Our Open Meeting in the autumn gave members an opportunity to meet and encourage each other. They enjoyed two excellent talks by Steve Biddulph and Pam Jarvis.
Steve Biddulph: Manhood
Men are in crisis at the moment. Having evolved as hunter gatherers in settings where 4-5 men cared for each boy, making sure they turned out well, communities were devastated during the Industrial Revolution. Fathers went from being people who worked nearby and were around all day with their sons to being people who were hardly known who just turned up at or after bedtime. Hunter gatherers only took about twelve hours a week to feed their families so children and fathers had time to get to know each other. Whereas every boy has a dream dad, every father has a dream son, and these ideals hardly ever match.
But things are improving. Twenty one years ago, when Steve Biddulph’s original Manhood book was published, fathers only spent about eight minutes a day actively involved with their children. It is now 24 minutes a day. Steve discussed findings about how men get on with their own fathers. About 30% are estranged; 30% only see them infrequently and don’t get on particularly well, partly because the older men struggle to express their love for their sons well; 30% have regular contact through a sense of duty; only 10% get on really well with their fathers. Steve ran through the development of boys. Baby boys usually bond with their mothers. The oxytocin they experience from bonding with their mothers will help them to bond with their marriage partners in future. If they don’t experience this, they may struggle. Baby boys can bond with their fathers in the same way but it would be an uphill struggle hormonally for the men.
Around age six boys lock on to what gender they are and start to focus on their fathers, especially in the stage 6-14. If their fathers aren’t around, they learn from the nearest and most familiar man. We have mirror neurons so we can map complicated skills into our nervous systems. We have to see and experience love and tenderness to be able to love. Mothers can still raise boys on their own successfully but their sons need to know what a good man looks like.
Fathers have a unique and vital role, they aren’t just mother replacements. They need to know how important they are, including to their daughters. For example, daughters with engaged fathers tend to be much more stress resistant, possibly because of the way fathers interact with them. In an upbeat summary, Steve commented, “Because so many men have difficult relationships with their fathers, it makes it hard for them to create good fatherhood from scratch. Making a marriage work, being tender and warm with children but still able to have boundaries without being harsh or mean – these are complex skills that are best learned by role modelling. But worldwide men are really embracing the fathering role. It’s wonderful to see”.
Pam Jarvis: Evolution Matters for Mothers at Home
Pam started by affirming the importance of bonding and attachment from birth to three years old, not just up to one when maternity leave ends. She also reinforced the value of fathers by identifying that girls often use rough and tumble to engage with boys, which is generally something they have learnt from their fathers.
“Society now identifies us as human capital, not human beings.”
The genders have evolved to do different jobs, with groups of men doing the hunting and a community of women foraging and gathering food while caring for small children. Women’s longer life expectancy is theorised by evolutionary psychologists in the Grandmother Hypothesis, which suggests that grandmothers, particularly those on the maternal side, were instrumental in supporting mothers in their role, helping children to thrive. In this way, those children who had grandmothers to support their mothers were more likely to live to reproduce; therefore the genes for female longevity were passed through the species.
In evolutionary terms, there was no clear division between home and work; this came about with the Industrial Revolution (as was the issue of fathers being away from the home out at work – see Steve’s talk above). The housewife was therefore a creation of the Industrial Revolution, in particular the culture of women caring for their own children largely unaided is a very new situation in terms of the evolution of the species. This explains much of the unhappiness and loneliness of the mid-20th century housewife/mother, but the solution that emerged- to leave her infants with strangers and return to paid work- is a further step away from our evolutionary heritage.
In hunter-gatherer societies, a community of mothers support one another, not only the older mothers who have become grandmothers, but also sisters, aunts and cousins who become secondary attachments for the child and can take over when the mother is unavailable. It is also quite possible for communities who do not share such close genetic ties to mimic this this situation. We can see this in the societies of mothers that have formed in modern communities such as mother and toddler groups, breastfeeding support societies, MumsNet and even MAHM!
The current Neo-Liberal society is based on the economic achievements of individuals, which has led to the inclusion of children in this process, in the encouragement of consumption around manufactured ‘needs’ of the child, and the payment of strangers to care for children when the mother is out at work (reaping tax contributions from both mother and paid carer). John Bowlby, the professor who developed the Attachment Theory, identified the problem when he said that man- and woman-power devoted to the production of material goods counts as a plus in all our economic indices, but when we are devoted to the production of happy, healthy and self-reliant children, our efforts don’t count at all. Society now identifies us as human capital, not human beings. We need to look back to our evolutionary roots to understand how we have evolved to live, with mothers- and their crucial emotion work- at the heart of every community.