Biological imperatives – part 1

Being a parent is more than mere biology, is a phrase oft-bandied about in the culture wars surrounding same-sex marriage and parenting and it’s an assertion which has more than a grain of truth in it. Tragic cases of abuse and neglect demonstrate that being a biological mother or father does not guarantee immunity from whatever factors drive one to inflict deliberate cruelty upon a child, nor will biology automatically prevent neglect. Neither are adoptive parents an inferior species or lesser parents because they do not have the biological link with their children.

Biology is not what makes a good parent, but neither can its existence be denied, which is what drives most adoptees to want to seek out further information about their birth parents, in a universal human quest to come to terms with identity and heritage. Who am I and where do I come from, are fundamental questions for most of us at some point when searching to find our own individual place in the world.

From a parenting perspective, while the biological imperative is not everything, it should not be ignored or thought to be of little consequence. Both biology and blood ties go a long way to ensuring that a child has a far better chance of thriving thanks to the instinctive bond that exists between parent and child. Even where one parent has a severe psychological impairment which may affect bonding, the importance of particularly mothers and children staying together is thought to be so important, that every effort is made to treat the cause of the ailment while ensuring the child’s safety, in order that a secure parental bond may be established. A condition such as post-natal depression can severely affect bonding between mother and child, meaning that on some occasions the father has to step in and perform much of the maternal role, but nonetheless professionals involved in case-management will not remove the child of an incapacitated mother, preferring to reinforce and extend the existing tie between mum and her baby, providing encouragement and support.

The biological imperative means that every baby has an intuitive need for their mother; within the first hour of birth, the baby is able to distinguish 50 individual markers which single her out. A mother is literally a baby’s world, she has been all they have known for the past 40 weeks, she is known intimately to the baby and the realisation that they are separate entities is estimated to occur at around the nine month mark. If placed upon their mothers chest at birth, a baby will intuitively inch up towards her breast and root around, searching for milk. Standard guidelines in every single maternity unit is that a baby ought to be placed naked skin to naked skin against the mother’s chest as soon as possible after birth.

IMG_0152
Despite 4 cesarians and 5 children this was the first time anyone had actually attempted to put the baby anywhere near me in the moments post birth. Looking at this photograph still evokes an enormous emotional response.

This biological imperative extends beyond the delivery room. While every contact the mother has with the baby consolidates that pre-existing bond and baby’s sense of security, it is also what keeps the mother sane and functioning when the demands of tending to baby stretch her physical and emotional endurance to the limit. It’s biology which helps a woman to exercise self-restraint when her infant has been howling non stop for 24 hours, it’s biology which sees a woman blearily rouse and feed her baby in the early hours of the morning, it’s maternal instinct which is thought to prevent breast-feeding mothers from rolling over and squashing their babies if they choose to co-sleep (though guidelines should be adhered to) and it is maternal instinct which drives a woman to be able to decipher the various cries of her baby. It is maternal instinct, which prevents most women from snapping and doing something terrible to their baby, when their physical and emotional reserves are at their lowest ebb, having to function on minimal or no sleep. It is maternal instinct which rewards a woman when her baby allows her a smile or snuggles in close to her. It is maternal instinct which will reduce a mother to a quivering wreck if she cannot satisfy the insistant increasingly anguished mewls of her newborn. 

There isn’t a single day goes by without yet more proof or research confirming what we already know. Only this week, I came across a piece explaining why mothers literally find the scent of their babies heads addictive, there’s a reason why I am constantly sniffing my newborn’s head. It stimulates the pleasure centres in my brain in a way which releases more dopamine than eating a favourite food, sex, alcohol or drugs!

And the biological imperative is not merely confined to mothers. Another feature this week identified paternal post-natal depression as being widely under-diagnosed and un-treated. One contributing factor is thought to be women who subconsciously act as maternal gate-keepers, not allowing men to co-parent by sharing in the responsibilities of childcare, such as feeding and changing of the nappies. It was admitted that fathers do not enjoy the bio-chemical headstart of mothers and thus the bonding process can take longer.

Without wishing to dismiss the issue of paternal post-natal depression, I suspect the issue has far more to do with modern societal and cultural expectations, than over-zealous women. If a woman breastfeeds her child, there is little a father can do to assist with the process aside from ensuring his partner is comfortable and has enough to drink. While a woman ought to allow the father opportunities to carry out tasks like nappy changing and bathing in order to encourage bonding, both parties need to accept that the baby will have a strong preference for their mother the majority of the time and it’s best just to suck it up, remembering that this phase shall too soon pass. We shouldn’t forget that women have the same mothering and protective instinct towards their offspring as every other mammal. We tend to leave animals just to get on with things with minimal intervention, so if a woman wants to retreat into her cave with her newborn for a few weeks, she ought to be left to get on with it, without the pressure of having to ping instantly back into shape or worry about whether or not she’s doing enough to stave off her husband’s potential post-natal depression. Frankly the man has to accept that while not as directly involved in the hands-on care of the child as the mother, his role in supporting her whether by helping with housework, caring for other children, or doing what he needs to do to keep the pair safe and secure is every bit as vital.

You couldn't stage a better photo, as an example of paternal instinct in action
You couldn’t stage a better photo to capture the essence of fatherhood

Paternal biological imperative obviously fuels the desire to be hands on and involved, but it can also be manifested in other ways and accounts for why surrogacy cases can be quite so messy. Speaking at an event in Tralee last week in advance of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage last week, John Waters discussed the case of a friend of his, a gay father who agreed to act as a sperm donor to a pair of lesbians. Once the child was born he found it absolutely impossible to stick to his previous agreement and stay out of the life of his child. It was clear that he had not known precisely what it was he had been consenting to, once the child was born, he felt compelled to be involved in their life as a father figure. Eventually a judge agreed and defined the terms on which he was to be allowed regular contact, but sadly the women absconded to a different and faraway country before arrangements could be legally formalised, leaving him bereft and dependent on annual visits.

Similarly in another case this week, a woman lied to her ex partner about having aborted his baby and set up an elaborate surrogacy pretence in order that she could financially profit from giving the child to a gay friend of hers. The woman is now facing imprisonment and the biological father has taken rightful custody of his child, despite the fact that they split up when the woman was three months pregnant. Speaking of the effect of this appalling deception upon this child, the biological father said that he didn’t think that there was any sentence high enough to justify what they have done to her. The judge commended the father in these terms “I can’t fail to be impressed by the vigour and stamina that has been required of you to get matters this far; the complaints you’ve made and the letters you have had to write to get people to take this seriously as a criminal complaint.”

Biological imperative and paternal responsibility drove that father to ensure that his child was being properly cared for and the law inherently accepted that his blood ties made him a more appropriate figure with her best interests in mind, than either her biological mother or putative father, both of whom had treated her as little more than a commodity. When falsely informed that the mother had miscarried the child, he mourned for her, despite the fact that he was not in a relationship with her and such was his innate desire to be a father to his child, he undertook a lengthy and draining process while in the throes of a new relationship to a woman who has now become his wife and who will also share in the raising of the child.

What the above case demonstrates is that sometimes paternal biological imperative often, in extreme circumstances has to replace maternal care, but why is this used as proof that all a baby needs is human love and care irrespective of provider.  One has to be delusional or in willful denial of anthropology and the science of human development to claim that babies are neutral when it comes to needing their mothers. Where someone takes over the maternal role, the baby has to learn to adapt and will experience trauma and potentially attachment issues.

So why then, is it women, often mothers themselves, who are so keen to deny the compulsions of this biological imperative? That’s what I intend to explore in part 2.

3 thoughts on “Biological imperatives – part 1

  1. ‘…both parties need to accept that the baby will have a strong preference for their mother the majority of the time and it’s best just to suck it up,’ Yes, completely agree. Actually found it terribly moving, watching the woman I love entering into something very strange and wonderful with this new life. I didn’t feel left out so much as hugely privileged to be there at all.

    1. Hi, you say is this not we all know already, but it seems otherwise when you see hoards of women trying to claim that it doesn’t matter whether or not a child has a mother, all they need is ‘love’.

      What I want to get at is why some women are so happy to deny their biological heritage.

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