Everyone who has cats and dogs which have given birth in their homes, has witnessed the process of weaning. As far as human is concerned, things are less clear, as nutrition has now taken on such a sophisticated level of industrialization that it is difficult to know when a child should be considered weaned and stop giving him breast milk. The rule is six months of life, although this age can extend or shorten as appropriate. Then human mothers, also conditioned by the market and advertising, more or less at this age, stop giving the breast milk to their children replacing it with homogenized vegetables, fruits and meat. For animals, however, weaning is unconditionally under maternal control (not the homogenized market). Mothers in animals know when it's the right time to end weaning. However, we must not forget that this period falls, in any case, into the economic context of the mother-son relationship, both in humans and animals. The mothers tend to reduce it as much as possible, the children, on the contrary to extend it, in order to remain in the arms of the mother forever. But mothers cannot take care of their children all their lives. If they did, the price would be too high, even though, as we know, all mothers would give their lives to protect their children.
Maternal aggression and weaning
We are referring to very mild forms of aggression because otherwise we would be faced with real child abuse. So, why do mothers, at a given moment, decide that their offspring have to start feeding themselves? Children, after birth, begin to detach themselves from their mothers more and more often and for longer, helping them to find food and avoid the toxic or dangerous food that can cause serious intoxications.
This suggests that the mother-child relationship is always harmonious and hassle-free, both before and after weaning, but this is not the case. There can be very difficult and conflicting moments that can endanger the offspring.
The mother-infant relationship has undergone a slow and long evolutionary process in every animal species, especially in mammals, therefore in animals where breastfeeding is fundamental for a regular, healthy and safe growth of the offspring. But, as it was said, not always everything goes smoothly in the mother-infant relationship. We believe that in order to preserve the interests of the offspring, every mother is willing to accept all childish requests. That's not always the case and that's good for both of them.
Physically, how does a mother regulate her offspring's access to breasts? Monkeys do it by placing an arm between her and her offspring or by turning her back as it approaches. So, access to the breast becomes impossible.
Mothers have to think about themselves too. If at such a time they decide that their offspring must fend for themselves, they do it not only out of self-interest, but also out of the children's interest. So, when mothers are sure that their children can start doing it on their own, they find more time to take care of themselves, to feed themselves properly and, above all, to have the possibility to be courted, to have other babies, not to lose their reproductive capacities, in essence to have the possibility to mate, better with an adult and dominant male.
We are talking about monkeys, but in human, these rules are not so different. Once upon a time human mothers had to have many children and for different reasons: to cope with the early deaths of some of them that were very frequent, to have the guarantee of support in old age, to replace those who died in war, famine and epidemics. Today's African mothers, contrary to what one might think, tend to do the opposite (often without success), extending the weaning of the last child to slow down the reproductive period, in essence to have fewer children and therefore fewer mouths to feed. In Africa it is not uncommon to see mothers still breastfeeding their children from two to four years of age.
Children, young or old, in every society generally tend to get the most from their mothers, to be cared for longer, to have more food available and not have to share it with many brothers and sisters. Mothers, however, know how to cope with this conflict of interest. They know when and how to give in, or not give in, to childish demands. This maternal intelligence is important for a functional relationship between her and her offspring, which, among other things, must conform to the social needs of the group in which she lives. In this regard, there are studies on the evaluation of costs/benefits (advantages and disadvantages) in parental investment in humans: a balance that must always be kept into equilibrium and never let it lean too much on one side or the other. The sacrifice of a mother and father, in fact, can be rewarded by the fact that the offspring, once adult, become strong, intelligent and a successful member of society. It is for these reasons that parents often willingly sacrifice themselves for their children.
At this point we cannot help but talk about the involvement of both parents in the care and support of their offspring. In animals, paternal responsibility is quite different from maternal responsibility. Generally, in animals, but also in humans, at least until a few centuries ago, the paternal function was mainly reproductive and, therefore, without a direct involvement in the growth of the offspring. This difference in parental responsibility was very often conditioned by a different involvement of parents in society. Many species of monkeys live in harem-structured societies where for the male the fatherhood is only the desire to manifest his role as dominant male and to control the sexual activity of the female. This male will not care about what his responsibility as a father may be, but only about the number of progenies he can bring into the world. It is different for the female. Its purpose is to protect all the offspring and from breastfeeding until weaning, to make them grow up healthy, regardless of who the father is. In some species of South American monkeys (Goeldi's monkey, Pygmy marmoset, Southern Red-necked Night monkey, etc.) fathers take care of their offspring from birth to weaning. In fact, they live in mainly monogamous social structures. Then fathers leave the family to establish monogamic relationships with other females. If you like, this kind of relationship is similar to the human one in which males establish a sexual relationship, with a female, rather than wasting time establishing another one. On this point, however, men rather than South American monkeys resemble to chimpanzees where the males, more than caring about the consequences of their sexual activities, are concerned with possessing the highest possible number of females at the same time.
It seems clear, at this point, that in order to properly wean offspring, maternal rejection has a particularly important social function. We are talking about minor rejection without violence, but with considerable consequences, both in the short term and the long term.
A mother, obviously with reasonableness, rejects her son or daughter for precise reasons. Never at random. First of all, she does this so that the offspring can get in touch with their peers and the rest of the group as soon as possible, for example, to make her understand her role in society and then to defend herself properly once she is an adult, or to feel part of her group and also to defend herself when she is threatened by another group, or to defend it from predators that, in their natural environment, are very frequent. Faced with the refusal, the young, however, as we have said before, are not always condescending, they would like to wean themselves as late as possible and remain always puppies, or children in the case of the human being. The little ones rejected by the mothers could become rigid, remain alone, frustrated and refuse to socialize, even if this is very rare. They may insist on contacting the mothers again, but in the case of dominant mothers, this is unlikely to happen, they would not allow it so easily. The opposite is for the submissive mothers. Once they are away from the mothers, they could easily be attacked by the other members of the group and then the mothers try to avoid it by holding them in their arms for longer. In essence, the purpose of rejection would be to ensure the social success of the offspring within the limits of their possibilities, but above all within the limits of the maternal social role. If we reflect on our childhood experiences and the consequences they can have on our adult life, the approach to the monkey world would not be so out of place.