The Maternal Dilemma

The parental burden is greater for the human species than for any other animals on earth. It is this inescapable fact that lies at the heart of the maternal dilemma.
            One of the greatest differences between the human male and human female resides in the unequal distribution of parental duties. I am not referring to the vexed question of who gets up in the night to calm a crying baby, but to something so basic that we tend to take it for granted. I am referring to ownership of the womb.
            To most people there is something inevitable about the idea of female pregnancy . To a zoologist there is nothing inevitable about it all. Many animals reproduce with an entirely different system. For some, all the parental duties are carried out by the male, including the carrying of the developing embryos on their bodies. In those species, the female is fancy free, simply providing the eggs and then leaving the hard-working male to rear them on his own.
            Mammals adopted a different strategy with fertilization taking place not outside, but inside the female's body.  There, snugly protected, the foetus was allowed to grow and develop until it was ready to be ejected into the outside world.  Even then, after a long period of gestation, the female's unique role was not completed.  Throughout the earliest part of her offspring's life outside the womb she had to allow it to continue to cannibalize  her body, taking even more nourishment from her in the form of warm milk highly modified sweat glands on her chest.
            It may seem a bizarre thought, but there is no biological reason why, during copulation, the human female should not deposit her egg in the male penis, where it would burrow its way down into his reproductive system, make contact with his sperm, and then start to develop into a growing foetus.  At the time of birth, the penis would enlarge into a  temporary birth canal.  After the birth, the male's chest would swell, not with pride, but with milk, and his nipples-nipples that he does indeed retain would provide milk for the newborn.
            I have only painted this strange picture as a reminder that, although many reproductive strategies are possible in the animal world, each species has evolved the system that is best suited to its own particular way of life.  It is merely the accident of being born human that imposes the greater parental burden on our females but, unless they wish to remain child-less, or adopt a child, it is an accident they cannot escape.
            For many women there is no desire to escape.  For them, bearing children is seen as the very essence of their existence, their most important achievement on earth.  Everything else is secondary to that primeval activity.  For others, there is a dilemma the great maternal dilemma.  They may have evolved  as efficient womb and efficient breasts, but they have also  evolved a high level of intelligence, a strong sense of ambition and an intense creativity.  For some, living in today's already overcrowded world where breeding is no longer at a premium, exploiting these intellectual qualities is even more important than reproducing.  They dislike the idea of becoming breeding machines and would hate to see their professional ambitions interrupted by a prolonged period of cumbersome maternal duties.
            For the vast majority, however, there is a more ambitious desire.  They want it all.  They want to enjoy the full expression of both their wombs and their wisdom, but this is not an easy trick to pull off.  Giving birth at the office is uncommon.  Breast-feeding at a board meeting is a rare event.  The woman who wants it all must develop a dual personality and somehow organize a double life.  This is the burden that the human male does not face.


For the human female, the most dramatic experience in life is the moment of the first delivery.  For countless thousands of years this act has been accompanied by comforting support from  other females, the traditional midwives.  Their presence has helped to calm the mother-to-be and to make her delivery quicker and less painful.  This has always been and still is the practice for most tribal  societies.  Men were never allowed to be present at birth.  There was a good reason for this.  Most men are nervous when their wives are giving birth.  Their anxiety transmits itself to the woman in labour and this slows down the birth process, making it more prolonged and more painful.  The presence of close women friends and relatives, especially those who have already given birth themselves and who are therefore  more calm as they assist, will help to relax the mother-to-be.
            Without this calming influence, the woman giving birth will feel tense and fearful, and this condition sends signals to her brain telling her all is not well.  This in turn makes the brain send out chemical messages saying 'there is a danger here, do not give birth yet'.  This primeval protection device (against the presence of natural dangers) inhibits the  delivery and, no matter how hard the mother strains and pushes,  she will not be able to expel her baby.  Only when she relaxes and feels more calm will an easy birth take place.  In modern times we seem to have lost the knack of  creating that sense of calm at the moment of birth and mothers the world over suffer for it.  One only has to watch a film of a tribal mother  squatting down on a few banana leaves and giving  birth rapidly and then observe  the prolonged agony of many a 'modern' birth to see the difference.
            One features of the modern birth is the fashionable idea of having the husband present to share the moment.  This certainly gives him a stronger bond with his new baby, but if he transmits fear to his wife his presence is going to be damaging.  His wife would be better off without him.  If he is not displaying anxiety and is able  genuinely to help calm his wife, then his presence will be invaluable.  There are no hard and fast rules.  Everything  depends on the individual couple.
            After the new baby has arrived there is a period of intensely active maternal care.  In simple tribal societies this is a time when mother and bay are never apart.  They are in intimate body contact almost the whole time.  the baby is not put away from the mother.  Even when she has returned to daily activities she will still keep it close to her and will travel with it slung on her body.  The baby is programmed to expect this degree of contact and becomes distressed if it is separated from its mother.  Babies hate being put away alone in a nursery and do their best to get back with  their mothers by repeatedly giving alarm calls at night.  Some of these cries are due to hunger, but most are simply demands for proximity.  Sleepless nights for the mother can only be avoided when the baby has regained its natural place next to the parental bed.

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