With squalling infants in tow, she works back-breaking shifts--as long as 17 hours a day--to feed her growing family. Then she drags herself home, where she is greeted by her equally demanding older children, who expect her to referee their squabbles as they roughhouse and play. When the kids finally fall asleep, she has only a few hours to eat, clean up and grab some shut-eye before the sun rises and she must do it all again.
Typical working mom? No, a wild baboon living on the plains of Kenya. But in ways that are deeper and more resonant than most people realize, female baboons and other nonhuman primates are typical working moms. They struggle with the same challenges that human mothers face and work out surprisingly similar solutions. Tamarin mothers in the Amazon Basin rely on aunts and grandmothers to tend the young while the mothers forage for food. Moms and dads among Brazil's titi monkeys take turns minding the kids and bringing home the bacon, just as in any well-adjusted two-income human family.
And it is not just primates whose parenting strategies echo our own. More and more, scientists have come to realize that among creatures as diverse as mice and seals, birds and spiders, mothering is a surprisingly consistent, remarkably familiar business. If there is a Mother's Day message in all this, it's that the more we understand the animals' behavior, the better we can understand our own.
For scientists studying the business of parenting, parting the curtain on the animal world helps explain not only how mothering strategies work but also how they sometimes break down. Confused teens aren't the only mothers who abandon their babies; other mammals do it too. Parents may recoil when a Susan Smith drowns her sons in a South Carolina pond, but scientists routinely observe infanticidal animals--apparently driven by similarly dark demons--committing similarly black acts.
Certainly, not everyone is pleased with this new research. Looking to animals to study something as complex as motherhood, critics say, is little more than anthropology by analogy, relying on the worst kind of scientific reductionism to explain the highest kind of human impulses. But anthropologists view matters differently, seeing in animal and human mothers a striking commonness of purpose--and a striking commonness of grace. "All mothers face similar dilemmas," says anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California at Davis, "no matter what their ambitions or circumstances."
There are few challenges the animal families of Africa or the Amazon face that the Banzer family of Houston, wouldn't understand. Stephanie Banzer, 31, is a marketing manager for Compaq Computers as well as the mother of 19-month-old Matthew. When Stephanie gave birth, she and her husband knew they would need her income to keep the household running. Full-time mothering was thus not an option--and full-time baby-sitters were too expensive. Instead, she turned to a team of child-care providers she knew could do the job: her mother and two aunts. The three older women look after Matthew when Banzer and her husband are at work, returning the toddler well cared for at the end of the day. "These are the women who raised me," Banzer says. "He is in very loving hands."