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Other Mothers

Lots of polyamorous folks are justifiably fascinated by the hypotheses expounded in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. By examining human reproductive physiology and anatomy from an evolutionary perspective, comparing their observations with the sexual customs of modern foragers (hunter-gatherers), and contrasting them with observations of the sexual behavior of other Great Apes, the authors make a convincing argument that pre-agricultural human beings evolved to be non-monogamous. Polyamorous people find in the book much to support their intuitions about the naturalness of their chosen lovestyle.

The book is well worth reading, and I recommend it. But it is not my purpose here to review Sex at Dawn. That’s been well done by others; see Polyamory in the News. I want to suggest a companion read of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

Dr. Hrdy posits that humans are cooperative breeders, who use “alloparents” to assist the biological mother to rear her child, and that the ability of humans to intuit the emotional experience of others—what she calls “intersubjectivity”—is rooted in the need for infants to connect with alloparents.

“Alloparent” is an anthropological term describing a caregiver who is not a biological parent. Polyamorous families tend to have these! Mothers and Others uses comparative studies of other Great Apes and still-existing hunter-gatherer cultures, very like the studies relied on in Sex at Dawn, to support her hypothesis. Here again, polyamorous people who are raising secure, well-nurtured children in intentional families will find support for their belief that polyamorous parents are doing well by their children.

I’ve written before in “Loving More” that there’s nothing intrinsically bad for children in polyamory, and a lot that’s good for them.  I was so gratified by the congruence between my observations and those of Dr. Hrdy that I wrote to her. Dr Hrdy graciously replied, “I did not have polyamory in mind when I wrote Mothers and Others but you are right. Our worldviews (mine primarily derived from the ethnographic literature on “Pleistocene-appropriate” hunters and gatherers, yours from personal experiences and accounts of compatriots) seem remarkably compatible.  Many thanks for sharing yours, Best wishes, Sarah.”

I urge anyone who is thinking of or actually raising children while practicing polyamory to read Mothers and Others and to recommend it to anyone who might harbor doubts about the wisdom of polyamorous parenting. It’s nice to know you’re doing the right thing.

My triad’s twins are nearly nine years old. They’re healthy, funny, lively, affectionate, bright and secure. They know they have extra parents, and they feel blessed to have them. One of the twins, reading this over my shoulder, remarked, “Having extra parents means less babysitters.”

Not many of my children’s peers have more than two parents in the same way that the twins have, but lots of them have step-parents, resident grandparents and other alloparents.

When I told an inquiring first-grade classmate of my son’s that I was one of my son’s two mommies that he had two mommies and a daddy, another child in the class crowed, “I have three mommies.” She was the child of a divorced lesbian couple, one of whose parents had remarried. I related this remark to her mother number three, who greeted it with gales of laughter. “That’s funny,” she said, “because at home what I get is ‘You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not my mother.’”

So far, having a triad for parents hasn’t caused the twins a social problem.

I wasn’t sure whether the twins understood just how their multi-parent situation was different until I watched the movie The Sound of Music with one of them. During the first love scene between the Captain and Maria, he tells her that he is not going to marry the Baroness Schroeder, “. . . because I can’t marry one person when I’m in love with someone else.”

My daughter looked up at me. “Why not?” she asked, “you could.”

Loving More staff writer – Valerie (6 Posts)


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Discussion

  1. Christopher Ryan  March 4, 2011

    Hi. Just wanted to say that we agree that Sarah Hrdy is a crucially important scholar in this area. We quote her work quite extensively in Sex at Dawn and have also found her to be wonderfully supportive of our work. Simply put, our book wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Hrdy’s work. Her essay, “Raising Darwin’s Consciousness: Females and Evolutionary Theory” is a tour de force. Thanks for bringing some attention to her work.

    Chris and Cacilda

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