Salon Magazine

She loves me, she loves me not

In an exhaustive -- and exhausting -- book on motherhood, anthropologist Sara Blaffer Hrdy breaks some big news: There is no such thing as maternal instinct.

By Susan Caba
Dec. 9, 1999
Salon Magazine

Human mothers kill their own children.

Men murder much more often than women. But when a woman causes the death of another, that person is most likely to be her own newborn baby. It happens a lot, it has happened throughout history and it sometimes happens in epidemic proportions, with thousands of babies quietly being killed or abandoned.

Any sentient adult with a subscription to a newspaper knows that Susan Smith drowned her toddlers in 1994 by strapping them into their car seats and letting the car roll into a lake. Three years later, a high school girl in New Jersey went to the prom, gave birth in a bathroom, left the baby to die in a garbage can and returned to the dance. In October, authorities in Kansas City, Mo., charged a 31-year-old mother with murder after two of her 8-year-old triplets were found to have been starved and scalded to death.

We think of these events as aberrations. We want to believe that they are rare, unaccountable occasions when drugs or psychosis or abject terror overwhelm the steadfast ramparts of maternal instinct.

But what about the village in Bolivia where researchers found that nearly every woman had killed a newborn of her own during a period of war and economic stress in the 1930s, when the prospects of raising a child with a suitable father were extremely poor? Nearly 38 percent of the babies born in that village during a three-year period were killed by their mothers. Many of those women went on to become devoted mothers.

And in Europe, during the middle centuries of this millennium, babies -- millions of them -- were abandoned to near-certain death in foundling homes by mothers who would have known their newborns would not be adequately fed by wet-nurses. At some of these homes, death rates reached 80 percent or higher.

In one village in Papua New Guinea, 41 percent of all live infants born between 1974 and 1978 were killed by their parents just after birth. Of 20 infants killed, five were boys, the rest girls.

These stark images of mass maternal abandonment and killing come from a new book on motherhood by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in which she proposes that in humans -- more than in any other species -- mother love is a sometime thing, a compulsion dependent on circumstances, not just hormones.

In fact, she says, there is no such thing as "the maternal instinct."

"Mothers do not automatically and unconditionally respond to giving birth in a nurturing way," says Hrdy (there is no vowel in the last name, which is the Czech word for "proud").

"A woman who is committed to being a mother will learn to love any baby, whether it's her own or not; a woman not committed to or prepared for being a mother may well not be prepared to love any baby, not even her own."

In her just-published book, "Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection," Hrdy says that women, like other primates, make a choice about mothering. They consider the availability of food, shelter, a father -- and the costs of those things -- in deciding whether to do the job. As coldly modern as this assessment process may seem, it is as old as the species, as deeply ingrained in our psyches and in our biological histories as any of our other basic urges, says Hrdy.

By cracking the divine mysteries of mothering with such a dry-eyed and rational code, Hrdy takes on a powerful coalition of folks for whom the idea of maternal instinct is sacrosanct. Groups like the Family Research Council, Promise Keepers, Marriage Savers, the Heritage Council and attachment parents everywhere use the biological certainty of maternal instinct to anchor conservative political arguments and traditional approaches to parenting. Theirs is a brand of motherly love that psychologist Erich Fromm described in his 1956 book "The Art of Loving." "Mother's love is unconditional," he rhapsodized, "it is all protective, all enveloping."

Stalwartly scientific and openly feminist, Hrdy rejects what she views as a pie-in-the-sky construct that conveniently reduces women to one essential feature: the ability to give birth and nurture offspring. She claims, from high atop an enormous mound of research, that her motives are strictly scientific, not political.

"I'm trying to get away from the pop, pat answers that people throw around," Hrdy says in an interview, frequently cautioning against what she calls the unsophisticated use of the word "instinct."

Yes, she says, "maternal responses that are biologically based are surely going on in the human species." Women bond with their babies, prompted, to some extent, by a flood of chemicals and hormones that build before, during and after pregnancy. The bonds grow tighter the longer the baby is close.

But these responses cannot be threaded together into a single strand of behavior and labeled "maternal instinct," and they don't guarantee that an infant will be loved or cared for. In other words, we are subject to maternal impulses, but we are not controlled or defined by them. Even behaviors that can be traced to physiological factors -- genes or hormones or neural pathways that form after a female gives birth -- may be more complex than they seem.

What about prolactin, the hormone with the general reputation of promoting nurturing behavior? A "land mine," says Hrdy. "It's implicated" in nurturing, defensive and protective behavior (even in males), she says, but its presence in the body is also correlated with other emotional tendencies, including aggression and postpartum depression.

In other words, do not expect any simple descriptions of the influence of prolactin -- or any other gene or hormone -- on maternal behavior from Hrdy. She sidesteps the sound bite at every turn.

"Everyone warned me not to touch the topic," she says. "I pushed the boundaries as far as I could, but my words were chosen very, very carefully."

Hrdy relies on decades of research -- her own and others' -- to propose a sort of Darwinian-feminist theory of motherhood: Women are influenced by certain physical factors to form families, have children and nurture them, but the decision to raise children also is shaped by ambition and ambivalence (which may also be influenced by evolved traits -- it's a bit of a vicious circle).

Babies, on the other hand, are genetically programmed to form an attachment to a trusted caretaker. The bond is essential to their emotional development, which creates the classic dilemma for modern (and postmodern) mothers -- how to balance work and parenthood.

Primate mothers, says Hrdy, from apes to Pleistocene-era foragers to women today, have had to weigh motherhood against their need to work and maintain status in their communities. Female animals -- including humans -- assess their "economic" situation, the politics of the times, their community stature and the probability of raising offspring to maturity in deciding whether to "invest" in raising a child.

Like women in recent decades, other animals have some ability to forestall fertility or conception if the times aren't right for child-rearing. Some even end their pregnancies, if the outlook for success changes, by absorbing the fetus into their bodies.

Only human mothers, says Hrdy, carry the results of their assessments to the most brutal end. In other primates, infanticide is either carried out by males killing the offspring of their rivals or dominant females killing the babies of potential competitors. And humans are the only primates to assess the viability of their infants and then choose whether to keep them based on their health or gender.

In other words, Hrdy says, maternal love -- and particularly human maternal love -- is conditional. It has been so since at least the Pleistocene era, she says, despite cries from conservatives and fundamentalist Christians who say that we must return to the family values of a nebulous bygone era -- with men in their rightful places at the head of households and women birthing and nurturing -- to put an end to school shootings and Susan Smith tragedies.

Hrdy, of course, offers an evolutionary biologist's assessment of the Smith killings, an assessment based on Canadian studies that show younger women are more likely to commit infanticide than older women, particularly when a male other than the child's father is present in a relationship. This is presumably because younger women see the opportunity of forming new families, while older women realize their child-bearing years are dwindling.

"Susan Smith was looking to better her life and the kids were in the way," Hrdy says. "She could look forward to having other children. If Susan Smith had been 40, I wouldn't have expected her to kill her children."

Infanticide is one way women throughout history -- those without access to birth control or abortion -- have terminated their investment in offspring when conditions weren't right for motherhood. Hrdy doesn't offer it as an excuse, just an explanation.

"Along the way," she says. "I have come to understand just how flexible parental emotions in humans can be."

Hrdy, 53, is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis, with a lengthy résumé that begins at Radcliffe and Harvard and wends its way through membership in the National Academy of Sciences. She's been studying maternal behavior for three decades, with research encompassing everything from field studies of langur monkeys in India to a thorough combing of centuries worth of birth records and even telephone directories in Europe, documenting the epidemics of infant abandonment.

She has a disarming and amusing way of describing herself in anthropological terms, fully cognizant of the elastic application of evolutionary dogma: "What does it mean," she asks in the book's introduction, "to be born a mammal, with an emotional legacy that makes me capable of caring for others, breeding with the ovaries of a primate, possessing the mind of a human being. To be a semi-continuously sexually receptive, hairless biped, filled with conflicting aspirations and struggling to maintain her balance in a rapidly changing world?"

Hrdy came of age as a scholar in the late '60s and early '70s, essentially the height of the women's movement. The field of anthropology was opening both to women researchers and to topics that focused on female roles. Hrdy seized the opportunity to observe monkey communities in India, to determine why females would mate with marauding males who often killed the females' existing infants.

Her findings -- that the male monkeys weren't pathological, they were killing the infants as a means of forcing the females into sexual receptivity -- were controversial. The idea that infanticide -- even among monkeys, even committed by males -- could be a purposeful behavior was considered morally unacceptable. Since then, 35 species have been shown to practice similar infanticide.

At the same time, anthropologists were doing more and more field work, rather than studying captive animals in labs. This change meant that females -- up until then, studied with their young in isolation from larger communities -- were suddenly seen in social and even "political" contexts. Female rats behave differently in the wild; kept in cages with only their babies for company, Hrdy points out, they behave a lot like suburban housewives did in the 1950s.

Despite her feminist credentials, or perhaps because of them, she weaves a careful path between those who insist that maternal behaviors are genetically programmed and those who argue equally forcefully that mothering consists of a set of learned skills. She seeks to break free of both the Darwinians and the feminists, then meld the best from both.

Her own history as a mother -- she has three children -- is a mix, she says, of ambivalence, devotion and ambition. She gave birth to her first child in a euphoric flush (no doubt under the influence of oxytocin, a naturally occurring opiate that also plays a role in birth contractions), and was then stunned both by the lusciousness of her daughter and the magnitude of her own parental responsibility. Knowing what she already knew about an infant's need to attach to a caretaker, what could she do, she asks, "but turn my life over to her?"

Instead, she and her husband adjusted their work patterns, put their faith in the resilience of children, and relied on the support of alloparents -- anyone, male or female, who helps care for a child -- so that each could pursue careers in anthropology. (She lives in Northern California "as a hermit, scratching in my garden.")

"As I would learn, mothers have worked for as long as our species has existed, and they have depended on others to help them rear their children," she says.

Hrdy's book is an exhaustive -- and sometimes exhausting -- weaving of the scientific literature on innate and learned maternal behaviors, liberally spiked with explorations into the social history of human motherhood. It is about using whatever tools are at hand to probe a deeply unfathomable mystery, one both universal and deeply personal. Her use of Darwinism with a twist of feminism will no doubt raise the hackles of critics who believe that Hrdy has chosen flat and overly convenient tools for her probe. But even her detractors will have a hard time denying the volume of her research.

Hrdy has outlined a vast mosaic of mothering behaviors, a mosaic that she acknowledges has large areas that aren't yet completed. Of course, it's not that easy to study human parenting patterns, so the picture is built in large measure on animal studies. As the science of these studies gets more complex, so do the potential interpretations. (And the potential for disastrous misinterpretations: The pre-Dr. Spock philosophy that children should be breast-fed on a schedule, rather than on demand, was based on research on pigeons, which had no relevance to humans -- a revelation that hasn't discouraged followers of the fundamentalist "Babywise" parenting gurus, who advocate a return to scheduled feedings.)

"Mother Nature" offers hundreds of scientific examples and plenty of Hrdy's opinion (backed by studies), such as: "Wherever women have both control over their reproductive opportunities and a chance to better themselves, women opt for well-being and economic security over having more children."

Such sweeping and controversial conclusions are likely to provoke new storms of apoplexy among the fans of the Victorian "good mother" stereotype, people like Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who became so emotional in his arguments against late-term abortion -- his face turning crimson and his voice rising to a high pitch -- that colleagues intervened to keep him from blowing a gasket.

(Santorum was, Hrdy offers slyly, acting as a "high-status male primate intent on controlling where, when and how females belonging to his group reproduce.")

Hrdy acknowledges the hot-button nature of her topic, calling the issue of motherhood a mine field: "The topic was safe only so long as people took the centuries-old view of self-sacrificing motherhood for granted," she writes. Why, she asks, would a society with the sophistication and technology to explore the solar system display "such primitive behavior when it comes to the female reproductive system?"

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