Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Drowning babies

Half a dozen years ago or more, in one of my ubiquitous reading-becomes-fixations phases, I read every book Jane Goodall ever wrote about chimpanzees, living at Gombe, and her work.  They're fascinating creatures, chimps are--even in the wild, they use tools (grass reeds which help them pick up ants to eat), they live in both family groups and a larger community.  But there's a hierarchy--certainly a survival of the fittest mentality among them.  A weak, sick, dying chimp is not cared for by the group.  One chimp I read about who was strickened with polio and paralyzed from the waist down, was set completely apart.  Others in the community would come close enough to smell him, but ignored his most basic needs, like water and food.  He lived and died in isolation.
So I started reading about gorillas, orangutans, monkeys.  Like I say, once I get started, I have a tendency to go overboard.  And among my reading I came across an article in Smithsonian magazine called, "Monkey Wrench," which has the supheading, "An American couple's ingenious research challenges the popular notion that baboons and other monkeys are almost human."  In the article are these two paragraphs, which I'll quote verbatim:
"What's even more shocking, since social intelligence is their specialty, is how little the baboons seemed to know about one another's minds.  One morning, after a languid session of sundbathing at the Termite Mound Spa, the troop moved off in a desultory fashion.  As they speread out through the woods and randomly foraged, baboons on one side or the other gave 'contact' or 'lost' calls.  For humans, it was natural to assume that the baboons were exchanging barks as a way of signaling, 'Hey, I'm over here. Where are you?'
But when Cheney and Seyfarth tested this idea using playbacks, the baboons almost never barked in reply--unless they happened to be lost themselves.  It was as if the monkeys did not realize they could use vocalizations to inform or influence the beliefs of their fellow monekys.  They barked not to say, 'Hey, we're over this way,' but merely to lament their own sorry state of being lost.  And it only worked as a contact call because, in the course of any move, several baboons on different sides of the troop tended to announce that they were lost at the same time.
Cheney and Seyfarth have gradually come to the conclusion that monkeys don't actually recognize that other monkeys have minds.  They feel grief themselves, for instance, but almost never comfort other monkeys who happen to be grieving.  They do not seem to be able to put themselves in another monkey's place.  Sylvia (a monkey), for instance, once made a long water crossing with her baby clinging to her belly.  Since Sylvia herself could breathe, it did not dawn on her that her submerged baby couldn't, and as a result, it drowned at her breast." (Oct. 2001, p. 102)

This article came back to mind recently, especially the horrifying story of the mama monkey allowing her baby to drown, simply because she didn't recognize its separate-from-her needs.  There have been many times in my life as a mom (which my kids will confirm) when I've looked at my child and said, "I'm cold, go put on a sweater."  Literally, I've said that sentence.  Or when I'm having a hot flash, look over at them in a sweatshirt and say, "How can you stand to wear that?"  Projecting my needs--my body temperature!--on them.  And I've often wanted them to do, say, be, perform something for me.  Trotting them out like they were little extensions of me.  This is not, as Jane Austen might say, well done of me.  Because I'm not a monkey.  I've been made in the image of God to know, think, discern the difference between my needs and the needs of my children--and to know when my needs get in the way of theirs.  The minute they were put in my arms, I instinctively wrapped my arms and heart around them, and, without having to stand in front a single witness but God, made the commitment to put them first.

I don't know if you're following where I'm going but the truth is, I'm concerned by the idea that it's legitimate to consider children a gift from God, to believe wholly that they have the right to life, but once alive, to simply see them as appendages to our lives.  The vice presidential candidate for the republican party has spoken plainly that she believes in the right of every child to be born, that they are gifts from God.  She sees her own youngest son as that, as unexpected and special as he is. In his birth email to her state, she made it clear what an unfathomably blessing he was for their lives.

But then she went back to work three days after his birth. And is on the campaign trail when he's only  five months old.  This child, who will be more needy than most needy children, hasn't been put first, as far as I can tell. This worries me. What this child, this amazing, purposeful gift from God, needs  is his parents--his mother!--in the first years of his life.  In fact, to tell you the truth, I don't quite know when they stop needing us.  And I'm absolutely not implying that it's impossible to work and be a mom--trust me, I'm not saying that.  It's just that somehow, the picture I see of her holding him reminds me a little of that mother monkey crossing the water, his head pressed to the belly of her ambition and drive.  It isn't that she doesn't feel him next to her, it's that she doesn't recognize his need as separate from her own.

I wouldn't dare to point this finger without also admitting my own struggle.  Asking us all to consider how we listen to and care for those around us.  Are we so busy calling out our needs that we don't answer theirs?  Are we pressing our children to us, carting them after us as we live our lives? I'm just saying, let's try not to drown our babies.

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