I Hope We Have a Daughter, Not an Heir
Evidence suggests more little girls grow up to be caregivers for their mothers.
Posted April 2, 2018
My wife notices things. Then she shares her discoveries with me, to see what I can make of them. She is a native woman from another land, but she is also very much an American woman, acculturated to the visceral human need to be recognized as an equal. This blending of attachment to her indigenous traditions (while struggling to be emancipated from those traditions) makes her special. What she notices each day as she cares for others, is a lot like gathering bits of remarkable driftwood along the shore (she is from such a place, a port village next to the sea). Then I try my best to shape her lovely driftwood into things she and I can use to navigate our life together.
The other day she handed me a doozy. She said, did you know that a woman hopes to give birth to a daughter, not a son? I was taken aback just a little, puzzling. And then she asked, do you know why? Before I could guess, she answered for me. (I have learned not to guess… mainly because my guesses are never as good as her lessons). She explained that a woman hopes to give birth to a daughter because she knows that—someday—that little girl will become an old woman. She wants a little girl because a mother knows (just as every generation of mothers before her knew) that someday, after taking care of her female children so selflessly and so long, her female children will start taking care of her.
She further explained that a man hopes to have a son. He hopes to have a son so that his son can grow up to be a big success like his father, and finish what he started. But (she explained) a son probably won’t walk away from that one chance to be a part of a lineage of successes… and choose instead to selflessly devote his one and only future to take care of his aging mom (or dad). A son seems genetically configured to roam, to self-extend, to conquer obstacles, and to accumulate wealth and reputation—not sit home and wash his mother’s bedsores in unrewarded anonymity. Because of this, a woman hopes to have a little girl—because every woman was once a little girl, so every old woman knows that a daughter will still love the little girl when she becomes an old woman. Women, she explained, will do that—and always have.
Her discovery meant a lot to me, because I just read a book by Dr. Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley, and she too suggested that our species has often hoped to have daughters. Our forebears hoped to have daughters because daughters grow up to be grandmothers. And grandmothers will care for others even if they can’t have any children themselves, while the boys go off and hunt for fame and family with their dads. Daughters may not seem very important to agrarian (or aggressive) societies, but only daughters honor matrilocal traditions—making sure that all that fame gets passed down to children who will admire and honor those who came before. Dr. Gopnik shares that only species like ours have females that survive beyond child-bearing age—and they do because a matriarch has a lot of lasting value when your species lives 100 years, but the men die young from rivalry and aggression (Gopnik, 2016).
I’m glad we had a daughter.
Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.