Human beings

By Elizabeth Pearce

Gee Americans are swell. We just had Steven Pinker and Mark Changizi visit us at Mona. I was expecting Pinker to be arrogant (he’s pretty famous and important) and possibly Changizi, too (he’s not famous but he’s terrifically clever) but no, both were delightful and polite. I know Yanks get a bad rap, what with all the cultural imperialism and ‘Nam and whatnot. But they sure know how to act like human beings in public, don’t you think?

Someone who doesn’t yet know how to behave like a human being, in public or otherwise, is my four-month old, Jack, who is a fairly constant addendum to my person, an ‘external fetus’ as I have heard young babies described. I’m pretty sure I came across this description on one of the many websites I have read in my endeavor to find evidence to support my chosen parenting style, which I’d describe as ‘attachment lite’. Basically, the idea is that human babies are born prematurely in their development in order for their big melons to fit out our pelvises (no words to describe this experience. I’m pre-verbal, traumatised, a veritable infant; and that was with an epidural). As a result they are ill equipped to deal with any sort of sustained separation from the mother’s (or other primary caregiver’s) body, including at night, for at least the first three months of life outside the womb. Furthermore, human breast milk is low fat and, like other mammals’, designed for frequent snacking as opposed to the infrequent meal-sized bursts that better suit our modern lifestyles. Like I said, this is justification for something I’m going to do anyway: hold my baby a lot, feed him whenever he is hungry, and sometimes sleep with him in my bed, despite the fact that this is not recommended by that bastion of parental terror, SIDS and Kids. (This all may seem banal but we first-timers are told to put the baby down as much as possible, feed it according to a schedule, and that people who put their babies in their beds are mentally ill, evil and so forth.)

The reasons I am sharing my irrelevant-to-everyone-but-me opinions on parenting are:

  1. I had to take the baby with me to work to meet Pinker and Changizi, as opposed to having him babysat. I’ll come back to this in a sec.
  2. At lunch with the Americans, baby in tow, I was asked by David (the one with the wacky taste in art) whether Jack could be considered human yet.

This (2) reminded me of, and was possibly a deliberate reference to, an argument presented in Pinker’s The Blank Slate (discussed in a previous post, wherein I also suggested parenting style didn’t matter much. What can I say. I’m hedging my bets). The argument is as follows: there is no essence to us, no ‘ghost in the machine’ that sets in at a certain moment in our development. The self or soul ‘inheres in neural activity that develops gradually in the brain of an embryo [and] breaks down piecemeal with aging and disease’. We have chosen the moment a baby exits its mother’s body to grant it human citizenship; other cultures in other times and places sit that marker elsewhere in the human life span, at puberty, for instance, or the onset of language. We are always in the process of becoming, or un-becoming, human. There is no clear line in biology to tell us when it is ethical to affect an abortion, or to turn off the life-support machine, or that stem cell research is permissible; that it is ok to kill ants but not horses.

There is no solution to these dilemmas, because they arise out of a fundamental incommensurability: between our intuitive psychology, with its all-or-none concept of a person or soul, and the brute facts of biology, which tell us that the human brain evolved gradually, develops gradually, and can die gradually.

This doesn’t mean we thrown in the towel or surrender to absurdity, only that we should know how to separate (respectfully) our emotions and our reason; more specifically, to ‘reconceptualise the problem: from finding a boundary in nature to choosing’ one. The choice should revolve around minimising pain and maximinsing happiness. A slippery little sucker.

My answer to wacky-taste Walsh was that yes, Jack is human now. At about three months I could sense the seat of his sentience. He began to think, I think (without words, which is weird). And the whole ‘attachment’ thing began to cramp his style.

So the tot came to Mona with me, airing his fresh humanity.

I am conducting an experiment, you see, in caring for a baby and working at the same time. Literally the same time. Now, I’m no feminist for doing so: as Sarah Hrdy has shown, women have been taking their babies to work with them throughout human history (the 1950s ideal of the stay-at-home mum was a short-lived anomaly). The difference in today’s world lies in what Marx would call the modern alienation of ‘man’ from ‘his’ labour: in a capitalist mode of production, work is abstracted from our basic human needs. In short, you can take your baby berry-hunting in the bush nearby but not into meetings with investors in the city (or whatever it is you people with real jobs do).

This generates a moral, personal and economic problem. Most people want to procreate and the bulk of childcare usually falls to women. It’s not fair, and not good for productivity (work harder, Boxer!), that as a result women fall behind in the workplace and suffer loss of income as well. An employer’s attitude to working mothers and the opportunities afforded them is surely one the last bastions of first-world feminism, and beejesus an important one. A sister-concept to the human-as-a-gradual-process notion outlined above is that of our expanding circle of who is afforded proper human rights and citizenship. The female experience, which usually involves motherhood, is not a subset to the human experience. Working mothers should not be thought about as special cases or problems to be solved. Industry itself should adapt to make them the norm: bringing your baby to work, if that’s practical; childcare on site, working from home, flexible hours. (A friend of mine came up with the idea of forced paternity leave: in one fell swoop evening up mothers’ opportunities in the workforce and fathers’ in the home. A smidgen draconian but I like her style regardless). I don’t think employers should be asked to tolerate low-achieving workers, that’s not the way the world works (it turns out, after all this time, I’m not a socialist, I’m a capitalist lite!): the response of Wacky Walsh to my request for understanding re: combining work and childcare was something along the lines of ‘As long as you do the job you are paid to do’ (I remember he used the ‘f’ word but I can’t for the life of me imagine how. That’s dedication for you).

I was told once that I should stop writing about my family because it wasn’t very Mona, not radical enough. I do not consider myself especially radical. I order my Huggies from Woolworths online and my second-favourite actor (other than Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Jennifer Aniston (my friends mock me for this and you may, too. But I dare you, I dare you! to look deep into that woman’s eyes, a la Ross, and surrender to the tender empathy you find there). I would like to point out that Mona’s objective was never to be radical, either; simply to clear the path to expression uncluttered by convention. In this case, it has achieved its goal. Wacky Walsh isn’t being a radical feminist by allowing me to do my job in whatever manner suits my maternity. He’s just treating me like a human being.