Visionary Virgins & Miraculous Mothers

Visionary Virgins & Miraculous Mothers

"beasts of burden: whale" by Julie Liger-Belair /

It's time to look to the natural world for guidance on the conversation around motherhood.

“A gibbon who lived alone in her cage had a baby. Japanese zookeepers finally know how,” read the headline. Apparently, virgin births fascinate theologically minded folks and scientists alike. And motherhood is more complex than we humans could ever imagine.

Miraculous Momo

It took years for staff at the Kujukushima Zoo & Botanical Garden in Nagasaki, Japan, to solve the gibbon paternity puzzle. After giving birth, Momo shielded her child from curious probing for two years. Eventually, the humans won. Testing her son’s DNA against four possible males, they found a winner named Itoh. Zookeepers believe mating occurred through a perforated partition board between Momo’s cage and an “exhibition space” where individual gibbons are rotated for human entertainment. To prevent further “unwanted” pregnancies, a solid barrier was placed between the enclosures.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Zoos are notorious for micromanaging the reproductive rights of animals, often citing noble endeavors, such as keeping a species from going extinct. But the topic begs deep inquiry: Who are we to manage others’ sex lives? Or to characterize another’s pregnancy as unwanted?

Visionary Sharks

While Momo’s virgin birth was debunked, notable virgin births have been biologically substantiated. For example, in 2021, a wild-caught-but-now-captive hammerhead shark became a mother, even though she lived in a solitary tank. No hole-filled partition board here, of course. Scientists also ruled out long-term sperm storage since her pup had no evidence of paternal genetics. (Indeed, some animals can hold sperm until they choose to use it!)

The hammerhead likely experienced what scientists call parthenogenesis. In this process, an embryo develops from an unfertilized egg. Say what? A miracle! And yet, while it’s not overwhelmingly common, she is not the only case of a shark envisioning a pregnancy into reality.

Defying influential Darwinian stereotypes, these reproductively rebellious sharks contradict the long-held assertion that reproduction is a dance between passionate male animals and passive females. Further, they (and Momo!) are among the planet’s fiercest reproductive rights protestors, refusing to allow humans to decide whether or not they can become mothers.

Mamas’ Boys

Beyond declaring ourselves as agents of birth control, humans tend to meddle in animal sex lives in other ways. Especially when free-living beings don’t reproduce, and we think they should.

For example, here’s a recent headline from NPR’s Morning Edition to consider: “Killer whale moms are still supporting their adult sons—and it’s costing them.” Notably, this sentiment mirrors a modern human parenting theme: Adult kids aren’t supposed to live at home in your basement. No! They should get out and make a living! Fly the coop. Leave the nest.

Admittedly, bird metaphors are absent from the orca’s story in the Current Biology report titled, “Costly lifetime maternal investment in killer whales.” Yet, researchers—writing in a language that would get any feminist’s metaphorical hackles up—do suggest that by choosing a long-lasting relationship with her only son, her “parental time investment” was out of the ordinary and worth studying. The biologists ultimately decided care for her son was detrimental to her own “reproductive success.” Then they went a step further, debating whether it is more beneficial for orcas to have female or male calves.

While I share conservationists’ concern that less than a hundred southern resident orcas still exist in the wild, I’m bothered by the audacity to judge this mama’s “success” based on the quantity and sex of her offspring. (Hence my prolific use of scare quotes!) Further, I’m troubled by the headlines we choose to report our findings. Upon listening to the news story, I found myself screaming at the radio, “Let her hang out with her kid. It’s her choice. It’s not your business. Leave her alone.”

Astute readers by now have observed: I have unresolved issues about mothering.

Breaking Out of the Mother Box

It’s not surprising that I do. For hundreds of years, beings of all genders and species have been observed, described, and classified by a very narrow category of humans who projected their views about reproduction and parenting onto all of us. The universal male and female roles Darwin codified in his 1871 theory of sexual selection buttressed a rigid argument for Genesis 1:27: “male and female He created them.” Religion and science concurred.

Luckily, this rigid binary between male and female animal biology has been proven absurd by visionary scientists. Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People and Lucy Cooke’s Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal offer us an awe-inspiring collection of diverse parenting styles that look nothing like a Leave it to Beaver episode. Likewise, Megan DeFranza’s Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God effectively critiqued traditionalist interpretations of Genesis to reveal a long history of gender role fluidity and nontraditional families. Our world has always been awash with diversity.

Celebrating “Mothers” of All Kinds

Yet, each May, I am bewildered. As an agender-identifying person, married to a cis-gender man with a son from a previous marriage, how the heck am I supposed to approach Mother’s Day?

We “bonus moms” are not alone in questioning whether the tradition of Mother’s Day needs an overhaul. Gender-specific events have come under increased scrutiny. Attempts to expand beyond the holiday’s rigid lexical box have generally failed. Just Google the controversy over changing mothers to birthing people. Of course, this attempt didn’t fix all the issues anyway. It left out those who haven’t physically birthed but still mother. Or people who have been pregnant but didn’t give birth. And don’t forget mothers with stillborn children.

Perhaps we must look to the pups, calves, and kids for inspiration. Auspiciously, last year a Toronto elementary school rebranded Mother’s Day as “Grown-Ups Who Love Us Day.” There is wisdom in their inclusiveness, which reminds me of words recorded long ago in Psalm 8 (and echoed in Matthew 21): Out of the mouths of babes, they have perfected praise. In the end, Mother’s Day is not about being a mother. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the opportunity to care for those we care about and celebrating the love they experience as a result.

Not yet part of the Spirituality+Health community? Celebrate 25 years of S+H by subscribing here.

Whale credit Julie Liger Belair

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.