[Note: This article was originally published on Hubpages in 2009. Since the content was deemed to violate Hubpages editorial policy in 2012, it has been moved to PubWages.]
My daughter and I are watching Moribito, a Japanese animated series about a woman warrior charged with protecting a prince of the royal blood from the Mikado’s assassins. Balsa, the warrior, and Chagum, the little prince, are walking along, and the prince is very tired. He almost falls asleep on his feet and stumbles. Balsa turns her back and lowers herself, offering to give him a piggy back ride. The prince doesn’t understand what she wants. She explains to him that if he had not been born of royal blood, he would have spent his first few years being carried on his mother’s back.
I’m really tired, and up to this point, I haven’t been totally focused on the show. However, this unexpected piece of information gets my attention. What is she saying? If he hadn’t been a prince, he would have been a chimpanzee?
Humans don’t carry their babies on their backs for the first few years of life. Humans leave their babies in cribs and playpens, while they do something else. When going from one location to another, humans put babies in prams, and strollers and child safety car seats. Piggy back rides are not a real form of transportation or a way to balance work and child-care. Piggy back rides are just a game we play during the small periods of time when our attention is focused exclusively on the child. Right?
Wrong! For most of mankind’s existence, all the way through mesolithic era, we were hunter-gatherers who carried our children on our backs all day long. This usually lasted for the first four years of the child’s life. Even with the advent of agriculture, it was not uncommon for women to labor in the fields and rice paddies with an infant or small child strapped to their backs.
What about feminism? Before the advent of feminism, weren’t most women confined to the home and prohibited from working? Hardly. Women have always worked. Women have always had children. So how did our ancestors balance work and childcare? The balance was achieved on the mother’s back.
Before there was agriculture, a surplus of food, and social stratification, we were all hunter-gatherers. In hunter-gatherer societies, all adults are responsible for gathering food in quantities that are sufficient to feed themselves. Women give birth alone in the bush and then introduce the newborn to their friends. Sometimes other women who have milk will help nurse the baby, because the collustrum that the mother produces is not enough. The mother and other women of her tribe may take turns nursing the newborn, but there is no question that primary responsibility for the infant is with the mother. Although others may be helping with the caretaking, the baby’s attachment to its mother, once it is old enough to form one, is very secure. Even if the mother goes off to hunt for food, leaving the baby in another’s care, her absence is not of long duration, and the person caring for the child while she is gone is a close family member. Children are never left in the care of someone with whom they do not already have a relationship of great intimacy and of long standing
Excerpt from POPULATION PRESSURE
“…the !Kung Bushmen have been called `affluent’, but a mother carries her child with her at all times up to four years of age; this is equivalent to about 4,900 miles in the course of gathering the plant foods which are the Bushmen’s primary subsistence resource. On each trek a woman carries the child both ways, and on the return trip is also loaded with several days’ supply of roots, nuts, berries, and firewood.” Population Pressure and Cultural Adjustment,Virginia Abernethy, page 34.
How did we get from this egalitarian arrangement, where women work and care for children at the same time, to the sorts of society where women’s feet were bound in order to keep them from leaving the house? Or the feminine ideal of the highly corseted woman who is incapable of physical exertion because she has trouble breathing?
Agriculture created social stratification. Affluent women did not need to work. A rich man’s wife could concentrate on child-rearing alone. This was considered a way to lighten a woman’s workload. A woman might even have servants who relieved her of the need to do anything, including caring for her own children. In every society where some women didn’t work outside the home, many more women labored in the fields and in domestic service, and carried heavy burdens. There has never been a society where complete indolence was the norm for women.
Feminism attempted to “liberate” women who were reasonably well off from the sometimes stultifying expectation that they not take on undue burdens beyond the domestic sphere.
In the current debate about child-care, a survey of modern day hunter-gatherer societies has been used as a way to determine what sort of child care arrangments human infants and small children need. Infants evolved to develop under certain conditions, it is argued, and it’s important to find a childcare arrangement that fosters optimal cognitive development.
The !Kung bushmen, for instance, have been used to bolster an argument that human young need constant contact with the mother, and hence the modern day mother should not work outside the home.
Opponents of this viewpoint argue that daycare is perfectly natural, because in most hunter-gatherer societies women help each other with child care. There is a high degree of cooperation among tribal women. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
In fact, both views present an unrealistic idealization. A woman who has no social network has difficulty raising a child alone, even if working for others is not economically required. The child cannot develop optimally without social contacts and without seeing his mother interacting with others in a natural social setting. On the other hand, it is not true that leaving a child in a daycare center where he has no intimate, long term relationship with individual caretakers is the equivalent of cooperative child care in a hunter-gatherer tribe.
Excerpt from HUNTER-GATHERER CHILDHOODS
“As for maternal primacy in hunter-gatherers, it is strongly supported by the !Kung studies and consistently evident in older ethnographies, and it is also found in recent scientific studies, including those presented as exceptions to this rule. Most notably, perhaps, it is very evident in the Agta, the only hunter-gatherer culture on record where women do half the hunting. If maternal primacy were facultative, it seems the Agta would depart from it. They do not, nor do any other hunter-gatherers studied so far. Exclusive maternal care is non-existent and was never claimed, but maternal primacy is a feautre of hunter-gatherer childhood. It may be that maternal primacy affords an opportunity for attachment that gives the mother a unique place in the hierarchy of infant attachments.”Melvin Konner, “Hunter gatherer infancy and childhood: the !Kung and others” page 62, Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods.
The !Kung People
The Agta people of Luzon in the Philipines are unusual among hunter-gatherers, in that their women hunt as well as gather. Nevertheless, attachment of children to their mothers, rather than alternate caretakers, is primary. Agta women are just as capable as their men of bringing home the bacon, but they still are the primary caretakers of their own children.
The Mommy Wars
When I was in law school, I had a friend who was a feminist. I was nineteen at the time and she was about thirty-three. She was married and had a three year old daughter. I really wanted to have a child, too, right then, but there was pressure on me to become a professional. My feminist friend had taught high school, not because she wanted to teach, but because, when she was growing up, there were, according to her, only three jobs that women could have outside the home: nurse, teacher, and secretary. Of the three, she thought being a teacher was the least demeaning, so that’s what she chose. As soon as women lawyers became commonplace, my friend went back to school to join their ranks. She was no pioneer feminist. She was definitely rank and file.
Every time I mentioned that some women might enjoy staying home and raising children, my friend would frown and say: “Nobody really wants to do that. They’re just being brainwashed.”
I didn’t consider myself brainwashed, but I could think of nothing I wanted more at that moment than to quit school and stay home to raise a baby. It was only social pressure that kept me from doing it.
I wondered why my friend wanted to believe that everyone wanted what she wanted. Couldn’t each individual choose what was best for her? Why do we have to be so normative? Why must there be only one path?
I now know the answer. People don’t live in a social vacuum. The choices others make can severely limit their own choices.People don’t work just because of the mental challenge or the monetary inducement. Many people enjoy working because it’s a nice environment in which to socialize.
Today, when the majority of women work, the women who stay home and their children are often isolated and lonely. It’s not because taking care of a child is hard that many would-be stay-at-home mothers burn out and go back to work. It’s because all their friends are at work and there’s nobody to talk to all day long, except for a helpless little child. It was never meant to be like that.
When I was growing up, my mother stayed at home, but so did most of her friends. My mother was not stuck at home, forced to converse with a small child all day long. She and her friends would visit each other in their homes. Some of my best memories of my early childhood were of sitting under the table and listening to the women talk.
Children do best, not when they are the constant focus of their caretaker’s attention, but when they are allowed to observe the social interactions of their parents. This prepares them for social lives of their own.
My Own Experiences as a Mother
I have been on both sides of the mommy divide. I worked outside the home during my daughter’s first two years. My mother helped for the first few months, but after that I had a nanny. When the nanny arrived, I left. When I got home, the nanny left. My daughter was never in daycare, but this arrangment was less than optimal, because she never saw me and the nanny socializing together. If I had to do it over again, I would invite the nanny to dinner sometimes, or go visit her on her day off, if she could stand to have us. My daughter would have benefited from seeing more adult interactions, and from not always being the focus of our attention.
It’s fine for someone other than the mother to help care for a child. The hunter-gatherers do this, too. What is not so great is if the person helping is essentially a stranger. Children need to feel that whoever is taking care of them is part of the family. This doesn’t mean caretakers have to be blood kin, but they shouldn’t be just hired hands. They have to be part of the parents’ social circle, for the sake of the child’s social development.
When my daughter was two, we settled down in the Ozarks, on ten acres of our own, and I became a stay-at-home mom, waiting for the birth of chimpanzee who would become my son Bow. I loved all the time I got to spend with Sword, but was not so thrilled with the extreme social isolation that we had to contend with.
In the summer of 2002, my friend June came to visit us from Taiwan, bringing her daughter Delight. During the two months of their visit, the two girls rekindled their earlier friendship, and Delight accompanied Sword to preschool for the first two weeks. Neither girl spoke English, but as long as they were together, my daughter did not find the preschool environment too stressful. Delight, who is 17 months her elder, was always looking out fo her.
In hunter-gatherer societies, once a child stops riding on the parent’s back, he is often cared for by older siblings in a group of multiaged children, all of them members of the same tribe. They play at being little adults, and their exploration of adult roles is tolerated by the entire community.
When I first adopted Bow, I intended to raise him in every way like a human. However, I soon found that unless I carried him on my back, I couldn’t get anything done. He was a real trouble maker on the ground, but if he was riding on my back, he let me decide where we were going, and what we were going to do.
I continued to carry him on my back until a couple of months after he turned five. It was the only way I could integrate my role as his mother with the other roles I play.
It was only in the past few weeks, after viewing Moribito with my daughter, that I began to realize that the chimpanzee way of childcare and the human way diverged very, very recently. We were all carried on our mothers’ backs, even after the invention of agriculture, unless we were very wealthy — or of the royal blood.
Every Child A Prince
Today, almost every child is like Prince Chagum, never having been carried on her back by his mother, and having no idea by what effort his food is procured. Most modern children are starved for intimate contact with parents, but paradoxically, they receive too much attention during the short periods when their parents are available.
When you carry your child on your back, he gets to watch and learn about the world in which you live. He is aware that his welfare and yours are one, and he knows that he’s not the one calling the shots.
The tragedy of modern child care is that the average child has become a prince, pampered and spoiled into thinking he is the center of the universe, unaware of the ways in which his parents procure food, on the one hand, and on the other hand, completely deprived of the intimacy and security of constant contact with his mother and her social circle.
Copyright 2009, 2012 Aya Katz
Here are some comments that were left on this article when it was published at Hubpages:
Laila Rajaratnam 3 years ago
Very true Aya..the modern child is very self centered as well!Even I remember my mom’s friends coming over and that feeling is so very good,trying to make sense of their converstions! Thanks for the memories!:)
Aya Katz Hub Author 3 years ago
Laila, thanks! Being around grownups is a great way to learn. Parents sometimes underestimate what children are capable of absorbing just from passive observation.
level1diet 3 years ago
While you write mainly about children, remember that there is a child inside each of us. Still there, ready to control and dominate us.
Gosh I just love this stuff — thanks for the nice lesson and historical perspective. Before the diet craze hit me, I spent most of my free time sitting in a library reading this sort of thing, or up on the mountain behind my home in New Mexico, thinking about these topics… who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going… how we relate to each other, the world and the universe.
Good stuff. I want more. Give me more!
Aya Katz Hub Author 3 years ago
Level1diet, thanks for your comment. Yes, we all have our inner child. As Wordsworth say: “The child is father to the man…”
Thanks for your enthusiastic response!
Jerilee Wei Level 3 Commenter 3 years ago
Excellent thoughts Aya! I’m going to be thinking about all this for days. Think I’ll send it to my son in Hong Kong too. Wish I’d read this about thirty-six years ago.
ReuVera Level 3 Commenter 3 years ago
Very interesting hub. The custom of carrying little children on mother’s back is also typical for Slavic peoples (women in the fields), also Kazakh people were doing the same (I was born and lived in Kazakhstan), of course, Kazakhs used to be nomadic people, but even nowadays “apa” (“mother” in Kazakh) often carries a kid on her back. I’ve read some statistics (I don’t remember where), that tribe babies tend to be much healthier psychologically that their Caucasian counterparts exactly thanks to the fact that mothers carry them on their body for several first years of their lives.
What is remarkable, I was using every opportunity to hold my son on my hands when he was little. It was easy as he was in a feather weight and I carried him until he was 5-6 years old at every convenient opportunity. It was so nice to feel his warmth next to my chest, and also this way it was more convenient to talk when we walked from somewhere. Neighbors were reasoning me not to do this, but I used to answer that I was selfish and wanted to carry him as long as I could and he didn’t mind. Because when he grows up, I just won’t be able to carry him, no matter how I would like to. I also was spending all the time I could with him. I worked part-time on purpose, only the hours when he was in a kindergarten (kindergartens in Israel are only for half of the day). I figured out that anyway I’ll have to pay the extra-earned money to a baby sitter, so why not being your own child’s babysitter? I must say for sure that all this paid off now, when my son is adult and we still have a close bond with him which helps a lot in hard times.
ngureco Level 2 Commenter 3 years ago
Hello, Aya Katz. It’s good I can now be able to post a comment on this hub.
Your hub reminds me of my mother. One’s mother is the most important person on earth. She’s one person who will sacrifice her career or her life for the sake of her children. Many of us are not able to realize this until your mother is no more and you reflect back on what she did for you – your life is a continuation of her life.
Aya Katz, make sure to buy an ice cream for your mum today and not tomorrow.
bgamall Level 4 Commenter 3 years ago
Anthropology written in an interesting way! Nice hub, Aya.
Iphigenia 3 years ago
this was a truly interesting read – you’ve introduced me to a completely new subject – anthropology – I’ve never read an anthropological piece before. Thanks!
Aya Katz Hub Author 3 years ago
Zmar, ni hao.
Reuvera, thanks for your comment. You seem to have known instinctively what was the best thing for you and your son! Good for you. So many people are pressured into giving in to social norms that are not good for either mother or child.
Ngureco, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you were finally able to make it. Did you ever find out what the problem was before? You are so right. All too often we take our mothers for granted.
Iphigenia, thanks for your comment. Glad you liked it!
tinigenie 3 months ago
All I have to say is ” You are Fabulous, with a capital F. What a hub, it made me proud to be a mother. Very uplifting!
Aya Katz Hub Author 3 months ago
Thanks, Tinigenie! That means a lot!
Sally’s Trove 3 months ago
I believe that the feminism movement slid past the crucial role of child rearing. It went right to gaining economic and political power for women, without regard for the crucial role women have in life’s first obligation…creating and nurturing children to become adults who would create and nurture children in the same way. Because of that omission, Phyllis Schlafly had and continues to have her heyday. Both views, hers and feminism’s, are extremes.
With that much said, I’m thinking about our modern child back carriers which fathers often use. But this use seems to be for purposes of taking hikes, as in recreational. I don’t think fathers use these packs to have a child glued to them so that the child can experience his world as it is laid out minute to minute.
I have one daughter. As a baby, she was glued to my body while I made the morning coffee, chatted with friends on the phone, went grocery shopping, and just went about life’s business. If she wasn’t in a front or back pack, she was resting on my hip. She got to see the world through my eyes. And I’ve never regretted one moment of it.
Aya Katz Hub Author 3 months ago
Sally’s Trove, thanks for your comment. I think your daughter was (and is) very lucky to have a mother like you.
And, yes, I agree with what you say about the feminist movement’s shortcomings and as well as those of the Schlafly opposition to it.
[Note: The time periods since the writing of the comments above are to be calculated backwards from May 22, 2012 in order to reveal the approximate dates when originally posted.]
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