes:

I so desperately wanted to succeed in my chosen profession; yet I didn’t want to deprive my daughter of the emotional security I had become convinced she needed. Personal ambition seemed to be on a collision course with my baby’s needs.

Hrdy notes that this conflict — and ambivalence about this conflict — is common to mothers in the U.S. and experienced most strongly by mothers “who work by choice.” What is extraordinary about Hrdy is her response to this conflict.

I’ve never been content to agonize when I could analyze instead. I set out to use every perspective at my command, and every source of information I could locate, to marshal such evidence as I could bring to bear on the question of what it means to be a mother, and what human infants need from their mothers, and why. Even what I failed to learn in time to help me rear my own three children, I could pass on to others.

Invariably, my eyes tear up when I read the last sentence quoted above, because Hrdy’s books are truly a gift to all mothers. In Mother Nature (the more overtly feminist of the two books of hers that I’ve read), Hrdy debunks cultural myths about mothers and “mothering instincts,” sifting through and interpreting the evolutionary, biological, and anthropological evidence to arrive at an image of human mothers as strategic rather than self-sacrificing. In Mothers and Others, her most recent book (which I read on our vacation), she explores the evidence for and possible consequences of our being, unlike the other great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), cooperative breeders, in whom the care and provisioning of young is shared among both parents and alloparents (from the Greek root allo–, meaning “other than”).

Think of the delight with which a newborn human is passed from mother to family and friends and back again. In contrast, chimp babies, for example, are in continuous contact with mothers who cling to them with ferocity and determination. Writes Hrdy, “The earliest a wild chimpanzee mother has ever been observed to voluntarily let a baby out of her grasp is three and a half months.” Though they may be our closest evolutionary relatives, we are not chimps. However, in writing Attachment, the pioneering attachment theorist John Bowlby most closely examined the child-care practices of chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, and rhesus macaques as representing how our earliest ancestors must have cared for their babies at the time of what he called our “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.” (Though about half of all primates are cooperative breeders, none of these are.) Also, in studying the child-care practices of hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung, he and others tended to overlook evidence of shared care. In the decades since, more nuanced views have emerged. But though the insight that humans are in fact cooperative breeders has now been explored by anthropologists and others for at least one decade, some in the attachment parenting community continue to burden mothers with their ideal of continuous-care-and-contact mothering (this post at Dr. Momma being the most notable recent example).

To be clear, Hrdy admires Bowlby and describes attachment theory as “arguably evolutionary theory’s most important contribution to human well-being.” She writes:

Forget the behaviorists [like John Watson, who warned that picking up a crying baby would condition it to cry more]. Post-Bowlby, babies are viewed as well within their rights to cry when left alone.

The rise of attachment theory in the postindustrial West not only ushered in more humane treatment of babies, it also led to practical benefits for parents. A baby confident of a rapid response by a mother committed to his well-being is likely to become a child who will be quicker to soothe and adapt to new situations, and likely to grow up to feel confident about human relations generally. In a complete reversal of Watsonian logic, over the long haul babies with more responsive mothers are going to cry and cling to their parents less, not more.

Far from an argument against attachment parenting, Hrdy’s work provides the basis for a powerful argument in favor of sane workplace practices, such as paid maternity leave (during which time mothers and babies can establish a secure attachment relationship), and high-quality day care. The fact that these are so hard to come by in this country is ridiculous: most U.S. mothers work for pay. And, from both a contemporary and evolutionary perspective, it is equally ridiculous that so many mothers are made to feel guilty for seeking help with child care. The contemporary perspective: a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study of early child care found that (in Hrdy’s words) “maternal and alloparental sensitivity and responsiveness to infants’ needs were better predictors of developmental outcomes like self-control, respect for others, and social compliance than (within limits) actual time spent away from the mother was.” The evolutionary perspective: it may be, Hrdy argues, that it is because of our heritage as cooperative breeders that we evolved our profound capacity for empathy — and not just for family and friends but also for strangers and even people we have never met.

And so Beckett and I will be sure to monitor not just the quality of education that the Critter receives at his new school, but also the sensitivity of the alloparents we’ve chosen for him there. And during those 27 or so hours that he’s there, I’m going to miss him, and terribly. But I’m not going to feel guilty.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

MyGreenMouth September 7, 2010 at 11:02 AM

Excellent entry! I think this “I’ve never been content to agonize when I could analyze instead.” is an astonishing, clear and strong statement. Wonderful.


6512 and growing September 10, 2010 at 11:05 AM

I hope he loves it. It sounds like he gets a nice balance of home time and “out in the world” time, where he can learn from others and gain confidence in blossoming away from Mama.
6512 and growing recently posted… Homestead happenings- summer’s last fling


Olivia March 21, 2011 at 8:51 AM

I love this post. I need to work full time, but would still work part time if that wasn’t the case. My husband, being a full time student, cared for our daughter for the first 1.5 yrs, with an occasional baby-sitter my daughter loves. He is now working full time so she started full time day care at about 20 months old, and she loves it.

It was hard for her to understand why she was being left at first, but ultimately she was ready for interactions with other children and benefits from all the activities, toys, and books her daycare has. Regardless of my work situation, I think I would still want her to go there at least part time because I don’t think I could provide a stimulating enough environment on my own.

Ideally, I wish we in the U.S. could have 1-1.5 yrs parental leave and then have access to affordable childcare.


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