Tuesday 22 January 2013

Favoured chicks

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mother

Sunday evening finds me packing the kids' snack boxes for school. There is a golden rule in my house - everyone gets the same snack, no arguments! Last weekend the cupboard was nearly bare but I found two cereal bars peeping out from the debris of crisps, biscuit wrappers and loose raisins. As I gingerly extracted them, I noticed that they had different best-before dates: one was fine, but the other was a month out. I hesitated for a moment and then I gave the out-of-date bar to Middle Child and the in-date bar to the eldest child (the Quiet One). Job done.

The shoebill: a mother with a favourite 
© Lukas Blazek | Dreamstime.com
It wasn't until Non-walking Toddler was safely tucked up in her cot that I gave some thought to my decision. Why had I damned Middle Child with a packet of mouldy grains? Was Quiet One my FAVOURITE child? Or was Middle Child my favourite? Perhaps I gave the fresher bar to Quiet One to compensate for a shortfall in love! From this cereal-bar index, could I extrapolate which child I might pull first from a burning building?

I had stalled at an unlikely spot - the intersection between maternal guilt and Darwin's theory of natural selection. One thing stuck in my mind: a piece of footage from a BBC documentary on Africa's Savannah. Deep in the swampy marshes, a stork-like shoebill looks after her two chicks. While she waddles off to find water, the eldest chick attacks the younger hatchling - a fluff-ball on wobbly pins with barely the strength to lift his own head. On her return, mummy shoebill notices fluff in the beak of the aggressor - like most mothers she knows what has been going on. The little fluff-ball gropes his way towards his mum, seeking comfort in her feathers, but heart-breakingly she brushes him aside and bestows her gift of water on the stronger chick. Shoebills, it turns out, rarely raise more than one chick. The younger one is merely an insurance policy in case the older one fails to thrive.

According to research conducted by Catherine Conger, a professor at the University of California, 65% of (human) mothers also exhibit a preference for one of their children - often the eldest one. Just like the shoebill, we apparently orientate toward our eldest, healthiest child - a throwback, perhaps, to earlier times of high infant mortality.

I think back to my pregnancy with Non-walking Toddler and remember how I couldn't imagine loving the new baby as much as the other two. But love comes in a feverish burst, along with the breast-milk and the cracked nipples. We are compassionate creatures. Our capabilities - love, empathy, imagination - set us on a different path to the shoebill. 

For the record, I love my three children equally, but in different ways, according to their strengths and weaknesses. Naturally Non-walking toddler takes up more of my mothering time, but less of my adult space which I am beginning to share gladly with the older two. Middle Child needs more cuddles and reassurance, while Quiet One is sustained by a current of mental sympathy that flows exclusively from me to her. 

And the fiasco with the cereal bars? I worked it out. It was a practical decision. Middle Child has a stomach like a cast-iron bucket. Mouldy cereal bars are no contest for his intestinal juices.  

Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
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