The mother is the environment

Some topics are too intimate to expose without a generous dose of care and caution. They are also the ones that touch the heart both ways – in the gentlest and in the harshest of manners. Take motherhood. It is one of those things about which, although there’s a constantly flowing stream of thoughts running in my mind, it’s mostly in trying times that the narrative becomes too real to resist.

‘Mothers matter most’

You cannot be interested in the subject of motherhood and miss the experience of diving into Anne Campbell’s chapter ‘Mothers matter most: Women and parental investment’. In her gem of a book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’, the late Campbell, a British academic at Durham University and author specialising in evolutionary psychology, delves so deeply into motherhood, that she might make you feel overwhelmed. An assertive woman, no doubt, she does not mince her words. The reasons why mothers matter most, she insists, are not to be found in patriarchy, constricted gender roles, and maternal guilt, but rather by digging into the biological basis of things.

Heavy investors

The different elements that Campbell covers in this chapter, such as why women are the ‘heavy investors’, why it is thought that evolution has crafted what can be described as a ‘maternal brain’, and how the bond between mother and infant is the primary social relationship, are all worthy of a detailed account, told with calm and precision. Which is why this article is not the space for that kind of job. This one, instead, is all about a concept that Campbell borrows from another author, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who writes in ‘Mother Nature’:

For species such as primates, the mother is the environment, or at least the most important feature in it during the most perilous phase of any individual’s existence. Her luck, plus how well she copes with her world – its scarcities, its predators, its pathogens, along with her conspecifics in it – are what determine whether or not a fertilisation ever counts.”

The reason why Campbell turns to Hrdy, an American anthropologist and primatologist, is to underline the critical importance of the mother. Campbell draws attention to the fact that raising offspring – a feat that lasts many years and costs women dearly – is as critical to reproductive success as mating and male competition. In this sense, she is a pioneer – working to redress the balance of evolutionary theory in favour of women. With their heavy parental investment, she says, women are much more than breeding machines.

A huge responsibility

That is certainly uplifting. But fascinating as it may be, I personally also find it distressing. Even with awareness of the many ways in which nature equips the mother to care for her child, the thought of being responsible for another human being to the point of serving as the environment – surrounding the child, providing sustenance, shelter, and stability for healthy growth – is daunting at best. Investing is one thing; I think most of us accept the fact that, as one of my friends puts it, as soon as a child is born, there’s a hole that starts to form in your heart, but expecting a mother to function in the same way as the environment is quite another.

Perhaps the reason why I struggled with this concept more than it deserves is because I was trying to read too much into it. This is why, when, barely a split second later, Hrdy moves on, and suggests that, rather than being the whole environment, the mother is the ‘most important feature’, I was consoled. Maybe, I reasoned, this is where one can choose to be the earth, holding water, food and life, instead of a bolt of lightning, discharging energy and the threat of danger to a child. At least, Hrdy here is fixing the mother in the context of the bigger picture – she is, after all, only part of an environment in which there are many other features that are well beyond her motherly control.

The mother’s world

To complicate matters, then, Hrdy throws in another world. This is the mother’s world, a scary place full of predators and deficiencies, which only makes things worse, unless you pause to consider the fact that these two worlds are one and the same – a common environment wrapped around both mother and child.

It stayed all very confusing, until, with some help, I finally got it. The mother is the environment because that’s exactly what she needs to be as she changes through the seasons of the child’s needs. She is the one who holds the power for growth and transformation, as the child navigates the world, not just during times of peril. Only, there’s a condition, and it’s for the mother to see the world through the child’s eyes, to live her life through his experience, to learn the same lessons he’s learning with each warm sun that shines over a brand new day.

To be what the child sees

To be the mother, to be the environment, to be what the child feels and sees. That is what Hrdy meant to say.

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