Posted by: emjb | December 7, 2005

Monkey see, monkey parents

Our childbirth educator once told us the story of a zoo gorilla, raised in captivity with no other gorillas around. When she was bred, and had a baby, she didn’t know how to breastfeed or care for it; she would just set it down and walk away. It eventually died.

The next time she was bred, the zoo brought in a bunch of breastfeeding women to sit around outside her cage and feed and play with their babies. She watched very intently, and imitated them, and her new baby thrived.*

And there is an awful lot I find myself learning from other mamas whenever I’m around them. Today I found myself holding Nathan tight with his pacifier in his mouth, rocking back and forth to soothe him and make him wait a bit before his next feeding. I had watched my mother in law do just that for him the night before, and it stuck. I keep straining to remember how my sister handled her babies, how she talked to them, when they were small. I watch my mom for more effective ways to pat his little back and get him to burp. I make up my own stuff, too, but it is definitely easier to steal other mamas’ tricks.

Really, the isolated nuclear family, all alone in its little castle, can make things harder for new parents. Much as I prefer to be a hermit, I really miss the fact right now that I don’t live in village or enclave with a bunch of other mothers, who can teach me whatever they know. All the Dr. Spock books in the world can’t make up for finding someone who has mastered the art of changing a baby boy without getting peed on. We have lost a lot of collective wisdom by living as we do. We do our best to connect through playgroups and online, but it’s not the same as just casually spending time watching someone else interact with their kids.

This goes for dads, too, by the way. Except for nursing, they have to learn the exact same skills, and no doubt feel just as frustrated sometimes. We have tons of experts, but not many useful teachers.

I don’t know that we can go back to anything resembling a village, though; the commune movement doesn’t seem due for a resurgence, and people get very attached to their private domains. Collective living is hard to put up with when survival doesn’t dictate it anymore. It looks like we’ll just have to keep making do with books and videos and classes at the Y, and frantic midnight posts to parenting bulletin boards. Not very efficient, but it’s all we’ve got.

*I can’t verify this story, by the way. It might be complete breastfeeding propaganda.



  1. Isn’t it ironic how when others (mothers, in-laws, coworkers) give advice it can be so irritating, when how else are we supposed to learn this stuff? (Aside from books, which are equally irritating!)
    I’ve seen in documentaries that even primates in the wild often have trouble with their first infants — they’re not good at carrying & feeding them at first, and the first ones often die … which is why I can’t bear nature documentaries! Maybe they pay more attention to the examples around them once things don’t work out the first time?

  2. Yeah, there’s always a bad-mama monkey in those documentaries who just leaves her baby lying around. I hear March of the Penguins actually had some of the same stuff happen, which is why some parents were upset that they’d taken their kids to see the cute penguins movie, and there was suddenly a dead baby penguin they had to explain.

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