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The underground matriarchy of human evolution
A short essay on grandmas and orcas and evolutionary anthropology
In April and May, I spent a few weeks at my mom’s house in Florida, which isn’t especially remarkable except for the fact that, if you’d told me a few years ago that my mom and I would have enthusiastically agreed to spend an entire month together, I definitely would’ve given you the side eye.
On the flight there the woman sitting next to me was eager to chat. I kind of hate talking to strangers on airplanes, but I had a baby in my arms and I couldn’t exactly pull a fat novel out of my bag. (Also, even though the introvert in me will be forever skeptical, research confirms that talking to people on airplanes makes you happy.)
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The woman told me she had recently retired and moved to one of the Gulf Islands. Her niece was building a small cabin on the property. “We just get along so well,” she smiled, telling me all about the garden they planned to grow. “But I could never live that close to my daughter.”
I nodded, “I don’t think my mom and I could live that close either.”
My mom, who was sitting on my other side watching a movie—or so I thought—snapped to attention. “No, we definitely could not,” she laughed. Her tone was warm but unambiguous.
And yet we spent an entire month together. Yes, we argued a few times and, yes, we did keep our mouths conspicuously closed when big events shook the American political landscape. But mostly we took care of each other. Or, more accurately, my mom and her husband Bill took care of us. They kept us stocked with diapers and beer. My mom took several night shifts with the babies so Mark and I could sleep. Bill grilled us one incredible meal after another. Sometimes, after breakfast, one of them would turn to me and say something like, “You go for a bike ride this morning. We’ll get the babies up from their nap.” And I did! I slathered myself in sunscreen and cruised along the island’s marshy trails, scouting for gators, counting turtles, and generally feeling the magic of being out of the house alone.
It’s not that I’m surprised that having kids has changed my relationship with my mom, it’s just that I overestimated how much unsolicited parenting advice she might give (not very much—thanks Mom!) and underestimated how important it is to have other people in your life who really, really love your children. People who take on the burden of care as if it isn’t a burden at all.
Did you know that in the field of evolutionary anthropology, there’s something called the grandmother hypothesis? We are one of the few species who outlive our fertility and some researchers believe that the care provided by grandmothers is at least partially responsible for the development of human intelligence. Our species has a particularly long childhood compared to other primates and, according to Alison Gopnik (whose research and writing I am forever infatuated with), “a long childhood allows exploration and learning, while a wider set of carers, including elders, allows that childhood to unfold.”
The thinking is that this long period of exploration, supported by a cooperative social system, could be key to our species’ rapid evolution. But it doesn’t stop there. Grandmothers are also essential to the transmission of culture, knowledge, and information across generations. And—interesting side note—it turns out that orcas, one of the only other mammals with post-menopausal grandmothers, pass on their cultural traditions (things like hunting a particular type prey favored by their pod) this same way, from grandmother to grandchild.
Seriously, you should read this whole article. And even if you don’t, you should know that for a long time scientists believed the cooperative skills required for hunting were the key to our evolution (because: men) but, increasingly, it looks it was actually grandmothers—the care they provided, their foraging skills—that got us where we are today.
Last week our household was nearly flattened by the babies’ first cold. There was so much snot. So little sleep. We managed to get by thanks to an entire team of adults, including me, Mark, our babysitter Sarah, Mark’s parents who were in town for a few weeks, and (for a couple of hours in the middle of the night) one very nice emergency room doctor. Still, some days I wished I could call my mom to come take the babies for a walk or help put them to bed. I suppose I am saying that being mothered would make mothering that much easier.
Our children have six grandparents and none of them live less than a forty-hour drive away. When Mark’s parents said goodbye on Monday, I struggled not to cry. Yes, we will miss them and all the logistical support and care they provided. But I also feel real grief about the vast geographical distance between generations.
My children are half-Polish, half-Appalachian, but they’ll grow up Canadian, with little connection to the places their parents were born. Almost every day we quiz them on what sound a cow makes as we piece the farm animals into their puzzle. But they’ve never actually seen a cow. “Moo” is a fake sound, a placeholder for the distinctive guttural bellow that reverberates over a hillside, a sound they have never heard, despite my best impressions. My dad grew up milking cows, I grew up among fields of them, but to my kids a cow is an illustration, a character in a book.
I know that this life, the one we are living in this city so far from the places Mark and I were born, the one we are offering our children and which they have no choice but to accept, is a good one. And yet, I am mindful of what it costs us. Raising kids far from their grandparents is a particular kind of loneliness. I am eternally grateful for FaceTime. And I am exhausted by the work of the two-parent, two-child (+one dog) nuclear family. And I am forever scheming about broadening our community of care.
This month, I am officially back to the office and the transition from being someone who has hermited her way through a pandemic, a terrifying pregnancy, and a year of parental leave, to being a person who wears mascara and pants with buttons and regularly interacts with people who do not live in her house has been…well, a lot.
Sometimes I think about how Barack Obama read entire novels—many of them!—all while being, you know, the President of the United States. I feel like I’m winning if I manage to skim an essay and add a sentence or two to this newsletter draft and make it to work in clothes that have not been slimed by a baby. My brain is at max capacity, not from interesting intellectual projects, but from the non-stop labor of managing home life and work life. And it’s not like I’m doing it alone. Mark has a part-time contract and is doing the majority of the caretaking these days.
Still, I have been writing some version of this newsletter since May. And here, now, it arrives in your inbox. Shabby, but something. There is much more to say about care and who does it and how we build our lives around it. But until then, you’ll have to be content with orcas and the underground but very real matriarchy of human evolution. Go hug a grandmother.
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