Happy Mothers Day Mothers and Others!

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.


Animals deserve our kindness

Our dog Spike is unwell and the vet isn’t quite sure yet what’s wrong. Spike had a day when she wouldn’t get up – not for treats, not even when the loved neighbour visited – and now she doesn’t walk or toilet normally. It’s something to do with her spine, that much is clear, and she’s been referred to a surgeon for tests. We’ll know more soon. 

Spike is both totally self-centred and totally giving in the way that animals other than humans often seem to me to be. Sometimes I think she understands better than us how all God’s creatures are meant to live. She’s intensely interested in her relationships – us, our neighbours, my son’s friends, his godmother. Her other enduring interest is food. Spike loves human food but will settle for dog treats if chicken breast, eggs and lamb shanks are not forthcoming (on account of the vet’s having told us again we should stick to dog food because she’s a dog). Only as a last resort will she mope over and chew on the oral-health special formula for dogs, just to keep body and soul together.

Two horses died after this year’s Melbourne Cup. One of them, Admire Rakti, developed a written-in-the-stars-rare condition that also affects human athletes in which the horse’s big heart pumped blood so quickly it went into arrhythmia and then stopped. Track vet Brian Stewart, who examined Admire Rakti on the morning of the race at the request of the Chief Steward, said nothing could have been done beforehand to save the horse. He felt a need to point out that racehorse owners love their animals. Given what we’re feeling about Spike this week, I can understand that they do. Our animals are completely dependent on us, more even than our children, whose job is to grow to independence.

Admire Rakti’s death has prompted debate about whether horseracing is cruel, particularly the use of whips by jockeys. I have to confess I didn’t know we whipped horses in any context but especially for sport. Admire Rakti’s jockey, who was fined for whipping the horse too much in the Caulfied Cup – there are rules about how much whipping you can do – whipped his horse just once during the Melbourne Cup, the Chief Steward said, and then stopped because the horse didn’t respond, possibly already unwell. According to one vet I spoke to, horses have a sensitive and explosive flight response. They run and keep running, perhaps beyond the point where they should stop. From this perspective, Admire Rakti ran himself to death while we watched.

The debate about whipping horses turns at least in part on whether you believe the whip causes pain. I’ve learned from Spike’s recent experience that animals can’t tell us where and when it hurts. Our canny vet Fraser reads the signals– a dog may lick its lips in discomfort, for instance, or a gait can be ‘off’ – but we can only know so much. Research by the University of Sydney’s veterinary and animal behaviour professor Paul McGreevy analysed the official records kept by race stewards of jockey use of whips, and video footage of race finishes. In a first small study – 48 horses – McGreevy found all but one were whipped – you’re only supposed to whip a horse that looks like placing – and the horse that wasn’t whipped won its race. A subsequent study found the rules on whipping horses are honoured more in the breach than the observance. McGreevy wants to do some research on larger samples and use a thermographic camera, which would show inflammation after whip strikes, indicating pain experienced, but the Australian Racing Board, which is self-regulating when it comes to its treatment of animals, won’t allow use of the camera.   

When my son is sick, Spike curls up with him on the bed. Sometimes she licks his face – a lot – but mostly she just lies there sending good vibes. If horses are created to run, dogs are created to be unconditionally loyal. We don’t yet know what’s wrong with Spike, but there may be hard decisions ahead involving more or less pain and suffering, a longer or shorter life, and/ or money. I hope we’ll have the courage to do what’s in her best interests when the time comes.


From The Courier-Mail Qweekend magazine 23 November 2014 following two deaths after the 2014 Melbourne Cup horse race. For more on Spike's illness and recovery and the marvel of vet surgeons, read here