On the Variability of Parenting Ability

May 2014 Sturbridge and Zion's Adoption 040
(Some of my kids watching sheep mothering their babies)

Over the last decade a whole lot of babies have been born on my farm or brought home to it. We have had calves, chicks, kids (goat), kids (human), ducklings, goslings, kits and lambs. One of the most fascinating revelations of this is just how variable the instinct for parenting is among animals. Among closely related goats, for example, we have had among our best mothers, and our single worst one, a doe so dim that she would stand there screaming for her baby but refuse to move any closer to the baby who was screaming just as hysterically from hunger only a few feet away.

Some domestic species are bred for mothering ability - for example our Cochin and Wyandotte hens have been spectacular, devoted mothers. Some breeds of duck are good mothers, others are famous for leading their babies through cold wet grass and then drowning them. When panicked rabbits will devour their own young, and occasionally a new rabbit Mom will do this with a litter - but there are some that seem to just enjoy eating their babies.

Even within those breeds known for their parenting ability, however, there is a fair degree of variability. Khaki Campbells are supposed to be good mothers, but we have had a khaki whose relationship to the eggs she hatched out was "Sayonara, Suckas" and who had to be penned in with her babies, and others who are terrific. Runner ducks are generally poor mothers, but one of ours raised hatching after hatching, nurturing them even as adults.

Our late goats Morgan and Selene would happily "granny" any babies that other goats couldn't care for - both of them fostered other goats, and both would stay with the young ones even if none of them were theirs. Selene even tried to raise a lamb once, having an intense relationship through an electric fence with a baby who called incessently for her mother (this sheep mother was fine, but laid back, kind of like me "I don't see blood, so I'll get there when I get there..." ;-)).

It is not clear to me what makes this variability either - Selene, one of my best mothers, was the mother of one of my worst mothers. This doe had the experience of both good parenting and the genes for fabulous mothering, to the extent these things are heritable in goats, and she still was pretty much a loss.

Male parenting ability too is highly variable - we've had roosters who were incredibly diligent about bringing food to the babies and protecting them, bucks who stayed with the mothers and babies rather than foraging, and a goose father who got left to single parent when his partner took off for a neighboring pond, and did a fine job.

We get a certain amount of opportunity to watch wild creatures parent as well - and we note the same variability. One pair of barn swallows invariably chooses poor nest positioning and loses babies, while the Pheobes that return year after year to my front porch do quite well. This is not a scientific sampling, nor would I attempt to draw any real conclusion from it about parenting ability in any particular species, including human, but as a set of broad views of a lot of breeding creatures, it does tend to lead in one general direction - parenting ability is highly variable, even allowing for the also-highly-variable norms of various species and breeds within species. While it is possible to make generalizations, it is also necessary to acknowledge individuation.

This is one of those things that you can come to accept and expect in animals, particularly domestic ones. You can select for good mothering in your breeding programs, or select against it (for example, for people who want eggs but not chicks, selecting against setting behavior makes sense), raise animals by hand or foster them on other animals with better mothering ability, or change breeds. With hens and ducks we tend to encourage mothering ability, even though it costs us some eggs since we like self-perpetuation in our flocks. With goats we strongly encourage it, removing from our breeding herd any goat that does a poor job (very rare with Nigerian Dwarf goats, but it does happen).

But for all the degree to which this is visible in farm life, we tend not, as human beings, to expect variability at all in human parenting ability - despite the fact that such variability is evident to us. That is, some human beings are good at parenting, some not so much, but we tend to work on the assumption that not being a good parent makes you monstrous or evil, rather than lacking in a natural ability.

There is also a lot of variability in how well we are able to know ourselves on this issue - and how much choice is actually available to us. Some people realize from early on or in adulthood that they do not want to be parents or would not be good at it, and choose not to be - but this can be challenging, because there is enormous pressure o parent in our society, and it is assumed that most people can and should want to.

My favorite scene in the 80s movie "Parenthood" (which we have a tradition of watching every time we add a child or sibling group permanently to our family) is archetypical absent father Jason Robards' speech about why he hated being a father. He admits he knows his son thinks he was a lousy Dad, admits it, and that his son has become a good father in contrast. He tells Steve Martin (the oldest of Robards' character's four children) how much he resented his son for making him be afraid of losing him, and that that feeling does not goes away. "It never ends. You never get to spike the ball in the end zone and do your victory dance. It never ends." It is a stunningly moving moment.

The movie itself has its limitations, but that alone transcends them - the fact that a movie about parenting can admit that you can become a parent and find you've made a terrible mistake and are now caught up in it. And it never ends. I wonder how many people have that experience - and cannot speak about it.

I think I find that scene so moving because when I was pregnant 15 years ago with Eli, that was my deepest fear - what if I hated it, what if I felt trapped and angry, what if I didn't love my child, what if no instincts kicked in and I always felt awkward and wrong and couldn't take good care of a baby? That did not happen for me - it turned out that while I'm not in any way perfect at it, I like this mothering thing, and while I make my share of mistakes, for the most part, I can hack it. BUt I knew in my guts from the moment I became pregnant that my wanting children, my wanting to be a mother, did not necessarily mean that my interior abilities would match up.

Even if they had not, I was committed to doing the job. But that was comparatively easy for me, middle class, educated, with a supportive family, an experience of loving parenting and a lot of practice babysitting in my youth. I also had the cultural capacity and education and inner-understanding to say no to parenthood if I had not wanted to be a mother.

That is not, however, the only way to be in the world. Some people clearly do feel a strong desire to have children, but experience little capacity to parent successfully. Others may not feel a desire to parent but lack the resources to prevent pregnancy, withstand cultural and familial pressure or even make choices at all in a conscious way.

My own sense is that parenting ability is not a function of class, culture, intelligence or many other factors, but something distinct in itself. Those things can help, but they are not the same as ability to mother or father. One of the best and most loving and devoted fathers I have ever seen was severely developmentally delayed. Wonderful, loving parents exist in all cultures and societies and throughout human history, despite enormous cultural variation in parenting norms. Desperately poor parents can be wonderful, and many parents facing huge barries to good parenting overcome them.

Inability to care for or attach to your children properly can be better concealed or compensated for with more money or education to outsource some things - middle class or upper class educated people who cannot parent are more likely to keep their kids, but that doesn't make parenting ability a function of money, education, culture or a particular set of prior experiences.

Trying to explain some of the parents my children have encountered in our foster journey to my kids, I point out that there are multiple factors in parenting ability. First, there's that biological thing that goats and chickens and people all seem to have - something that exists in all species that raise their young.

Then there is the experience of being parented yourself, which is highly variable, and while a lot of different ways of doing it can lead to good outcomes, there are some things we know we need, particularly that root attachment to a caregiver in infancy. Third there is learning and practice - people can learn to parent by helping out with the baby, babysitting, taking classes, watching good role models, etc... Finally there are how high the barriers are to good parenting. Barriers are things that prevent you from doing a good job - could be physical or mental illnesses that sap your strength or resources, could be lack of shelter or economic resources, could be lack of experience with being parented or attachment disorders, could be drugs or alcohol, various physical dangers...and so on. Everyone has some barriers, everyone has some ability to parent, everyone has some experience, good, ill or mostly mixed, of being parented, and everyone has some ability to learn. The question is how much of each and what can you do to help facilitate - to teach, to lower barriers, to help people understand the ways that they were parented and what that means for how they parent...

Of these the biological parenting drive is the one we are least familiar with in many ways, most likely to mythologize and also, I think, most likely to mistakenly assume uniformity in. We tend to assume that all of us have some natural ability to parent, and if we didn't, we wouldn't - but the truth is that the level of insight that allows people to decide they would not be good parents is a rarer thing. And not everyone fully chooses their reproductive life - particularly among the poorest, most vulnerable and most disabled, who are often the parents of my children. It can be frustrating to watch and tempting to judge parents harshly when they fail unless there is a clear reason - but it is possible that reasons exist that have not been fully obvious to us.

I make no claims about how common or uncommon low biological ability to parent is, or which people have or don't have it. I would only suggest this - that while certain acts of birth parents are unacceptable and wrong, not being able to be a good parent is not, in fact, necessarily a sign of evil or being a bad human being. It may simply be that we need to expect that parenting ability is complex, poorly understood, and may include some innate abilities that some folks just don't have - and that judgement for that lack of ability (as opposed to judgement about specific consequences for offspring) may not be fair or just.

Moreover, that if we want to reduce child abuse and neglect in our world, we need to have a world where it is possible to articulate our interior experience of both desire to parent and our sense of our own ability, and also where there is simply much less pressure on people to parent and conform to perceived norms. What if it were possible to describe and discuss our sense of our own parenting ability the way we talk about eyesight - some very clear, some very limited, but no personal judgement on what you were born with? I wonder how many people might feel free to not have children - or if they discover too late that they do not make good parents, to openly and freely make other arrangements for their children, rather than facing a huge stigma, because everyone who loves their kids is supposed to want to parent them. Even though if they don't.


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Fantastic thoughtful article. I've observed different parenting abilities in animals too, but not thought of applying it to humans. Must be helpful for the foster children,
So glad you've been able to adopt Zion and give him a chance of a better life,
It's such a pity that our society does such a lousy job of supporting parents

By Louise Doughty (not verified) on 13 Jun 2014 #permalink

Many potential parents are unable to have their own children and would welcome the opportunity to adopt the children of those who are unable, unwilling, or faced with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Those facing this situation should consider the option of placing their child for adoption. This is a great act of love on the part of the birth parent(s) and a blessing to the lives of those would gladly love them as their own.

Excellent commentary. I wish I could have said it. :) I have wanted to be a Mom since I was a little kid. And then I had one. And then I hated it. I couldn't even go through a second adoption, despite us really wanting 2-3 kids (originally). I just couldn't do those first months/year a second time. I thoroughly hated maternity leave. I couldn't tell anyone other my DH why we really didn't go thru with a second adoption even tho we'd started the process. I'm a bit better with a 9 year old...but for various reasons we won't be adopting an older child.

By AnnMarie Johnson (not verified) on 13 Jun 2014 #permalink

Thanks for this. As I was reading about people's sense of their own abilities and limitations as a parent, I began thinking about a very strong feeling I had after my third child was born. My husband wanted more children, and there was no obvious reason we shouldn't have had more - we were young, healthy, and had the financial resources and family support. But I just knew in my heart that I had done as much as I could, and that I would not be a good mother to a fourth child. I couldn't very well articulate this - it wasn't that I didn't WANT another baby. The best I could say was - and is - "I'm tired." A fourth child would have suffered from a lack of energy on my part.

Great article on such an important topic. Can recall, years ago, several occasions on which I said, "We just decided we wouldn't be great parents together" and then listened to the person flatly contradict me, and urge me to have kids ...
Coming from that same background assumption of 'of course I'll grow up, get married and having kids,' it was, in fact, very hard for me to hear this from my husband in our early years and took some time to realize that he was absolutely right. So, so glad, that he had the wisdom to see that, long before I did.

Thanks for this. Off to see my own father in a couple of weeks for the third time in 22 years. He left. Decided it was over. Pops in once in a while, and the thing is, we usually have a great time. Then he's all "see ya kid ..." Hurts like hell, and I don't get it at all, but I do know it's not personal. He just couldn't do it.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 17 Jun 2014 #permalink

That biological parenting thing? I don't have it, I don't think. At age 11, having some experience of babysitting, and having recently learned that abused children are likely to become abusive parents, I told my father I would never have children, because I never wanted to treat others as my mother treated me. My reasons for not wanting children evolved somewhat over the years, but the lack of desire for them did not. And the fear of what is in me that could hurt a child has never completely gone away. I now think I could be a decent parent to an older child, say, age 5 and up. But babies hold no appeal for me. When all is said and done, I think it's been for the best that I've never had kids.

It's true that childless women get a fair amount of flak from people - and almost all of it came my way from fellow women. I can't tell you how many times people I've barely met have told me "oh, but you'd be a great mother" - in so many words. This is stunning to me. These people knew nothing whatsoever about me, my background, or my inclinations, and yet they automatically endorsed me as a mother. Really? Did they never see an example of bad parenting? Is it so hard to believe that some of us can identify that tendency in ourselves? And many were the women who looked utterly gobsmacked when I said I had no children because I didn't want any. It was as if it were a truly unfathomable concept, or perhaps just unspeakable; as if I'd said something that, if true, should at least have been kept to myself.

So, Sharon, when I say I don't know how you do it as mother to your large brood, I mean I really don't know how you do it.

Well said. I once made the serious error of admitting to a friend that I didn't think I was a very good mother and she took the ball and ran with it. I paid very dearly for that, I think my kids paid for that too. I shoulda just kept my mouth shut and persevered. In grandmotherhood I face down decades of guilt and say, the proof is in the pudding, I was a good enough mother.

My own mother once told me that when we kids were very little she prided herself on being so much better a mother than her friend and neighbour, but later events made her realize that she was just lucky, not better. There but for the grace of god, and all that jazz.