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What I Learned from Monkeys about Motherhood

I was 21 when I took an Animal Behavior of Primates class as part of my zoology degree. This was pre-kid, pre-marriage, and pre-thinking about either. But I was surprised to find how much this course taught me about motherhood.

But before I start, and so we’re all on the same page:

The primate family is basically all monkeys, from prosimians like lemurs, through old and new world primates, to the great apes. Taxonomists have placed humans in this group due to DNA similarities (being that we share 99% of DNA with chimpanzees).

I didn’t intend to take this Animal Behavior of Primates class and learn so much about life in general, but my professor sure got my attention when he said: We are the only primates that put our babies down.

In a single moment, that acknowledgement revolutionized everything I thought about motherhood.

There is an evolved cultural norm here that we actively train our babies to be without us. This is different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Babies go from car seats to bassinets to play mats to cribs to bouncy seats. These tools are helpful to parents, I’m not saying they’re evil. But are we training our babies to be on their own and forgetting to teach them to trust us, that the world is good, and they will have everything they need, to include emotional connection?

You might be thinking: Ok Carrie, can you really make comparisons here? Gorillas are animals and we have Babies R Us.

You’re right. But they do make nests (gorilla cribs?), yet babies don’t hang out there alone. Their little ones cling to them 24/7, similar to baby wearing. This is mostly for survival, of course, and a way to protect baby from predation. But research shows there are social benefits as well – maternal bonding, psychological development and a baby’s sense of security.

Harry Harlow conducted attachment experiments (see here). He studied rhesus monkeys to learn more about mother-infant attachment. He set an infant monkey up with two mother surrogates (dummies) – one wire mesh one that provided food via milk bottle and one without food that was made of soft terry cloth. All infant monkeys spent more time with the cozy mother, even though the one with the milk bottle fulfilled the physiological need for food.

When infant monkeys were placed with only one surrogate (the wire mesh or the terry cloth), the two groups behaved differently. The terry cloth group retained normal development and would make contact with the surrogate when stressed and quickly recover. This was not true with the wire mesh group; infant monkeys would not retreat to the surrogate when stressed and would take significantly more time to recover.

I figured I would be a mother someday, because these experiments really stuck with me. I’m sure I sounded a little fanatic to my now husband when I told him I didn’t think I wanted to own a crib and that I would primarily wear our babies instead. Luckily, he was onboard right away.

We’ve committed to this for three children and we get a lot of the same comments:

Aren’t you worried they’ll never become independent?

What about your marital relationship?

Won’t they be clingy?

I can reassure you: These are all baloney, but I’ll expand on them more in later posts. But I will say: my Primates class revolutionized my attitude toward the phases after babyhood, too. Primate maternal behavior as baby grows seems to happen in 3 steps, and I’ve honestly kept this in mind as I raise my children.

Step 1: When a baby monkey is newborn, mom keeps them close. Mama monkey never puts them down, never leaves them, and is with them 24/7.

Step 2: When baby gets old enough to explore, they see more of the world and are curious about everything! Sound familiar? At this stage, moms have to pull their babies back often, just like we do when our toddlers disappear into the clothing rack at Target or try to eat every little thing they find on the floor.

Step 3: When baby is older it’s time for some softcore rejection, since an offspring can handle some life on his own in small doses. Even if he wants to spend every second with mom, he will get pushed away and told to “go play.” Have you ever done this at the playground? You’re two-and-a-half! Go play! You got this, kid! You don’t need my help!

This last phase is not the goal but the progression. If attempted too early, it can negatively impact a child’s development, psychology, social behavior, etc. Luckily, the range of when it’s appropriate to do this is so broad you can’t miss it without actively trying to miss it, like letting a one-month-old cry it out or sneaking into your adult son’s house to rock him to sleep at night (I’ll Love You Forever, anyone?).

What I’m trying to say is: it’ll happen naturally. Follow your gut and your child’s cues. You already know what to do. You can keep them as close as you want to, and there comes a time when either they want to be independent (which, ahem, comes from a sense of security promoted by our physical bonding) or it’s more appropriate to push them a little more. Go. Find friends. Be gone, you!

I didn’t expect to take so much of my parenting style from a course on monkeys, but I’ve honestly never read a parenting book with truer insight into the needs of a baby! Early on, at least, primitive-style parenting is superior to our put-your-baby-down-and-get-them-to-sleep-through-the-night-as-soon-as-possible culture.

Now, animals also do a lot of things I’m not going emulate. I’ll use my words instead of flinging feces when I’m upset, just like I tell my three-year-old son to do. So, why follow their parenting style and not their conflict resolution style?

Because it’s a cultural phenomenon to put our babies down as much as we do.

Cribs as we know them today weren’t in use until the 19th century and even then only in Western cultures. Today, in the 21st century, most of the world still bedshares or co-sleeps. Baby wearing is the norm, not the exception. We once had a babysitter in Hong Kong and asked if she would hold our then 11-month-old as he fell asleep. She looked at us in a confused way. Of course, she was going to hold our 11-month-old, what else do you do with a child that young?

Baby wearing has come back around as a crunchy-mom trend. And hopefully putting babies down will someday become the unnatural thing. But of course, there is a time and a place in our modern world to separate yourself from your baby. When driving your car, please, oh please, use a car seat. If you need to take a shower and don’t have anyone else home with you, please, oh please, put your baby somewhere safe that’s designed for them. Baby containers have a place in our modern world, and is superior to anything unsafe.

But other than that, mamas, spoil your babies and love them up.

How does Marabou support women?

Moms who used to “lie-in” for forty days now have to pick themselves up within a week to get back to work. Grandmas, sisters and best friends who otherwise would have been there to help a woman transition into motherhood now live too far away and often can’t take time away from their full time job. Household chores and caring for older children fall on the woman who just delivered a new life and whose body needs rest. But we live in a sprawled world and helping hands are plentiful but often too far to be of benefit. 

Marabou Services is a unique gift registry which provides services instead of stuff. Most mom’s get too many onesies, too many baby blankets and not enough helping hands. How can you give you daughter living in Japan married to a Navy sailor a helping hand? How can you lend a hand to your best friend who moved to California? How do you ask for help when none of your family lives near you anymore?

Start a Marabou Gift Registry!

With a Marabou gift registry you can ask for any service you know will be of benefit during postpartum recovery.

Postpartum doulas for a first time mom

House cleanings for moms of multiples

Childcare for moms with older children!

Once your registry is created, add it to any other registry or post it to your Facebook and ask that your friends and family contribute to your postpartum service, rather than buying you more stuff.

More and more moms find they have to figure out postpartum alone. Women don't have the same support like they used to. Is it any wonder why PMDs are on the rise? Women are embittered by the journey through motherhood simply because no one was there to lend a hand.

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