Throughout human history, our natural world, in all its beauty and complexity, has revealed some formidable bonds—hot fudge to white Capri pants, Bubble Yum to freshly permed hair—and the fiercest adhesion of all...that of mother to her child.
The maternal instinct: Holy sweet mother. It’s universal, it’s absolute and it’s deadly.
Who doesn’t have a few inspiring tales of superhuman behaviors exhibited by his or her mom which defy explanation, logic and occasionally, gravity?
Most of us need search no further than our own moms’ exploits. As a child, were you ever subjected to having your chest sat upon by some cretin whose knees pinned chubby arms down, thereby rendering your entire face vulnerable to whatever torment the perpetrator considered amusing?
Usually, an older sibling supplied that torture, but such was not the case when my mother happened upon an older, bigger neighbor thug playing “dangle the loogie” over her youngest cub’s contorted, wind-bleached overbite. I think I was eight.
I’m still not sure how she heaved the hundred-twenty-pound chump off me, but in a matter of milliseconds my sternum had ceased masquerading as a shoe salesman stool.
I dragged my emancipated body up on one elbow in time to witness the back pockets of the bully’s Sears Tough Skins rapidly vaporizing on the horizon. A baritone bark broke the neighborhood silence, and what sounded like a cross between James Earl Jones and a dryer buzzer bellowing threats of calling the fleeing perp’s parents—was actually my mother’s protective instincts put to music.
Obviously prepared for any contingency, she had apparently stashed a testosterone inhaler in her purse
right next to the little Kleenex packets.
I would definitely mess with Texas before messing with someone’s mother.
But how about dads?
Do fathers possess that hard wired circuitry which requires no thought, just reflex? Are they motivated forces other than fear of harm to their offspring?
Does human paternal instinct really exist?
It’s difficult to draw any conclusions based upon fatherly behavior in the animal kingdom, since it’s all over the spectrum. Many rodents, such as rats, lemmings, gerbils and marmots, routinely practice infanticide for a variety of reasons. Male lions, while not accustomed to snuffing their own offspring, frequently kill a rival’s cubs to eliminate any future competition and to force the mother back into heat.
Although universally considered taboo among Homo Sapiens, this behavior seems to occur at Chuck E. Cheese on any given Saturday.
Other furry fathers, however, put classically flawless dads like Ward Cleaver and Mike Brady to shame, utilizing extreme measures to exhibit their mad daddy skills.
The male marmoset acts as both a midwife and maid when Mrs./Ms. Marmoset bears new life. Not only does he bite through the umbilical cord, he also cleans up the birth area afterward. The only time I’ve heard of this type of behavior in human circles was reading about an organic birthing group here in West Seattle, where the newly christened dad must obtain a special vegan dispensation prior to severing any flesh between his under utilized canines. I believe they refer to themselves as “Placentists.”
Another formidable male baby advocate is the Emperor Penguin. Those of us who’ve seen that heart-tugging film, March of the Penguins, will recall how he gingerly stands stationary for two frigid months, forgoing food and warmth to nestle his newly laid eggs in his “brooding pouch”, while the female returns to sea to replenish exhausted nutrients.
For God sakes. I have friends who whine like Kim Kardashian when their wives leave with the girls for a long scrap booking weekend.
On the surface, we human males appear so simple. As children, most boys engage in games of conquest and dominance over a weaker enemy; definitely lion-type behaviors. I can recall playing “Star Trek” on the playground as a corpulent third grader. After the alpha males had claimed the plum roles (Spock and Kirk), I felt fortunate to be awarded a part as Sulu or Chekov, and not one of the nameless, red-turtlenecked crewmen who are killed by huge-headed humanoids within the first seven minutes.
We weren’t nurturers, not by a long shot. We blew up stuff and scoffed at the ridiculous rituals in which our female counterparts partook across the playground. They reveled in their positions of privilege within traditional Cold War family units, staying at home and tending to two or three idyllic children each, sitting at chrome and Formica kitchen tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking Manhattans while waiting for their husbands to return home from high paying jobs at Boeing.
We guys didn’t transcend the lion phase for quite some time. Sure, we eventually evolved into slightly tamer cats who understood the necessity to nurture relationships in the event that we desired encounters which lasted longer than a half-hour futon dance followed by a dark, rainy walk of shame.
Once we’d refined our behaviors enough to secure a mate, we summoned, at minimum, the fortitude to hang the “Yes, We’re Open for Fatherly Feelings” sign on the outside of our emotional front doors.
Then came the “We’re not trying to get pregnant, but if it happens, it happens” phase. No big deal, we rationalized. This could take a really long time, and I am still king of my own jungle…who takes out garbage and other helpful stuff.
A month later, we saw the stick. It was blue. A few weeks after that, we checked out the ultrasound. After squinting and turning it slightly north northwest, we saw the first crude imagery of our babies.
The lion, as if gunned down by a dart from the Stork’s tranquillizer gun collapsed into a bottomless slumber as a gentle creature waddled around his massive form to assume the shift.
At least that’s how it went for me: Lion to penguin. Dude to dad.
After my bloodshot eyes focused on that beautiful little girl, the world shifted on its axis. I emerged from the hospital as Super Penguin, eventually becoming so hyper nurturing that the phrase “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif” mortally offended me because it didn’t address fathers. I resolved that, once our fifty-five gallon drum of Costco Jif ran out in six years, this choosy dad would choose Skippy.
I read a number of books on establishing bonds with your newborn, and again, took things to the extreme. After spending an entire day with my daughter nestled into a cheap, powder blue front pack, I finally extracted her to discover my baby with her usually wispy hair caked in sweat and pasted to her steamy cranium.
Is it cool for babies to sweat? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
My penguin behavior waned and mellowed slightly as I grew accustomed to my role as a father, and by the time my girl reached middle school, I felt prepared to face the challenges of parenting a tweener.
Then the paradigm shifted…again. I vividly recall the day, sometime during her first week of sixth grade, when she explained all the food choices in the expansive middle school cafeteria.
I won’t call this a flashback, but, okay, I had a total flashback. It was something I heard in the junior high lunch line which forever altered the lenses through which I viewed reality. Two male ninth graders stood in front of me as we queued up for a couple healthy scoops of soy burger gravy over mashed potato buds. My ears perked up upon hearing them mention the name of one of my classmates (I’ll call her Stacy.) Here’s the gist of it:
First ninth grader: Hey, man, do you know that Sevvy (seventh grader), Stacy Fergus?
Second ninth grader: No, but I’ve heard she has a nice ass.
I turned inward, processing that term: nice ass. How can he say something like that about someone’s butt? Hmm. Hey, hang on a second. Just one minute, now. ..they do. Girls’ butts do look nice. Oh. My. God. This is fantastic. This is super cool. Girls butts are nice. They look really, really good! Yes!
Snapping abruptly back from 1975, I realized that my daughter would now be encountering guys like I was then, guys who’s minds were setting course for a strange new land of female physical appreciation.
Adolescent lion cubs.
And just like that, just as I felt that powerful synergy, that oneness with my paternal instincts, my world listed on its side and dumped the contents of my contentment into the roiling seas of uncertainty—again.
Maybe it’s time to crossbreed a few of my internal animals. Perhaps if I can meld the nurturing vigilance of the Emperor Penguin with the fierce resolve of the lion and the tireless work ethic of the marmoset, I will never again need to switch things up midstream.
I’ve got to draw the line at the male sea horse, however, despite my wife’s hearty endorsement.
He gives birth to his young.
- Seattle, Washington,
- August 28
- I'm a middle-aged dad, clinging to my daughters' waning youth and my sanity.
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