Posted by: emjb | March 10, 2006

Better off than a hyena, worse off than a gorilla

I’m reading Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature, and I have to say, it’s been one of the most helpful books ever in dealing with my PPD, what’s left of it. Hrdy is a sociobiologist, Harvard graduate, mother, and all-around super-smart person who deftly deconstructs myths about motherhood and parenting while putting both in a fascinating evolutionary perspective. Also, you learn that humans birth big, fat, healthy, smart babies that just barely, if we’re lucky, squeeze through our pelvises. As opposed to gorillas, who have babies that are much smaller in relation to pelvis size and give birth in 20 minutes of grunting. But also as opposed to hyenas, who have to push a pup through a 180-degree turn in the birth canal AND out through an elongated clitoris that looks like a penis due to female hyenas having so many aggression hormones. About 40% of pups never make it out. And I imagine the moms aren’t enjoying it so much either. So we human moms don’t have it great, but it could be worse.

She also mentions research showing how, up to the minute of birth, the mother’s environment continues to affect the fetus in many species..some even spontaneously abort, or (like rabbits) reabsorb fetuses when confronted with stressful situations. And I think about how frightened and alone I was in the last trimester, how I had no one but Matt there to hold my hand, and him just as frightened as me. And maybe those stressful feelings encouraged me to go late-term, letting my baby get bigger, leading to problems in labor. I don’t know for sure. But any woman who’s been pregnant will find it significant that as tired as I was, I deep down didn’t really want the pregnancy to end, even at 42 weeks. Most women want it over long before that. But I didn’t feel that at all. Nor did I ever have a nesting instinct come over me. Maybe…I’m theorizing here, but…I never felt safe and secure in my birth plans, and that delayed things. My mind told my body that it wasn’t safe out there, and so my body put off birth as long as possible. I never nested because I didn’t have a place to nest, and no caretakers to watch over me.

And at the hospital, I never truly relaxed because hospitals are some of the worst places to relax in–fluorescent lights, cold floors, beds high off the ground, beeping equipment, strangers coming in and out–it’s not the kind of place that puts you at ease, even if you have enlightened doctors and staff. And if you don’t, if you perceive those around you as threatening, how can you relax? Most mammals give birth in quiet, dark places that are safe from intruders, like your cat having a litter in the back of the coat closet. Isn’t it odd that we expect women to blithely give birth in a place that’s the exact opposite? We are mammals, after all. And like a mammal, I desperately wanted a safe, warm, comfortable, dimly-lighted place to be, but neither my apartment nor the hospital fit the bill. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have ruthlessly rearranged that apartment (or moved out altogether) to be a nest, but at the time, I was afraid to act on my instincts. I was still assuming other people knew best, that I was being silly. But reading Hrdy reminded me that our instincts are ancient and powerful and evolved because they have often helped us survive. We don’t always have to listen to them, but we shouldn’t discount their power.

Hrdy’s book covers so many large topics besides birth that it’s hard to describe it. Mating, male/female relations, tribal hierarchies, primate cultures, insect survival strategies, etc., all come up for examination. But it’s one of those wonderful science books that puts complex things and ideas so clearly and intelligently that it adds depth to the ways you see the world. She is a good scientist in that she cites her sources and acknowledges areas where she is hypothesizing or where evidence is sketchy. Some of what she discusses is disturbing, like the history of infanticide, but again, she puts these issues in cultural and evolutionary perspective. Good stuff. Read it.

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