Working mums relax: you're doing fine

It's about time that women who go out to work should stop feeling guilty about leaving the family home. Many of the skills honed in the workplace are precisely those required when the day is over and the tough job of parenting begins. Jerome Burne reports
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For most children, Mum is their first and thus their most important educator. The child who arrives at school with a good attitude towards education is more likely to reach his or her potential during formal schooling. So given the supreme importance of this part of her role, what should a good mother be like? A widely accepted job description would probably include: warm, patient, nurturing, supportive, constantly around her child and above all self-sacrificing. Proper mothers put their children first.

But how about this for an alternative CV? She has a job that gives money and status, has had a number of lovers who are currently in quite influential positions and are still on good terms with her, is adept at social climbing to widen her children's connections, her own mother is still active and takes care of the children regularly, she was pregnant when young but terminated it because the time wasn't right. Oh, and she's usually nice to the children.

The self-sacrificing mother has taken something of a battering in recent years but she still has the power to make women feel guilty when they don't live up to her standards by, for instance, going off to work.

Now in a new book called Mother Nature, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy(sic) demolishes this icon on the grounds that, in evolutionary terms, she would have been a disaster. Drawing on a vast range of studies of animal mothering and research into who successfully rears children in hunter-gatherer societies, she paints a far more realistic and grown up picture of what it means to be a mother.

Education, for instance, plays little part in the self-sacrificing mother's scheme of things, but is of great interest to the evolutionary mother. If school is going to contribute to her child's success, then she wants to know about it. If she's high enough up the social scale to affect public policy on schools, she might fight for more cash. If she has local contacts that can help at the school, she'll use them too and if one of her old lovers is on the board, and might be able to swing things in her children's favour, she'll use that as well.

At the heart of the book is the notion that motherhood isn't just about bringing up nice, healthy well-adjusted kids of the sort the self-sacrificing mother could be proud of, it also involves the rather more ruthless business of getting your genes into the next generation and the one after that. It is about becoming a grandmother and even a great grandmother. And that's why motherhood is also concerned with resources, money, alliances, and deals.

One of the heroes of Hrdy's book is Flo, the monkey mother who featured in numerous television documentaries covering Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees in the wild. Much was made of her nurturing instinct, how solicitous and caring she was. What most people failed to notice was what a brilliant empire-builder she was.

"The secret of her success is that she was able to carve out a reproductive territory deep within boundaries patrolled by males, many of whom were either former sexual consorts or her own sons," writes Hrdy.

As a result her daughters not only started breeding earlier, but far more of their infants survived. The point about former lovers is important because it brings sex into motherhood. The self-sacrificing mummies aren't supposed to be sexy, but in the world of our hominid ancestors, the world that shaped our genes, having sex with a number of males was often a mother's way of taking out an insurance policy for her children. In primate societies males regularly attack infants, but rarely those of females they have had sex with.

In human societies, step-children often get a smaller share of the resources than the natural children, but among some foraging tribes the children who have "secondary fathers" have a higher survival rate. Being monogamous makes sense when the males can be relied on, but when their death rate is high or when resources are poor, a variety of lovers may be a better bet.

As Hrdy's broad canvas unfolds, the notion that the only model for motherhood is the self-sacrificing one becomes ludicrous.

"Whatever it takes" is a phrase favoured by the more ruthless and gung- ho entrepreneurial managers, and that is what the mothering instinct is all about. Being a mother involves different strategies, depending on the situation. Sometimes staying at home and being all cosy is absolutely the right thing to do, but under different conditions going out to work or even making hard choices about life and death are what's required.

The crucial point is that none is more essentially natural than any other. Many animal mothers, who are supposedly far more simple than humans, regularly balance all sorts of conflicting decisions. Behaviour which is most effective when times are good - having sons and having your offspring closer together - are disastrous when times are hard. Then you need children widely spaced and daughters are a better bet. Mothers, says Hrdy, "emerge as flexible, manipulative opportunists".When resources are scarce she may allow weaker offspring to die to increase the chances of the stronger ones.

Comforted by the icon of the self-sacrificing mother, our first reaction to the animal infanticide data is to claim that what is common among animals doesn't necessarily have any place in human society. Mothers, we generally believe, come pre-programmed to nurture all their children equally. That is why we reserve a special disapproval for women who leave their children, and why we are filled with horror at stories of women who kill their children.

One of the most controversial of Hrdy's conclusions is that humans have evolved to make decisions about whether it is better to have more boys or more girls, not before birth like many mammals, but after. She provides evidence to show that if you look at modern day societies where, for instance, boys are favoured over girls, this makes sense in terms of which sex is a better bet in the prevailing local conditions.

But the most devastating evidence against the notion that women have some special nurturing instinct emerged several years ago when historians revealed that within the last few hundred years, literally millions of European women had made very harsh decisions about which of their children were going to survive. Upper class Parisian women in the 18th century, for instance, sent up to 90 per cent of their children away from home to be suckled by wet nurses. Many of the children died, but it meant the women who did it could breed more quickly themselves.

Hundreds of thousands of children from poor homes were put in foundling hospitals, where the death rate was often 90 per cent. The lesson that Hrdy draws from these discoveries is that the nurturing instinct involves doing what is best in the longer term. A child sent to almost certain death in a foundling hospital now, when things are hard, means more resources will be available to give to another when conditions improve.

This is in no way a plea for infanticide, it's just a particularly extreme example of the way that women and their mothering instincts have evolved to incorporate making harsh decisions.

Cultural myths, such as what it means to be a mother, have a powerful, if subconscious effect on what we think is possible or even appropriate. The myth of the self-sacrificing mother was a hobbling one, the psychological equivalent of foot-binding. The formidable figure of the evolutionary mother is far more empowering. With a genetic heritage that involves balancing the conflicting demands of lovers, sex ratios and even infanticide, sorting out the local school should be a piece of cake. PTA meetings may never be the same again.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's `Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection' is published by Chatto and Windus