Animal mothers have problems, too

February 11, 1996|By Sara Engram

BUMPER STICKERS may proclaim ''It's a child, not a choice,'' but a look at the animal kingdom suggests that choice -- heavily influenced by circumstance -- plays a role in motherhood in many species.

In a recent issue of Natural History magazine, the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy takes a look at other mammal species to see how females handle the physical and social trade-offs involved in bearing and raising young. Her article, ''Natural-born Mothers,'' lends a new perspective to the dilemmas humans often face.

Rather than viewing females as ''natural-born mothers'' in the sense of automatic and instinctive nurturers, this view of motherhood suggests that female mammals are frequently faced with cruel choices. These choices center on an age-old challenge: How to reproduce in physical and social circumstances most favorable to the survival of their offspring.

* Among bears, pregnancies are often reabsorbed during hibernation if the previous season has provided too little food to nourish the mother through a long winter and produce a healthy cub.

* Scientists have documented a tendency among several species -- from mice to horses and monkeys -- in which pregnant females spontaneously abort a pregnancy when a strange male disrupts the social group.

* There are hamsters that nurse and nurture large litters while also eating one or two to recoup strength.

* Mother monkeys have been seen to abandon infants threatened by a male intruder.

Infanticide, cannibalism, abortion, abandonment -- these hardly

describe our view of good motherhood. But Ms. Hrdy asserts that the art of reproducing often demands that a female strive ''to survive poor conditions and breed again under better ones.''

I hardly need add that these observations can easily be perverted by tailoring them as fodder for human debates. But because we often tend to view animal behavior as natural and instinctive and somehow good, it is worth noting that even for animals, motherhood is never as simple as it seems.

Support system

If all the bad news about animal mothers seems a bit depressing, there is a bright side: Even grim circumstances can be overcome a strong support system.

Ms. Hrdy cites the cotton-top tamarins of South America, which can breed at a furious rate. But they have to have help to succeed in rearing their young. Fathers, older offspring and other adults pitch in by carrying the infants much of the time and gathering food for them as they near the time of weaning.

Just how essential this help can be was documented over 18 years by a researcher studying these animals in a captive environment. Lorna Johnson of the New England Primate Center found that among experienced parents that had already successfully reared offspring, 57 percent who found themselves without help abandoned their young -- five times the rate among parents with helpers.

None of this is really surprising. Reproducing a species in which infants need lots of attention from nurturing, caring adults is always a precarious enterprise. And for humans, it is a process that is -- and should be -- laden with expectations, assumptions and even requirements that touch on our deepest values.

Humans have not always lived up to those values. But contrary to what many contemporary ideologues would have us believe, those failures did not begin with liberal Democrats or the welfare state. Ms. Hrdy's brief history of wet-nursing (a thriving profession before baby formulas muscled into the market) describes the excruciating choices women faced in earlier times.

Poor women, in desperate need of income, would have to deprive their own children in order to feed the young customers handed them by more affluent families.

And ''affluent'' was often a relative term. In 18th-century France, shop-keepers and other tradesmen could not afford for their wives to take time off to nurse a child. For them, the choice was sending their child to an uncertain fate with a wet-nurse in the country or risking financial ruin.

Science and history can teach us a great deal, especially if we don't jump to premature conclusions. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn is simply humility in the face of life's complexities.

Does the fact that other mammals eat, abandon or kill their young justify the same in humans?

No.

But as creatures with more control over our environment than many other species, we do need to ask ourselves what kind of circumstances we are creating for families -- because it is those circumstances that will shape the choices mothers make.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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