Children at the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England, in 1972. Photo by Bruce Dale/National Geographic/Getty


Against ‘natural’ parenting

We’re opportunistic, inventive and flexible animals, and there is no ‘natural’ or ‘right’ way to bring up our children

by Olga Mecking + BIO

Children at the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England, in 1972. Photo by Bruce Dale/National Geographic/Getty

Motherhood has never felt natural to me. I wasn’t very good at understanding my babies’ needs or what their cries meant, something that other parents seemed to know without giving it too much thought. ‘She’s just tired,’ they would say. Or: ‘This sound means he’s hungry.’ And I had no idea, and felt like a failure.

Even worse, I didn’t like the feeling of my baby attached to me. I felt ambivalent about nursing her; I didn’t hate it and sometimes I enjoyed it, but I felt burdened by the intensity that raising a child required.

It’s a cliché that parenting is hard but what is even harder is the judgment from other members of society – parents and nonparents alike. When I talked about my experiences in articles and blog posts, one word often came up to describe mothers like me: unnatural.

Current parenting philosophies tell us to raise our kids emulating other primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees or our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as modelled by modern tribes around the world. These philosophies, ostensibly based in evolution, psychology and neuroscience, and espoused on websites such as Evolutionary Parenting, tell us to ‘mimic biological processes’ for the wellbeing of our kids.

But what does that really mean? Picture a chimpanzee mother and her baby blissfully together, the baby clinging to her mother’s back as she jumps from branch to branch in search of food. The pair is completely self-sufficient. They don’t need anyone else to help. It seems it’s the two of them against the world (which, quite possibly, it is). According to many researchers and parenting experts, this chimp mother should be an example for all of us humans. Unsullied by culture, instinctual. Natural. We used to parent like that, they say. And we should parent like that again, or our children will grow up wrong. Unbonded. Unattached.

While many thinkers wrote about the nature of the relationship between parents and children, the most prominent one is John Bowlby, a British psychologist who was caring for orphaned children in the aftermath of the Second World War. Children, Bowlby said, need a secure attachment to a primary caregiver, most commonly the mother, or they will suffer dire consequences such as an inability to start and maintain social relationships or even a variety of mental illnesses.

To test the types of attachment around the world, the American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth in 1970 devised a measuring tool – the Strange Situation. A mother and baby are in the room together but, after a while, someone the baby doesn’t know (the stranger) asks the mother to leave. The baby’s reaction upon the mother’s return decides the type of attachment. The ‘securely attached’ baby cries as the mother leaves but lets herself be calmed down quickly by the stranger; she is also happy when the mother returns. Insecure attachment, meanwhile, comes in two types – ‘anxious-avoidant’, when the baby doesn’t react to the stranger and seems to be unphased by her mother’s return, and ‘anxious-resistant’, characterised by extreme distress and clinginess when the mother comes back.

Then in the early 1980s, the American paediatrician William Sears read Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept (1975), which built on Bowlby’s ideas of attachment. Liedloff had noticed that the indigenous babies she’d studied in Venezuela were carried around at all times and tended to cry less than their Western counterparts. As a result, she suggested that American parents were too detached from nature and, by extrapolation, their babies. As a cure, she suggested babywearing, on-demand breastfeeding and instant responsiveness.

Sears built his theory – which he later called attachment parenting – on this framework, advising mothers to give birth without pain relief or any other types of intervention, to breastfeed on demand, and to stay in constant contact with their babies, claiming that it would help parents and babies bond. This, he said, was not just the best way to raise children, but the way we have always been raising children. It is, in other words, natural, hailing back to our ancestors in the Stone Age.

Just picture it: a hunter-gatherer mother with her baby in a sling and a recently weaned four-year old chatting with grandmother nearby. No one ever scolds these children during the incredibly rare moments they act out. Instead, they are indulged by everyone in society, which, by the way, is staunchly egalitarian across all genders and generations. Mother, grandmother and baby are part of a tribe of between 20-200 individuals who provide food and shelter to everyone. All members contribute to everyone’s wellbeing by collecting fruit and berries or hunting for meat as well as performing other work such as weaving. This idyllic picture, some believe, is our heritage, the way we evolved to parent before culture, technology and agriculture changed everything forever. It is with a nostalgic wistfulness that we want to go back to a time when the whole family slept in one bed, children were breastfed until they turned four, and mothers gave birth without pain relief.

Yet for me, it’s hard to buy. Is parenting really programmed by nature as a one-size-fits-all process for us humans, just like the apes? Or is it – like families, partnering and love – part of culture, a matter of environment, circumstance, and as variable as society itself?

While chimpanzees might be our closest living cousins, parenting-wise we are a very different kind of ape. In fact, we are more like birds. To get to the root, I contacted the American primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who caused an uproar in the scientific community in 2001 when she suggested that the human nuclear family has never been the norm. We had to reschedule our interview multiple times, mostly due to the time difference (she’s in California, I’m in the Netherlands) and my chaotic life: I am a mother of three who runs her own business, and my husband works too. Luckily, we manage to make it happen.

When we finally speak, Blaffer Hrdy tells me that the human baby comes with a big brain, a vulnerable body and an utter lack of skill. Since our infants are so needy, how could they be cared for by one mother, alone? Instead, Blaffer Hrdy argues that humans evolved to be cooperative breeders – a term taken from the field of ornithology – meaning that they’ve always had help caring for their young. Moreover, she said, it was this cooperation of emotionally modern humans that allowed us to develop our huge brains.

‘Brains need caring more than caring needs brains,’ she is known to say. There is no such thing as a mother and her baby. There were only, as the title of one of her many books said, Mothers and Others (2009).

Blaffer Hrdy claims that, while humans share more than 95 per cent of their genes with chimps, we parent more like other cooperatively breeding monkeys such as baboons, marmosets, tamarinds or bonobos. What’s more, this need for help wasn’t optional. It was crucial for survival. In marmosets, for example, ‘When a mother doesn’t get support, she’ll reject her baby,’ Blaffer Hrdy explains. And the outlook for a marmoset baby that’s been rejected is anything but good.

Hunter-gatherer women couldn’t rely on provisions from males to keep everyone fed and cared for

Similarly, in humans, one of the possible causes for postpartum depression is lack of support for new mothers. What’s more, it isn’t so much the actual amount of support she gets but her perception of it that makes a difference. ‘A small amount of help can make a difference because it’s a sign of social support,’ Blaffer Hrdy says.

Sharing childcare didn’t just help human mothers keep their babies alive – it also allowed them to continue contributing to society. Indeed, to Blaffer Hrdy, the traditional idea of the father going hunting while the mother stays at home (or in her cave) watching the kids and waiting for her man to come back with meat makes no sense.

Instead, in many hunter-gatherer societies, it was the women, including the mothers, who were responsible for covering the daily caloric needs of their tribe. Meat, after all, was hard to come by, and men often died or were severely injured while hunting. As a result, women couldn’t rely on provisions from males to keep everyone fed and cared for. They had to make their own arrangements, be it hiring babysitters in the form of mostly female kin, or fostering out children to other family members if they had no help available.

That’s why Blaffer Hrdy revised Bowlby’s notion of attachment. Children, she said, could bond with multiple caregivers throughout their lives, yet experience no added anxiety or psychological problems as a result. In fact, she remarks on one very positive aspect of modern parenting that’s available in many European countries: affordable daycare. She asks me about my own experiences, and I launch into a passionate praise of the institution after seeing my own three children thrive in Dutch daycare. I agree with her: I could not have done it by myself. So-called alloparents, whether in the form of wider family members or daycare workers, matter. But they’re not the whole story either.

Even in cultures where children are indulged and treated with respect, there is a dark reality that goes unnoticed because it doesn’t fit into the ‘natural is good’ narrative. A mother’s love is conditional. In fact, in many so-called ‘natural’ cultures, newborns are on probation for a period of time.

Children who are born sickly, deformed, ‘weird’ (which could mean anything from ‘too loud’ or ‘with too much hair’) were quietly, quickly, disposed of. David F Lancy, emeritus professor of anthropology at Utah State University, writes that the tradition of isolating mother and baby from the rest of society didn’t just have the benefit of allowing the mother to rest and have some privacy with her newborn. It was also to give her the choice of whether to keep that baby. This fact is so stark that Blaffer Hrdy asks me not to mention it. ‘If you write about it, people will get upset,’ she tells me.

Shockingly, infanticide is frighteningly common around the world, and historically in Europe too. In his book The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2008), Lancy estimates that it was present in 80 per cent of human societies. Infanticide is also common among other mammals such as rabbits, and even in chimpanzees – who are, after all, our closest cousins. So, abandoning newborns is no less natural than, let’s say, feeding them.

To find out about this aspect of parenting, I set up a video call with Lancy. (I’d devoured The Anthropology of Childhood, finding a lot of solace in it.) During our interview, my son somehow managed to disrupt the conversation every few minutes by inserting his head into the picture, while my two daughters complained of boredom.

‘You’re combining working with motherhood which is a widespread phenomenon,’ Lancy tells me, even though the stay-at-home-mother is still considered the ideal in the US, according to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center. But such a thing has never existed. Women always had to work, and work hard at that. ‘It’s much rarer to find a society or anyone in a society where the mother is not simultaneously caring for children and also gathering food or whatever, weaving, making a living,’ Lancy says.

That gave me pause. Natural isn’t always good. Attachment is conditional. Working mothers are the norm. In fact, there is no norm.

We didn’t evolve for a certain lifestyle or diet. In fact, we are constantly changing

Modern hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Inuits, are seen as a model for contemporary parents, but it’s important not to treat such cultures as homogeneous or uniform. The behaviour of parents in these cultures changes from one tribe to another. While the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert fit our ideas of attachment parenting – constant babywearing and indulging children – the Aché of South America practise ‘portable paternity’, in which a woman has sex with multiple men to make sure her child is well-provided for. The Xhosa of South Africa incite their three-year-old boys to fight each other to toughen them up.

There is no single hunter-gatherer society that’s more likely to be closer in style to our ancestors than another. As a contrast to the ideal of the indulgent indigenous parent, Lancy gives the example of the Hadza tribe, where children may be treated more harshly than in many other cultures, and are expected to be independent from very early on.

‘Contemporary hunter-gatherers are variable in what they eat, how they divide labour between men and women, the way they raise children, and a whole host of other features of daily lives,’ explains the evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk in her book Paleofantasy (2013). We didn’t evolve for a certain lifestyle or diet. In fact, we are constantly changing. Modern hunter-gatherers are not living fossils from our past. As the world is evolving, all humans are evolving with it. In other words, we don’t know how we used to parent. We can only know how we parent now – as individuals bound to a certain time, place and culture.

But how did we get the idea of the indigenous parent in the first place, I wonder, and call Charlotte Faircloth, a lecturer in the sociology of gender at University College London. This is the only interview I can do in peace, since I can talk to Faircloth while my children are at school.

‘There’s the danger that this mythical primitive becomes this kind of blank canvas on which our ideas can get played out,’ she tells me. ‘If you look at each individual culture and each individual person, they do not map on this kind of blueprint.’

But this truth gets overlooked because ‘it doesn’t fit into the narrative of the natural’. Instead, we prefer to cherrypick our parenting approaches to feed our biases. Natural parenting has more to do with how we want to be than with how we actually are.

Throughout recorded history, when circumstances changed, parenting changed with them. For example, with the advent of farming and the stability of food it brought forth, mothers started to wean their children earlier, and went on to have more babies, all the better to have more hands to work the fields. In fact, wherever safe weaning foods were available, parents immediately turned to those. Hunter-gatherer mothers co-slept with their children because of breastfeeding, but also because of lack of space. When houses got bigger, children got their own beds and, with time, even their own rooms.

In short, parenting is not set in stone but instead depends on what Charles Super and Sara Harkness at the University of Connecticut called ‘ethnotheories’, or cultural beliefs, that parents held about raising children. We have our ethnotheories, modern hunter-gatherers have theirs. And our ancestors must have had theirs, too.

When I ask Lancy if there’s anything that people all over the world had in common, he hesitates a little before replying. ‘I think the bottom line is that mothers universally respond to their infants’ need for food,’ he says. ‘And that’s it.’ But even that could mean different things – from breastfeeding or collecting berries to earning the money to buy the food. Everything else – who cared for babies, how long they were breastfed, how they were treated, and what they were expected to be able to do – is in flux. Some of that commotion is caused by changing circumstances. Some of it, though, results from changes in human culture and behaviour itself.

Blaffer Hrdy calls us ‘opportunistic’ and ‘flexible’ in terms of parenting arrangements. Her refrain throughout our interview is: ‘it depends’.

But if there’s no ‘natural’ parenting, if parental love is conditional, and if modern hunter-gatherers aren’t perfect parents after all, don’t we have to question not just the idea of attachment parenting, but attachment theory itself?

To answer the question, Heidi Keller, a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studied attachment across cultures, and began challenging the Ainsworth model that has dominated thinking for years. Keller showed that ‘secure’ attachment wasn’t necessarily the only path to excellent mental health. For example, children of the Ivorian Beng or the Cameroonian Nso tend to take strangers in their stride, which is a sign of insecure attachment, according to the Strange Situation test. Instead, Keller found that induction of anxiety depends on context – on the specific culture involved.

Bowlby focused on the mother-child attachment because it aligned with his idea of how mothers should behave

Based on these studies and others, classic attachment theory has begun to reveal some cracks. By measuring the way that parents raised their children and then comparing this to an ideal, Ainsworth and Bowlby used moralistic terms such as ‘competence’ and ‘responsiveness’, thereby judging parents who diverged from the norm, which – not so coincidentally – aligned with the way that Western parents raised their kids. By extending the classic theory, the pressure nowadays on parents to be perfectly responsive, and always ‘on’, has only increased.

It’s no coincidence that Bowlby focused on the mother-child attachment because it aligned with his idea of how mothers should behave. But how important are parents, really? To gain some insight, I called the American anthropologists Sarah and Robert LeVine, whose book Do Parents Matter? (2016) asks the question in depth.

In the 1980s, the couple found themselves in Nigeria, studying children living south of the Sahara Desert. Sarah LeVine reminisces: ‘I was shocked by how mothers related to their babies’ – especially the practice of mothers not looking at their own infants. With her training in psychology and attachment, she thought that the children would grow up to be autistic but, as it turned out, they were fine.

‘Parents only matter up to a point,’ she says. If you don’t believe that context matters, just think of immigrant parents. When they move their families to another country, they find it increasingly difficult to continue parenting the way they were used to. The LeVines experienced these differences for themselves when one of their daughters stayed in the US, while the other moved to Berlin where she is now living. In turn, the LeVine’s two grandchildren grew to become very different people. The US granddaughter is outspoken and fully aware of herself as an individual. Meanwhile, in Germany, children are expected to be better behaved but, at the same time, they also seem, as Robert LeVine put it: ‘Young for their age.’

Of course, attachment is important. For instance, when children and parents are separated crossing the border into the United States, trauma is severe. These children may suffer lifelong unless they are returned to their parents, and even then, may need years of therapy to heal.

But that has little to do with our current culture of intensive parenting, which holds parents responsible for everything that happens to their children, good or bad. Those expectations make many parents confused, exhausted and miserable – and they might not help our kids, in the end.

A recent study of chimpanzees showed distinct cultures in various groups based on the way the chimps crunched nuts and passed on these skills to their young. If chimpanzees are allowed such cultural diversity, why can’t we humans expect the same? As a mother who already combines various cultures, languages and traditions inside my own family, I should have known better than to listen to experts who told me I was doing it all wrong when I didn’t want to wear my children like skin. I’m doing it my way, and the kids are doing just fine.