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Posts Tagged ‘raising children’

It seems oddly fitting that the words “caregiving” and “caretaking” mean precisely the same thing.  Perhaps that linguistic oddity reflects the salient characteristic of care itself:  a tension between our desire to receive it and our countervailing feeling of obligation to provide it.  Human relations, generally, can be summarized as an on-going battle between those who provide care and those on the receiving end.

As a human child, you started out your life as the ultimate care-collection machine.  Children are designed to make you want to provide them with care – and you’re designed, as an adult, to feel a profound impulse to provide children with care, especially your own children.  It’s no coincidence that anything you identify as “cute” – i.e., feel an impulse to care for – will have child-like features, such as large eyes in proportion to its face and a large head in proportion to its body.   These are all evolutionary triggers designed to make us feel like providing care.

The human instinct to care for youngsters transfers over to other young animals as well, and explains, at least in part, your relationship with “man’s best friend.”  Everyone loves puppies – baby dogs.  But with canines, the phenomenon extends further than that.  Adult dogs retain many juvenile features – a phenomenon called “neoteny” – because by continuing to appear puppy-like up to and through adulthood, they can convince humans to keep wanting to offer them care.  Dogs literally evolved to look young and cute just so you would care for them – and it’s worked!  Unlike most species, the dog’s trick to evolutionary success wasn’t to display aggression, like a wolf.  As evidenced by the wolf’s current struggle to survive in a human-dominated habitat, ferocity only gets you so far.  For the dog, docility, rather than aggression, was the answer.  By appearing cute – a bit like our own young – they mastered a strategy of symbiosis with another species, humans, with a strong instinct to provide care to their own young.  The result is humans calling their dog “baby” and bragging to their friends that he’s “just like a member of the family.”  In many respects, Fido actually is just like another child.  Dogs are a bit like cuckoos in that respect – enlisting another species to do the work of raising their young – but in this case, by remaining young-looking throughout their adulthood, they lead another species to treat them like its own children for the duration of their lives.

Human children are also master care-harvesters – they have to be, because they remain dependent on adult care for survival for much longer than other species.  Adult humans possess large brains, which could never fit through the human birth canal.  Our children are thus, of necessity, born with a relatively tiny, undeveloped brain, leaving them utterly helpless and dependent on the care of others for many years.  Humans thus possess a strong instinct to summon care as a child, but also a corresponding (and conflicting) instinct to provide care for helpless young humans.  Awww…it’s a cute little baby.  I want to take care of it.

Thus do we perpetuate our species.  But this evolutionary arrangement sets up an internal battle between the child within you who’s hungry for care and the adult who feels obligated to provide it.

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When gay people come out of the closet, they usually run into some variation of the “but that’s unnatural” argument.  This is the apparently sensible claim that it doesn’t make sense to be gay.  Isn’t sex for procreation?  Why would two males or two females become romantically involved if they can’t have a child together?

It seems like a reasonable argument.  You can point out that some sort of gay behavior occurs in every species in the animal kingdom – which is true – or that gay sex is simply fun – also true.  But that only begs the question.  Why?  Why are there so many gay animals, and people, in the world when reproducing your own kind is the basis for a species’ success?  Having fun doesn’t seem to explain this apparent contradiction.

The answer is that gay people help nature hedge its bets.  A successful species typically keeps extra cards up its sleeve because the rules of the game can change without warning.  Gay people represent some important extra cards.  They are a natural, genetic variation that helps guarantee the successful raising of young.

Many species show wide genetic variation.  Dogs, for example.  You can breed a chihuahua that weighs 2 pounds.  Or you can breed an Old English Mastiff that weighs 300 pounds.

Why should canine genetic material be so mutable?  Because being tiny – or being huge – might come in handy.  You never know.

The ultimate disaster for a species – extinction – happens when its members fail to adapt to an altered environment.  That’s why you want to have as much flexibility as possible to respond and survive when something unexpected occurs.

It could be a meteor striking the Earth.  Or a volcano erupting.  Or a pandemic disease wiping out three-quarters of the population.  The game can change – and a species has to change too – sometimes a lot – in challenging new circumstances.

Having gay members of your species could make the difference between survival and extinction.  Gays are unique – and vitally important -because they do something no other members of that species will do.

I don’t mean have gay sex.

I mean raise other people’s children.

Gay animals are perfectly happy to pair-bond and mate with members of their own sex,  so their sexual relations are non-procreative.  They do not have children with their partner.  That means they are available to raise another animal’s children.

Say a heterosexual zebra, or otter, or muskrat or human is killed and leaves behind a helpless child.  Heterosexual animals, who can have  children of their own, will probably refuse to raise this other animal’s child, or at best do so grudgingly.  They have their own children, who are a higher priority because they will pass on their genetic material.  But a gay member of the species will happily step in and raise that helpless child.

He has no reason not to.  He is not caught up in the battle to mate and reproduce.  His preoccupation is caring and nurturing within a relationship.

If a male animal loses a female partner and is left with children who need care, he might have trouble locating another female willing to raise these children.  But a gay male would happily accept the job.

If a female animal loses her male partner and is left with young to raise, another male might reject the task of raising those children.  But a gay female would, similarly, be happy to help out.

Gays play a role in increasing the success rates for child-rearing in all species.  In the event of a large-scale disaster, resulting in many adult deaths, gays could fill an especially vital role in helping to raise the young.  They would not compete for sexual partners.  But they would help out with the kids.

It could make the difference to a species’ survival.

That’s what’s happening right now, with humans.

Many heterosexual human couples have children they are unable or unwilling to raise.  These children are put up for adoption – but there are too many of them to be cared for solely by heterosexual volunteers, who usually prefer to raise their own children.

That’s why, throughout the world, gays are the unofficial backbone of the adoption system.  Without them, many children would suffer terribly, never finding wiling, dedicated adoptive parents.

It is an open secret that in most states, the adoption system would collapse without the participation of gays and lesbians.  In 2007 it was estimated that there are 270,000 children living with same-sex couples in the USA.  Of these, one-quarter, or 65,000, have been adopted.  Gays are a small minority, perhaps as few as 4% of the general population.  But there is no question that gay people do a lot of adopting and provide loving homes for hundreds of thousands of children who desperately need them.

Unfortunately, in a few states, right-wing religious zealots have persuaded politicians to ban gay adoption.  It is not clear whether this misguided attack on children and the rights of gay people is constitutional.  A court battle is raging in Florida.

Meanwhile, these laws prevent gay people from playing a role nearly as ancient as life itself.  That is a tragedy, which could result in a calamity.

It’s also unnatural.

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