The long-cherished image of self-sacrificing mothers who go the extra mile for their offspring, who do without so that their children will have what they need, who put the welfare of their children before their own welfare, has never rung entirely true with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California at Davis. A committed feminist and noted primatologist with three children of her own, Hrdy knows from firsthand experience what it is to balance a demanding career with the even more demanding role of mother. She has been there, done that, struggled with the yin and yang of being pulled in opposite directions by two equally consuming forces.
Early in her lengthy, detailed study of motherhood in many species, she notes the guilt that is the constant companion of working mothers. This guilt is more intense in mothers who choose to work than in those who have to work in order for their families to survive. For a mother like Hrdy, whose physician husband was easily capable of supporting his family, having a professional life becomes a luxury rather than a necessity. Family survival is never in doubt.
Within the bosom of her young family, Hrdy had to shed much of her academic demeanor. Within the bureaucracy of her university department, she had to project the image of a dedicated scholar who put her pursuit of anthropological truth before all else. When she took her oldest daughter, then a toddler, with her to India, where she was doing research, she had to spend grueling, twelve-hour days at her self-directed work, leaving her child with native nannies who did not look, smell, or speak like any people the small child had ever seen before.
The fact that her work was self-directed meant that choices were available to Hrdy. If she opted in favor of her work over her daughter’s comfort and welfare, she created guilt for herself. No one forced her to punch a time clock; no one threatened to fire her if she began her working day late. Yet, in the long term, the threats to her working life were substantial: If she did not produce and publish, if she did not conform to the protocols expected of a thoroughly professional academic, she risked being denied tenure and/or not being promoted within the enlightened halls of her institution. Ask any established female professor at a research institution what compromises she made within her family to achieve tenure. The story that unfolds in answer to this question will probably involve guilt, neglect, and compromise in ten out of ten cases.
When Hrdy made a later research trip to India, this time leaving her child and husband at home with a housekeeper, her situation grew even more troubling. She spent time and energy worrying about how her family was faring without her. She lost touch with her daughter at a crucial time in the child’s development. She recounts how, when she returned to the United States and called home during a stopover in New York, her daughter cried, “Mama, Mama,” in tones that Hrdy calls heartbreaking. She realized that “Personal ambition seemed to be on a collision course with my baby’s needs.” She also realized that child rearing at its best is an on-call occupation that demands availability twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Added to the pressures that motherhood imposes upon professional women are the pressures that male-dominated academic departments place upon them. For many years, a much smaller percentage of women were granted tenure when they came up for review than of their male counterparts with comparable credentials. The percentage of female full professors per capita is considerably smaller than that of male full professors.
Professional women are faced with another disadvantage: Their biological clocks tick relentlessly just at the time that they are trying to establish themselves in professions. If they plan to have families, they cannot delay motherhood until they have achieved tenure or until they have reached some hoped-for professional pinnacle. The sand keeps running through the hourglass; the best reproductive years slip gradually away even as academic women are completing their graduate educations.
Emotion very much colors conceptions of motherhood among humans. Biblical injunctions urge respect for parents, love of mothers. In order to gain a more objective view of motherhood, Hrdy examines it in various other species. She notes that among primates, the decision to nurse an offspring involves a compromise. The survival of the offspring may be directly linked to the mother’s nursing it for an extended period, but doing so may compromise her ability to conceive again in the immediate future. The offspring must be sufficiently attractive to its primate mother to make her commit herself...
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