Saturday, September 12, 2009

SAHM vs Working Outside Home: How do other primates solve the work vs childcare dilemma?

Before I ever got pregnant, I knew I wanted the early experience for my baby to be consistent with how most primates have grown up for eons. Lots of body-contact, including sleeping together in a 'night nest,' nursing on demand, prompt and appropriate responses to her needs, i.e. nursing on demand, grooming baby to sooth her, and exposing her to developmentally appropriate stimuli.

Being a stay-at-home-mom, SAHM, was the foundation of that plan. I didn't, and still don't, think that working outside the home (if it entails having to be away from your baby for long periods of time) is the best way to raise a baby from a primatological standpoint. Looking at other primates, it's akin to leaving your baby with someone else, often completely unrelated to you, while you forage all day for food. No other primate does this. And there ought to be no surprise as to why this doesn't happen. Leaving a baby with someone else has its hazards: Others are never as careful or as attentive as they would be if the baby was their own.

But, it's a risk we humans accept out of necessity. Unlike our primate relatives, humans can't usually take their kids to 'work' with them so we face the difficult choice of what to do about childcare. While there are certainly jobs that are unsafe to perform around infants and children, the jobs most women are engaged in are office or retail jobs that aren't dangerous. If allowed to, I have no doubt that women could, and would, bring their babies to work with them. And, some do indeed get to do this, but it's largely a privilege reserved for few women.

For moms who must work outside the home, the myriad ways they solve the childcare problem is actually mirrored in some other primates, which I think is really cool.

When in need of childcare help, primate moms can sometimes rely on one of the baby's blood relatives. A natural first choice is the baby's father because he shares more genes with the baby than anyone else does besides the mother. But, there aren't many primate dads who assume the bulk of childcare, mainly due to their lack of paternity certainty. Yet, where males can be reasonably certain they are the father and when mom needs help, they lend a hand. Guys who shoulder much of the burden of infant care can find company with the tamarins and marmosets of South America.

These monkeys, like humans, have infants that are so energetically demanding to care for that two, and sometimes more, helpers are required. Mothers of these monkey species usually give birth to twins that are rather large compared to the mother's body size. Put together, the twins are equivalent to a 120-pound human mom giving birth to a 30 pound baby! That size of baby is both metabolically costly to carry and to feed. Human infants are also difficult to care for, not because they are particularly huge, but because they are basically born premature and consequently are far more dependent at birth than any other primate.

Tamarins and marmosets have, for similar reasons as humans did, settled on the very same solution about how to take care of such demanding creatures. The dads of these monkey species carry the infants whenever the mom isn't nursing, two babies at a time. This spares mom the energy so she can save it to forage and get enough calories to make enough milk to feed two babies at a time. These monkey dads also scan the trees looking for predators — birds of prey and snakes. They even hand over small bites of food to older infants. This sort of food sharing is something almost completely unheard of in most other primates, except humans.

This need for two parents to 'work' to provide for the infant is very unusual. Most primate moms do quite well without the help of the infant's father, but many still get help. Most often it comes from other related females such as sisters and the maternal grandmother. Getting help from female kin is typical among the langurs of India. Among langurs there, males leave the troops they are born into at puberty to avoid inbreeding. Females stay and and breed with newcomer males. The females in the troop are blood relatives, kin, who help each other with infant care. Other related female langurs carry a mom's baby for her at least half of the day. This gives younger siblings valuable parenting practice before they have babies of their own. Even so, first infants die at a much higher rate than subsequent ones, mostly due to the inexperience of their mothers.

As a rule, primates rarely, if ever, allow a stranger to hold their infant. So hiring a daycare center, nanny, or babysitter to watch one's child is a distinctly human pattern. It's no surprise really, that there are so many rules of operation for daycare centers so parents can trust that strangers will take care of the child appropriately.

Nevertheless, nonhuman primates do occasionally 'take care' of stranger's infants. This is especially true of high ranked females without their own infants. Higher ranking females have a penchant for snatching the infants of lower ranked mothers — to carry around, play with, and inspect. They don't keep them for very long, and that's a good thing, too, because sometimes they are so careless the babies wind up injured, if not a little traumatized. Their mothers are frightened, too. They also don't let the infants go willingly. But, being lower ranked, they don't have much choice.

Infant-snatching is an especially smart strategy for higher ranked females who haven't yet had babies of their own — they can practice on someone else's baby.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it daycare, because it hardly qualifies as care, and is rarely chosen, but it is paid for. Lower ranked mothers do often wind up having their baby handled by a relative stranger whom they have 'paid' in the form of grooming (lower ranked primates tend to groom higher ranked ones more so than the other way around). It's just not really a beneficial arrangement for the mother of the infant who is snatched willy nilly whenever a higher ranking female feels like it. And, infants are really attractive to them.

The last strategy for infant care is an unusual one seen among bushbabies. They park their babies in a tree cavity at night while they go off to transact the important business of being a primate, all the while leaving their baby completely alone. It is thought that bushbabies can get away with this because the hiding spots are relatively secure and their milk is fatty enough they can be away for long stretches. It is pretty bizarre though, for a primate mom to basically leave her kid in parked car to disappear for hours to 'shop' and 'chit chat.' If a human mom did that, she'd be arrested. But, it works quite well for the bushbabies.

Although there are a few different strategies for childcare that primates have adopted, one thing I didn't consider was that being at SAHM would be a departure from the usual primate pattern in one regard: I'd tend to be alone most of the time, cut off from socializing with others. That's not a big deal for me personally, because I like alone time — a lot. But, at some point, Baby Field Notes is going to have to regularly play with other kids so she can develop some social skills!

Species top to bottom: emperor tamarin, silvery marmoset, gray langur, bushbaby


Sycamore Moon Studios said...

Fascinating, as usual!

Virginia Burnett said...

Amazing! I exparienced my share of "baby snatching" when my daughter was born. If I got to hold her myself for more than 5 minutes of non-nursing time at Church, it was truly a miracle. Happily, none of the higher ranking females in my congregation dropped her or let her go hungry. :)

Nerida said...

Are there any local mothers' groups you can join?

Field Notes said...

Yes, there a few different mom groups in my area. I may check them out.

Little Lovables said...

love this post!