Further Reflections on Mantises, Mothers & the Art of Mating…

“In species in which males care for young, testosterone is often high during mating periods but then declines to allow for caregiving of resulting offspring.” – Department of Anthropology, Cells to Society, Center on Social Disparities and Health, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, July 2011

I cannot help but contemplate the full meaning of a recent study indicating that men are biologically primed to lend a significant hand in caring for their young – and not abandon women to do it alone – when I notice that yet another female Praying Mantis has appeared in my red hibiscus, this one slightly younger than the more elegant creature that selected an Oleander in which to take refuge several weeks ago. Their continued presence in my life is a sign, surely, of something I am quite meant to contemplate.

I sense many layers of meaning within the folds of their wings, which one rarely sees fully unfurled.  For they save the energy needed to produce such glorious displays for moments when they feel particularly threatened, rearing back on their hind legs, the forelegs ready to strike.  They like the heat and their days are precious.  They have much work to do.  They must find mates and secure places to shield their eggs from the winds of winter.  When the heated air of Labor Day weekend, perfect for the concentrated stillness of coupling, ceded its power to a string of wet and chilly days, I was saddened at the thought that I might not see another of their kind this end of summer season.  It had been many decades since I’d been blessed with the company of even one so close, and I’d not gotten enough of a fix to satisfy my senses before I knew the inevitable cool of Fall would chase every last one of them away for the year.

The first Praying Mantis that appeared in one of my pink Oleanders on the deck off our kitchen about six weeks ago, which I wrote about in Into the Mystic, graced me with her company for many days before disappearing sometime during the middle of the night.  I had been misting my Gardenias when I discovered her.  She crawled out from under a freshly opened blossom to stare me down – friend or foe? – before leaping onto a nearby Oleander to get out of my way. She was majestic, like a sword, long, sleek and sure of herself.  Still there the next day, like a French mime blending into the crowd, motionless with the exception of her triangular head, her eyes followed my movements like a laser.

Watching her, I pulled my Hibiscus, Gardenias and Oleander trees into a circular huddle to protect them from the flailing arms of the man who was painting our deck.  His back perilously close to the leaf-laden Oleander that sheltered my Mantis, I cautioned him not to jostle the tree and disturb my friend.

Muscled and fit, surely afraid of little in life, he backed away in disgust at my announcement that there was a female Praying Mantis hanging upside down, waiting for whatever might come along for lunch.

“I hate those things,” he spat, “They bite the heads off their mates once they’ve finished with them.”

“That’s not always true.  That’s mostly folklore, but sometimes that happens,” I said.

“But that’s disgusting.  Why would they do that?” he asked.

“Well, perhaps if their mates displayed a little more finesse, and didn’t come and go in a heated rush, as The Pointer Sisters so sweetly sang, they’d be more forgiving,” I wagered.  He stared at me as I silently sang the words to the Sisters’ famous Slow Hand, certain that every woman wants a lover with a slow hand.

“I won’t get near her, you can be sure of that,” he promised, moving as far away as possible.

I think about her reputation as a man-eater and ponder the realm of insect conciousness. How cleanly, single-mindedly and without distraction she lives her life, fulfilling her evolutionary purpose, finding a mate and laying her eggs, and returning her body to the elements long before her progeny salivate over all of the tantalizing appetizer possibilities of Spring.

I imagine a woman’s life being as simple as that of a Praying Mantis, her hatched issue fending for themselves once they are born.  But such is not a woman’s reality, the care of her offspring an investment the likes of which scientists have long told us is as evolutionarily programmed as that of a Mantis’s, and one that is more suited to women than to men.  I think about our instincts as women, the mates we choose to love and nuture us in our lives, the ease with which some find the right caring partner, the difficulties others have in so doing.  I think about the different family environments in which women are raised – are they taught that diapers and dishes, housekeeping and homemaking, childcare and chores are women’s work?  Or are they brought up in families that believe in parity, where the mother and father are equally devoted to those tasks?

Or do they happen to be raised to believe that women should be kept ‘barefoot and pregnant,” while their men are free to prowl the bars after work, checking out every fertile female who sits down next to them, because, well, that’s just the way men are and women have to accept that fact?  Or are they fortunate to be raised by mothers and fathers who love and respect one another as equals, their vision for their lives seeming to reach somewhere over a such a sophisticated and loving rainbow that most couples cannot even imagine exists in real time.

I regard my Mantis visitor and think that this recent study, the official name of which is Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males, might just mean that perhaps evolution and science are finally lining up on the side of women, at least where parenting is concerned.  And my mind wanders to all that this could imply for the future: that mothers and fathers who are equally invested in the care of children would be more invested in one another, that sharing the duties of childcare would leave more time for romance and sex, and lead partners to have more empathy for one another’s needs, that this parity would spill over into the workplace, where women might eventually earn equal pay for equal work, that women who have adequate help at home would not ever have to face the impossible task of chosing between a career or life’s work and getting married and raising children, that men, too, would be allowed flex time, and that companies would actually encourage men to maintain strong bonds with their families instead of pressuring them to compete for the almighty buck 24/7/365, their relationships with their mates and children be damned.

As within the folds of a Mantis’s wings, I sense many layers of meaning within the pages of this study.  My mind boggles at the myriad positive ways these findings could potentially impact the relationships between men and women, indeed between couples of every sort, between parents and their children and certainly between siblings, each member of the family attended to, nurtured and healthy.  There might even be intermittent moments of happiness for everyone.

Now that is something worth contemplating.

“I’ve found somebody who will spend some time
Not come and go in a heated rush
I found somebody who will understand
When it comes to love
I want a slow hand”

Slow Hand, The Pointer Sisters

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4 thoughts on “Further Reflections on Mantises, Mothers & the Art of Mating…

  1. Dear Sue,

    I hardly know where to start! The story of Spalding Gray’s personal history as told in the NY Times articles was interesting to me because when I saw Swimming to Cambodia I knew nothing of the turmoil the article revealed. I was simply attracted to the medium of that kind of story-telling and how boldly Gray took it on as a writer, actor and, I suppose, as a performance artist. I remember looking around at the audience, which was as attentive as any I can remember in New York theatre. I do believe that artists, and this includes musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers, are compelled to try to publicly reveal what many people who are not artists themselves feel but cannot express.

    I love the interaction between people on Google+. But I do think that the disciplines of appreciating visual art and written “art” are quite different. While you can get an almost immediate sense of meaning from looking at a photograph, it takes time to read a personal essay, as you have just done here, and I’m not yet sure how those two worlds on G+ will evolve. As I’ve written on G+…the paint’s not yet dry…it’s still a first draft.

    As a writer, I respond to things that get under my skin in some questioning and emotional way and the range of subject matter, for me, is all over the map. An essay can be about a visit from a Praying Mantis, or a newly discovered photograph, the subject of tonight’s post, There’s something about T-straps.

    As for getting a response, that is rather like going on a walk and seeing something different every day. I have no expectations one way or the other. But it is nice to know that something I write moves someone in a questioning and emotional way. So I appreciate that you took time to respond. It’s lovely to meet you, too, and I look forward to our next encounter on G+.


  2. Giselle,

    Your comment about writers and visual images in a new conversation on G+ led me to create a new circle: “Writers”. Looking at your profile led me to read the article about Spalding Gray, which I find connects in a relevant way to the G+ conversation. Are we drawn to needy, troubled artists because our hearts bleed to feel their pain? Or is it that their torture unravels the veil between our comfortable lives and Truth? Will our responsiveness keep them alive?

    My evolution has been largely influenced by my background in theater. With a degree in Dramatic Arts, a minor in English Literature, and a wealth of art and art appreciation classes, I began my working adult life in theater and publicity management, ultimately discovering that my passions lie in original costuming and writing.

    As for your Mantis piece, I do not know whether parenting skills are genetically predominant in one gender or the other, but every new parent I have ever known, including myself, begins with, “No one taught me how to do this.” Perhaps it is our society that allows men in general to say, “No one taught me how to do this, so I’m leaving it to you.” Looking back at my own childhood, I began to realize that my growing up years had been replete with lessons on parenting. What to do. What not to do. What treatment a child hopes for. I do not believe I am so different from anyone else that they could not look back and see these lessons in their own lives, but I was willing to take on the entire responsibility by myself only because I was, in fact, alone.

    You expressed frustration in the seeming expectation that images must accompany text on G+. I admit that I was intimidated enough by the volume of high quality photographs and the technical knowledge espoused by some of the photographers, that I confined my writing to critiques, beginning the very first day of Behind the Lens – Photo Critique. My growing familiarity with several of the artists whose work resonates with me, and who seem most appreciative of thoughtful feedback, is beginning to free me to express my more general questions and observation about artists, the artistic process, and the role of criticism outside of the critique of specific works.

    So I wonder, what are your motivations as a writer? Do they include garnering both positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, or are you primarily interested in knowing how your message has been received? Do you gain inspiration based on singularities like your friendly Mantis, or do you pursue particular topics as threads that unwind over time?

    It is lovely to meet you in this way. I look forward to the thoughts you will write in future posts.


  3. Laura,

    Thank you for taking the time to read, to respond. Most of the time when it comes to nature I have to discipline myself to get to my “real” work, because I get so absorbed in whatever is going on that day…watching how a hibiscus bloom changes from morning to night, or noticing a new colony of bugs has infested my Sago Palm. And when I allow it to, it all sinks in and affects the rest of my life in such a nice way. When I don’t, aye, there’s the rub…

    The poet Galway Kinnell writes so beautifully about nature.

    Sweden and Norway, two countries I have never been to. One day. One day…


  4. Such a wonderfully thought-provoking essay. We save spiders and other creatures here, even letting a patch of milkweed grow against the back porch to watch all sorts of creatures feast on the blossoms. Insects, watched closely, invite contemplation. They seem so other worldly when, without them, the world as we know it couldn’t go on.

    And yes, there are cultures where men and women share much more equally in the work-a-day world as well as in raising a family, the land of my ancestors, Sweden and Norway. It’s possible and it’s beautiful.

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