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The Love Howl of the Wolf Mother

photo by Duff of
"Don't say 'big, bad,'" my three-year-old daughter Nux Gallica tells me when I read her bedtime stories. "Just say 'the wolf.'" When groups of wolves appear on the page (usually in a sinister context), she makes up individual characteristics for them. "This is the mama wolf, this is the sister, and this is the auntie. And this one is thirsty for a drink of water."

I am proud of Nux's wisdom and grateful that she doesn't buy into stereotypes so easily. Because I, myself, am a Wolf Mother. We Wolf Mothers are deeply fulfilled by parenting and strongly engaged with our children, but our passionate immersion in motherhood has the tendency to isolate us from many people who filled our lives in the years BC (Before Child). So I want to send out a howl of love to all those I treasure from a distance while I lie low in the den of early-years motherhood. 

We Wolf Mothers are deeply instinctual. We are dependent on our mates and packs, but we are not as gregarious as dogs or people. We trust our own senses more than the persuasions of other creatures. We are cautious of our own kind, and yet we can make friends outside our own species (say, with Raven People) when the opportunity arises. We are plotters, planners, thinkers, and masterminds. We can be fierce and imposing, but we love with abandon.

Wolves howl for love above all else, as Austrian scientists have recently confirmed. Wolf Mothers' maternal instincts are powerful, perhaps more so than those of domestic dogs, whose personalities have been bred so that they resemble lifelong puppies. In legend, the adoptive mother of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, was a wolf. In the wild, when wolf pups are born, many members of the pack work together to feed, protect, and raise the pups. Aunts and cousins of the pups sometimes lactate without having been pregnant and help to nurse the pups. Wolf fathers are attentive and engaged, bringing meat to the mother and babies in their den. The pups who do not survive are mourned by all and buried in the ground.

Wolf Mothers like me have a deep, raging, almost maddening bond with our babies. When Nux Gallica was born, I was flooded with a shocking, powerful, obsessive drive to protect and nurture her. I could hardly take my hands and eyes off of her long enough for the nurses to clean and attend to her. When she was a newborn, I couldn't bear to be separated from her, even for a few minutes. My hormones have calmed down since then, but I still feel a sort of phantom child syndrome when we have to be apart for more than a few hours. This intense, primal bond with my daughter has been a wonderful thing in some ways, but it's also made me a little bit snappy with people who have tried to get involved. Nursing consultants, baby wearing teachers, relatives, friends, and strangers have all seen my fangs come out when they've gotten too pushy about telling me what's best for my child.

To all those people who have tried to give support with genuinely good intentions, let me howl out to you from a safe distance. I appreciate your efforts. Thanks for reaching out--just don't get between me and my pup, okay?

I once said to my kind and gentle mother, "You're a nicer person than I am." She thought about that and then nodded. "Yes," she said, "but you're smarter than I am." Wolf Mothers are less trusting of advice from the peanut gallery, choosing instead to rely upon instinct, evidence, and logic. Wolves, unlike dogs and most human babies, do not let social cues override factual evidence. Being super-logical isn't always the greatest, though; sometimes it's more rational to act irrationally. Socially, it's more advantageous to be part of a big, strong group of wrong people than to be the lone dissenter. But Wolf Mothers are picky about who gets close to our dens. We hunker down with our small, tight packs and edit them ruthlessly when we need to.

I have a strong, though small circle of close family and friends. I don't entirely fit in with any of those middle class parenting tribes that have formed around "life choices." On the surface, I look a lot like a crunchy mama. I'm breastfeeding and co-sleeping with a three-year-old. I use saltwater antiperspirant, and I've gone no-'poo when I couldn't afford Aveda. I clean house with essential oils, vinegar, and baking soda. I buy and grow organic produce, and I make homemade granola. I like to do yoga, tribal belly dance, and Zen meditation. I think dreadlocks are cute. I'm into recycling, composting, bike commuting, kale chips, hemp, Manu Chao, San Francisco, and all my friends who have moved to Portland.

But don't call me crunchy. I've figured out why my father-in-law, a dope-smoking, tie-dye-clad revolutionary from the '60s and '70s, hated being called a hippie (much as cool and creative people today hate being called hipsters). "Hippies" were rich kids who played at being poor or being activists, only for as long as it was trendy and fun. I feel like "crunchy" culture is today's version of the same, filled with "ancient wisdom" made up by some half-baked trustafarian in 1970. Or worse yet, some trends originate from scam artists capitalizing on modern middle-class parental paranoia and conspiracy theories about science and medicine.

I have fraud fatigue. As someone who loves to read and learn, it has taken me too long to figure out that "Get informed" is often code for "Listen to my commercial/conspiracy theory/personal anecdote about the powers of the woo magic." If I read one more hyperbolic report on a parenting study along the lines of "What you don't know could kill your baby," I will go f***ing ape sh*t. And if that hyperbolic report isn't even about a real scientific study but is yet another hoax published by Tea Party Mike Adams of Natural News hocking magic crystals, carcinogenic mouth oils, or alarmist conspiracies, I will eat someone's backyard chicken alive. That guy really brings out my alpha bitch.

I'm a nature-loving, justice-minded, data-driven mama concerned about REAL problems facing children, like poverty, violence, and environmental pollution. It drives me nuts when people drum up business by harassing middle class parents with unnecessary fears while distracting them from working on real social change.

While I am intensely critical of scam artists and yellow cyber-journalists who suck the life out of loving parents, I am NOT critical of those loving parents whose lifestyles differ from mine. I would never recommend co-sleeping or extended nursing to someone whose kid was happy not doing those things. And in fact, before this blog post, I almost never admitted to doing those things myself lest I come off all "Are You Mom Enough." The truth is that I don't do these things because I think they are the best and most righteous. Honestly, I've taken the path of least resistance. I lucked out in the nursing department with a double-whammy of extra-abundant milk and a champion boob-gobbling baby who has hardly slowed down in three years. And it's easier for me to sleep with my daughter than my husband, simply because he gets up at 4:00 a.m. for work. That and he has way more muscle for stealing the covers. This is one example of how my "choices" are often driven by the shape of my life's path of least resistance--and that path looks different for all of us.

Motherhood has become distressingly politicized; all our "choices" have become bumper stickers for corporate brands, political parties, or fads that are mainly of concern only to those moms who enjoy the privilege of sifting through heaps of so-called choices and judging everyone else's. My patterns of feeding, sleeping, loving, playing, and speaking with my child are personal and tied to our unique relationship and family dynamic. Some of my parent friends who I admire most, and who have remarkably healthy and bright children, do things very differently. What is best for baby is a journey only a mother and child can discover together.

To all those other Wolf Mothers out there, hiding in the shadows from both judgment and defensiveness from other moms, here is a love howl for you. I know how hard it is. I know what it feels like to not fit in with a big, sloppy, licky, happy dogpile. I understand the tension between getting tired of people and feeling lonely. Many of us are out here in the woods, isolated from each other but in solidarity. I respect your instincts, your intelligence, and your devotion to your child. I respect your distance from the world, even from me and my own bitchy rants.

And to all my friends of different kinds, those neither Mothers nor Wolves, who remind me that I am more than just a Wolf or a Mother and that I always have something new to learn, thank you for having patience with me through this time in my life. I don't have to agree with you about everything to love you. I treasure your presence in my life, your existence, the light you bring to the world, and the lessons you teach me. Don't forget me. During my child's early years, I can't hang out as much (and it's not you, it's my boobs/sleep needs/budget restrictions), but I hope that you will still be there, as Billie Joe crooned, "when I come around." I will emerge from my den someday, and I'll need the friendship and perspective of those who have taken divergent paths.

I'm not big. I'm not bad. But I am a Wolf Mother. So let this howl remind you that even when I need to retreat for a while, I still love you.


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