Are You A Baboon Mom Or A Bonobo Mom?

Bonobo Pan paniscus. Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’m waiting in a movie theater line behind two women who are clearly friends. And rivals.

“Max won front line seats to this weekend’s game. It’s the first month the school is offering prizes for the highest overall score and Max is their first winner. Already we can see the advantages of this new school.”

“That’s so nice for him. Jeffrey really prefers playing football to just sitting there watching it. The coach keeps telling us that Jeffrey is a natural and sure to get a Big Ten scholarship.”

“Don’t you worry about him tackling when he’s so young? I heard that high school football players can get brain damage from sub-clinical concussions and Jeffrey is only 14, probably smaller than the other players. It’s such a risk.”

“That’s so sweet of you to be concerned. But Jeffrey isn’t taking a risk. He’s learning to look out for himself. That makes a difference in the real world. I’m more concerned for Max, insulated by that private school from experiences that could toughen him up. He’s such a nice guy, I’m worried for him.”

Barbed remarks just kept coming from their smiling mouths.

Yes, I’m a biased observer. I prefer what’s gentle, inclusive, and nature-based. Generally this works for me in mothering as well as overall personhood. I say “generally” because I’m hampered when communicating with certain fellow moms—those who one-up each over with how perfect their lives are or, conversely, spar about who has it worse. I’m well aware that it’s best to listen with empathy but sometimes I can’t help myself. I just want to get out of the way. That’s because these conversations remind me of angry monkeys flinging poo.

Turns out there’s something to that image. Biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar recently noted that the “verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty” of mean moms has a striking parallel in the animal kingdom. Yup, she’s talking about monkeys.

Females in certain monkey societies live in dominance hierarchies. There are perks for those at the top of the social ladder such as better food and first choice of sleeping places. In bad times, higher ranking females and their offspring are more likely to survive. Social rankings don’t budge. Top monkey moms make sure their daughters share their status. Low-ranking monkey moms can’t do anything to help their daughters move from up from the bottom. And middle-ranking moms can only ensure that their daughters stay in that relatively comfortable spot.

This stratification happens because monkey mothers are pushy. Top monkey moms enlist their powerful relatives in an ongoing campaign to make low-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. As Dewar puts it, “These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters.” At a young age, monkeys know who pushes and who gets pushed. They work hard to assert their own status in order to pass that status (and the survival benefits) along to their daughters.

The monkey analogy isn’t perfect. We human moms are pushy for reasons more complex than access to food and better choices of sleeping spots. Plus, we have even more reasons not to be pushy.

But even monkeys are hard to categorize. Only certain species, like baboons, live in groups with the female dominance hierarchies that Dewar likened to “mean moms.” Other species are wonderfully egalitarian, with strong female alliances, like the bonobos.

Bonobos live in matriarchal peace-loving groups. One way they get along is by frequently offering each other casual sexual stimulation, which rules out suggesting bonobo style friendship to moms waiting in line at the movie theater.

Putting that particular bonobo feel-good formula aside, what monkey-like politics do you observe in your fellow moms? How about you? Baboon or bonobo?

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15 thoughts on “Are You A Baboon Mom Or A Bonobo Mom?

  1. Great article! Most of the moms in my group are bonobo-like but one or two are baboons. It is very draining to spend an afternoon with one of them and dangerous to spend an afternoon with both at the same time!

  2. Of course the bonobos are more friendly to each other!
    Their typical greeting is to hump each other.
    I bet the playground would be a friendlier place if that’s how soccer moms greeted

  3. @Mim. I know a few baboon moms too. I’d have used a direct conversational example (one aimed at me with such biting cruelty that it borders on crazy) instead of an overheard conversational example but I have to admit, I figured the baboon moms in my circle might have tossed me right outta the tree.

    @JustMom. Your playground image is much more amusing than my flinging poo image. I’ll keep your version in my head next time the baboon moms feast on my so-called life.

    1. I knew someone would out me on this. I was going for the colloquial “monkey” rather than specifics. Ron, I offer you an eyes down, silent baring of my teeth which in apes and humans is a facial expression of appeasement and submission.

  4. Bonobo! Decidedly! Even if I generally manage to avoid greeting with the bonobo handshake 😉

    BTW, I recommend Vanessa Wood’s book (‘Bonobo handshake’) warmly. Just completed it, and really want to read it over, immediately!

  5. We hang out with baboon moms because it reminds us why we like being bonobo moms. That much battling is exhausting to listen to much less wage. A gal at work is constantly trying to one-up my daughter and its sometimes difficult not to get wrapped up in it. (And now when she starts doing it I’m going to imagine her head on a baboon’s body…that should help.)

  6. I have severe social issues when dealing with Baboons of either gender. Bonobo’s seem to have decidedly fewer issues with jealousy and belittling those in their group. Also, the understanding that sexual contact can be pleasure and and connection without being divisive appeals greatly to me.

    1. I think you’ve hit on something Green Fairy. Those who have no issues about dealing out social cruelties have different motivations. Baboons are about control, bonobos about connection. In all sorts of ways.

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