I’ve got good news for mothers feeling pressured to do it all, delivering household services from the 4am production of birthday cupcakes for school – you couldn't possibly send shop-bought—to the 9pm schmoozing with Dr Seuss—you must, must read to your children or they’ll explode—and in the hours between soaring through that glass ceiling at work like an exocet missile, leaving just the slimmest vapour trail of breastmilk. You’re so exhausted words shimmer slightly and you’re beginning to think in rhymes. I do not like this life of mine; I do not like that Melanie Klein.
It could be worse. You could be one of the other great apes. Chimpanzee mothers, for instance, are in constant skin-to-skin contact with their infants for the first six months, no relief even from a mate. Orang-utan mothers breastfeed until their offspring turn seven. Yes, until Year 2! Studies of these other primates have long been used to support attachment parenting, which grew from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s notion of the secure base, the foundation of total dependence infants need to grow to successful independence. Klein was followed by paediatrician Donald Winnicott, who came up with the concept of the good-enough mother. She was soothingly flawed, Winnicott’s good-enough mother. In fact, children could accommodate quite unsatisfactory mothers, ones who’d buy the cupcakes and blow the bedtime books. It helped the them prepare for life, so long as they had that secure base.
But good-enough mothers weren’t good enough and soon the idea of attachment began to stick. John Bowlby, who also followed Klein, agreed babies needed a secure base and added that mothers were the only ones who could provide it. Even though he never mentioned orang-utans, people thought he meant mothers should stay home and breastfeed for seven years which created a problem especially for working mothers. And then attachment parenting really took off with paediatrician William Sears whose children—at least the four that came after the difficult fifth child—co-slept with Sears and his wife Martha.
I leaned towards attachment parenting with my son, believing I had to do all the mothering. Now I look back and think I was wrong. The apes have something to teach us here and it’s not what you’d expect. While attachment parenting devotees often point to our cousins as exemplar mothers, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues convincingly that our own African ancestors, Homo erectus and her kin, began to rear their young in a new way at some stage and it’s this difference that made us more social which meant we prospered.
Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas today, our human ancestors started to allow others to help. It takes a village, we know, plus 13 million calories, according to Hrdy, to raise a child, and scarce food meant everyone had to help. Hrdy calls them alloparents, or allomothers, the non-maternal carers in a little hominin’s life, older relations, siblings, others. Hrdy’s work turns a withering eye on the notion of the selfless mother, pointing out that in many species mothers are not so self-sacrificing. Mothers in the rest of the animal world are frankly not even always nice and Hrdy has many examples I won’t go into on Mothers Day where mothers, you know, eat their young.
I might just scrape through at the Winnicott end of good-enough mothering but only because I had help, a more-than-good-enough-mother sort of dad plus a crew of allomothers starting with my son’s godmother Louise who has four children herself and has been a constant positive influence in his life. His babysitter Róisín brought brightness every morning she spent with him. Kim, whose son was born around the same time, offered a home away from home. Friends without children gave him the most precious gift of their time. And that was just the first year.
I remember allomothers from my own childhood too, my nana, my aunt Jill who was young and stylish – I wanted to be like her. I bet most people can think of the allomothers who helped to make them humans and the allomothers in their own children’s lives. The good news is that in our species, that’s what they’re there for. Happy Mothers Day to all of them.