DE RERUM NATURA: MOTHERHOOD, OLDER THAN MEMORY

MANILA, May 7, 2004 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia  -  I encircled myself with a ring of mothers, including my very own, all in their late 50s, watching a very good musicale called "Menopause" over the weekend. Afterwards, I keenly observed and listened to their life stories, as they asked one another how life has treated each of them. I am in my late 30s and though aware that to our mothers, we will always be children, I would like to think that I have earned some consideration as an Ďadult" that night for deciding (patting myself on the back) that to celebrate Motherís Day in advance, we should all see a musicale so intelligently and creatively laced with liberating language dealing with this important life change in women. But these mothers belonging to a generation of women so different from mine, for some reason, did not ask me the questions they later asked each other. I still assumed the role of listener and observer which was a bit funny because I have experienced (though by my own silent count), by choice and mystery, a combination of the major events they each experienced separately. But it was still a very special evening for me. It was like being a guest in an episode of The Golden Girls where I did not get to say any lines but I was just so grateful I got to spend time with these most wonderful women, learn from their stories, dine with them, hear them extract every ingredient from a dish just by tasting a pinch, and drive them around.

Aside from gratitude to time, I am also glad that pure evolutionary biology did not dictate the lives of human mothers because if so, they would not be around beyond their reproductive years. From a purely evolutionary point of view, scientists have always been curious to find clues to answer this question: Why is it that women still hang around after menopause even when this stage already stripped them of their ability to give birth? Men, of course, are able to produce semen till the end of their lives, and therefore, it makes sense, according to natural selection with its overarching desire to produce life at any cost, that they still hang around even when they are old and emotionally exhausted to rear a continuous chain of babies. But women go on and even blossom even after menopause. Two related articles by two notable science writers, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Natalie Angier, latch us to scientific insights about mothers and mothering and why they do not die even when they cannot "give" life anymore.

Hrdyís article "Mothers and Others" (Natural History, May 2001 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2002) focused on one main reason uncovered by anthropological researches and this has to do with the fact that menopausal mothers play a crucial role in ensuring the survival of more children born of younger kin within the family or tribe. "Allomothers" is an anthropological term used to describe all the other important "mother figures" in childrenís lives. I prefer to use this anthropological term over another term such as "cooperative breeding" (the latter sounds like a reproductive enterprise that runs on micro-credit). An anthropologist named Hillard Kaplan actually calculated the ballpark figure of calories needed to raise an infant to the earliest stages of independence and it is around 10 million to 13 million calories! That is only for one child. Now, you can see why from even just a calorie-driven perspective, a mother needs help from a support group of allomothers. But even in terms of a childís sense of security, studies cited in Hrdyís article showed that the continuous presence of the mother is not the pivotal element in a childís growth but the depth of responsiveness of the mother when she is around and the security provided by allomothers when, for any reason, the mother cannot be around. I tend to observe this often, noting that those children who grew up supported by not just the mothers but the aunts, godmothers and friends, grow up more balanced and secure. I guess this has to do with the transmittal of a wider range of affection, experience and perspective.

Angierís article "Weighing The Grandma Factor (The New York Times, Nov. 5, 2002 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003) focuses on the warmth, tenderness and usefulness of a grandmotherís role, particularly of maternal grandmothers, in ensuring the survival of her kin. In the studies that Angier uncovered, there was evidence in some African cultures that the deciding factor if a child would survive the weaning stage is the presence of a grandmother. What is surprising is that in this study, the presence/absence of a father did not even figure in the childís survival. More interesting is the fact that a lot of the studies noted the role of maternal grandmothers over paternal ones, offering the explanation that mothers would naturally have more similarities in terms of childcare with their own mothers and so the child would identify with the maternal grandmother more.

Of all the sciences, it is said that anthropology is the most opinionated since human behavior does not fossilize so anthropologists, by default, would have to do a lot of interpretation based on often scanty physical evidence but a lot of existing cultural remnants. For that very reason, as deliciously appealing as Indiana Jones is to this science writer, his science renders me insecure compared to the other fields of science. But I truly appreciate anthropologistsí efforts to explain how the innate remembrance of a biological imperative, which is simply to give birth, culturally translates to menopausal women already reproductively incapable themselves, hanging around and helping younger mothers with the lives of their children.

Caring for children other than their own, it seems, is also no lesser exercise for the mind of menopausal women than first-hand mothering. After all, it is "men-o-pause" and not "mind-o-pause." In the musicale "Menopause," there was a song lamenting the seeming "brain collapse" of menopausal women. But behold, a recent study of menopausal women (Scientific American Mind, Vol. 14 No. 1, 2004) revealed that at least in terms of memory and perception, menopausal women have actually improved significantly. Personally, I do not doubt this. My mother remembers every single detail of her childrenís lives as well as her perceived lessons, even when we sometimes wished she did not. She is like a living, breathing book of life and even more so in menopause. She is our familyís singular version of the "oral tradition." And I do not think it is just because the memory of having given us, her three children, life, has deeply ingrained it in her cells to care for us and to make sure certain values she holds dear are transmitted. I think it is older and much deeper than that as with all mothers, biological or otherwise. The poet Rilke I think expressed it best: "Look, we do not love like wildflowers with only one season behind us. When we love, a sap older than memory rises in our arms." Yes, mothering is older than memory. The celebration is long overdue.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnatura@mydestiny.net.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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