Motherhood - A Fresh Perspective On An Ancient Journey

I was born in a blizzard. On the shores of the frozen waters of the Great Lakes.

The lake that welcomed me here was old. She is the remains of an enormous glacier. Filled with the memories of a time when the great North American plains were much colder. She is a wise old lady lake for sure. I wouldn’t mess with her. Most would say that she was here before me and that she’d be here after me too.

At only a few minutes old, I would have seemed comparatively younger. I hadn’t seen  - nor could I see - much. My mother’s heartbeat, the bleeps of the machines and the waves of the lake being the only patterns I had any experience with. You wouldn’t be blamed for underestimating me. Except...

I was much, much older than that lake.

True, I was freshly minted. Yet I was only the most recent page in a very long, very intricate story. Of heroes and heroines, small triumphs, dead ends, and unrelenting progress. The newest link in a chain that has come down, unbroken, from far before the glaciers rose and fell.   

As I lay there in my little cot, deep inside me,  each of those sparkling little baby cells was re-reading a message in a bottle launched back when the story started. It was a pattern that had spelt out the building blocks of my species for at least 150,000 years. I was a Homo Sapien. A girl child. A modern human.  And the physical expression of one of the greatest plans for survival ever penned: Human DNA.

In common parlance, DNA is our genes. It is the information for building a human body that we inherit from our parents. For the most part, we inherit half of our genetic information from our Mothers and a half from our Fathers. (This is why offspring tend to resemble both parents.) As the result of intermingling and swapping over many generations, our genetic inheritance is a mixture of a very large group of ancestors. This is why no one’s DNA is exactly identical, and why no one will ever feel, look, or act exactly like the one and only you.  

As if this alphabet soup of genetic instructions for us weren’t complex enough -  sometimes the genes themselves also change. This happens because, to make a new human, old DNA must replicate itself. It is this replicant DNA that is passed on to a child. And sometimes - rarely but sometimes - the copying isn’t 100% accurate from the parent’s information. The DNA mutates. The child carries a slight twist on its parents. This is how we might end up with a new physical characteristic in the gene pool. This is how we evolve.

On the flip side, right smack dab in the middle of all this genetic speed dating is a special type of DNA that doesn’t change much at all. (We would expect to see a slight, naturally occurring mutation once every 10,000 years or so.) It's called Mitochondrial DNA. One hundred percent of it comes from our Mothers. And in it - in every cell in every one of us - is written the story of them. The legends of our Mothers and their Mothers and their maternal Grandmother’s maternal Grandmother's. All the way back to a single Mother. Unchanged. For millennia.

When you were conceived, your Mother’s egg was filled to the brim with the mitochondrial DNA that was to become yours. Genetically speaking, the mitochondrial DNA we receive from our Mothers is the EXACT same blueprint our maternal ancestors were working with, back to anywhere from 10,000-150,000 years ago (depending on your specific node in the great human family.)

At that moment, she handed you an unbroken genetic map,  passed down unaltered. You are walking around with ancient maternal DNA. Palaeolithic instructions for building a Palaeolithic body. And it isn’t a tiny portion of you. It is you. Mitochondrially speaking, we are nought but simple cave Mothers.

It's pretty cool. Just think...you are carrying around the molecular witness to every journey, battle, tragedy, joy, and triumph of every Mother in every act, and every scene, that got you here. Every Mother in your long history that scraped by, through cleverness and strength. with tooth and claw, to eke out an existence and keep her babies well. Through drought, delight and darkness. Right up to you. They are all there. Still with you.

It’s a heck of an inheritance.

Practically speaking, it also means that you have the same raw ingredients in you that helped your maternal ancestors make it. Genetically speaking, you’re a tough SOB.  As a human species, life was tenuous for most of our history. Our maternal ancestors had to deal with predators, hostile terrain and little food. Yet they figured it out. We figured it out. Through grit, discipline and innovation. Here and there. The great human story unfolded through its Mothers. And every chapter, every detail, is written there - in your cells.

Mothers are miraculous survival machines. And, despite the nagging of many a modern advertisement, new Mothers already have everything they need for this journey. Right there in their DNA. It's an inheritance of grit and ingenuity, hard-coded, handed down from their Mothers’ Mothers. You’ve got this one covered, thanks.  

But these days, we often arrive at Motherhood oblivious to what our genetic inheritance has already equipped us for. We have stopped listening to our Mothers. Listening to the cues from our bodies and our minds that tell us what is - and what isn’t  - going to help us along the way. Looking inside, and looking back, far before us, to learn how truly awe-inspiring our capacity to survive - and thrive - really is.

As a takeaway, here’s a small glimpse into the lives of the Palaeolithic Mothers we once were.

  1. Your tribe was everything: Early humans lived in groups of around 30 who cooperated and shared resources in order to ensure everyone survived. A Mother would have needed the support of the group sustain herself and her children. Even if predators weren’t an issue, it would have been unlikely she could have foraged enough calories to keep her family fed without the hunted meat contributed by other members of the tribe.

  2. But Mothers pulled their weight (and then some): Women foraged the calories that sustained the group in between the hunts. This meant a new Mother would likely be moving and gathering food again not long after the birth of a child. The group depended on the contributions of everyone. There was little time for prolonged rest.

  3. Beauty and art intrigued: Early human remains are often found with red ochre stains in the graves, suggesting either a mystical or an aesthetic enjoyment for colouring one’s skin. Early humans carved beautiful objects out of mammoth tusk ivory, made necklaces out of shells and painted beautiful figures on cave walls. Beauty could not be eaten, yet even to our practical ancestors, it fed the soul.

  4. Seasons changed you: The changing seasons meant that the herds your group hunted would change migration pattern. Your tribe moved with its food. Every season meant a new home. The weather got colder, you picked up the baby, packed up some things, and you moved on.

  5. You travelled light: When your life is dependent on following game, you can’t carry more than you need. A few tools, the clothes on your back, was all you could allow yourself. Your tribe, the herds you followed, and fresh water. That’s what mattered.   

Social, practical, creative, contributing Mothers, living in the season, planning for the next one, moving on with only as much as they could carry. That’s what’s in our genes.

How much of this experience still echoes in our modern lives? Do the lives we create for ourselves today leave any space for the lessons of our past?

After all, these women are still in all of us. Your story is old Mama. And it whispers to you when you listen. Food for thought in a hectic world.

For a great read on the topic:

Sykes, B. (2001) The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.  

And some great viewing:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/great-human-odyssey.html