One drunken night in college, in a dorm bed with my boyfriend, I was seized with an outrageous idea. We’d been chatting in a noncommittal way about the future, imagining lives in the suburbs, the sort of home and pets we’d like, and while we could not fathom the age of fifty, we could conjure a child, just one, who would receive the best of us: my eyes, his hair; my creative side, his sublime wit. For the first time in my life, I saw myself having a baby, not anytime soon of course, but there at last was the thrilling possibility, which stayed till I fell asleep and was gone for good in the morning.
Most people know, or at least sense, their own limits and are able to make decisions based on this knowledge. When it comes to procreation, knowing what you can handle is useful.
Animals operate differently. Their young are thrust upon them and must be dealt with instinctively, often brutally. While some animals are famously self-sacrificing, others will reject their progeny when the going gets rough, or when multiples are simply not needed. Pandas, who often give birth to twins, will raise only one of them, turning their cuddly backs on the spare. South American penguins hatch two chicks, then choose just one to feed. Other birds, like egrets and eagles, let their babies do the dirty work, looking the other way when the stronger chicks dispatch their luckless siblings. And then there are the cannibal mothers, like some hawks and owls, who in lean times will eat half their brood to save themselves along with the others.
Dismal conditions make for interesting innovations. To ensure the survival of at least one baby, kangaroos have a back-up system. At the same time, a mother can have three joeys in different stages: one hopping freely but still nursing, one in the pouch, and one a waiting embryo. If food and water become scarce, the kangaroo will stop nursing the juvenile; if the drought continues, her milk will dry up and the joey in her pouch will drop out, cuing the birth of the embryo designed to emerge in better days.
Some mammals, like chimpanzees, never eliminate or abandon their offspring, no matter how compromised the baby might be, but have no problem killing, and consuming, another female’s youngster. Nursing takes a lot out of a mother, and lactating females are ravenous.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are passive mothers, causing no harm and contributing as little as possible to the young they continually produce. After a speedy delivery—ten pups in eight minutes—the mama rabbit hops out of the burrow and seals up the entrance. Once a day for the next 25 days she returns to the nest for two minutes, during which time she nurses the frenzied pups, who grow visibly plumper with each feeding. On Day 26, they are left to manage on their own, and despite the scant parenting, most of them do. It may seem that mother bunnies are notoriously lax, but their absence has a point: predators will often pursue a mother rabbit into her burrow; if her visits are infrequent, her babies will be safer.
Humans have more options than animals. Our lives need not be so dire or difficult. Which is why I am amazed by the multitudes of women who readily submit to motherhood, who relinquish their bodies, their time, their hearts, again and yet again, as if this were a reasonable price. And of course there is no telling what their efforts will bring. Generous, doting mothers can wind up with callous children. Conversely, inexplicably, some of the kindest people I know emerged from harrowing childhoods, their wounds artfully hidden.
Few of us, it seems, had a smooth start. Children are damaged easily, by ignorance, abuse, neglect, by never being told that they matter. Many live in a state of dread and grow up anyway, blind to what ails them. Who would guess that a task so straightforward—keeping a child loved and safe—would be so frequently botched?
I will never experience the marvel of holding and nurturing a life I created. Fortunately the world is rife with other wonders, and knowing I am not built for the terrifying responsibility of motherhood is a gift in itself.