Symbiosis,” I told the class of semi-attentive 6th grade students,” “is to creatures living together in a close relationship. At least one member of the relationship benefits.”
Three girls in the front row nodded. The boy in the back twisted in his chair to grimace at a friend across the room. I paused, and stared at him until he sheepishly turned around.
“There are three types of symbiosis,” I continued after ensuring that I had his gaze if not his attention. “Mutualism, commensalisms,and parasitism. In a mutualism both members of the relationship benefit. Sea anemone and clown fish have this sort of relationship.”
“A clownfish like Nemo?”
The class then began citing quotes from the Pixar film, but I eventually found my way back to the lesson.
“When creatures are in commensalisms, one creature benefits, but the other is neither harmed nor benefited from the relationship. He’s indifferent. In the last type of symbiosis, parasitism, one creature is harmed while the other is benefited. Then we launched into contemplations of ticks, fleas, tapeworms and other such organisms.
I wanted to ensure that students remembered the concept, so I decided to give them a couple of examples from my own life. “My husband is reconstructing one of our bathrooms and repairing our aging house. In return, I prepare dinner and maintain the housework. We both enjoy a tasty meal and a newly renovated home. This is a mutualism.”
A boy raises his hand. “My dad says that once you get married, you don’t have time for fun anymore. Your wife is always asking you to repair this or that.”
I smiled and thought, “It’s not marriage that absorbs your leisure, it’s homeownership.”
Then I rubbed my blossoming, kicking belly and continued with my examples. “Sometimes, I jestingly tell my husband that being pregnant is like having a parasite. I am providing nourishment and a comfortable incubation site for a creature that is sapping my energy, changing my appearance and consuming approximately half of my meals. The baby benefits, but in some ways I am harmed – or at least not entirely benefited by the relationship.
“Now I want you each to write down an example of a mutualism, parasitism, and commensalism. Some of your examples can be human ones, like mine, but at least one must be based on nature.”
When I read the students’ assignments a few days later, I was amazed at how revealing they were. Here are some memorable responses:
Parasitism: My sister borrows my CDs and scratches them. She never lets me borrow any of hers.
I share my shoes with my cousin and she borrows my clothes. That’s a mutualism.
Every Friday night, my family eats pasta. Everyone in my family likes pasta but me. They are benefited and I am harmed. This is a parasitism.
Then two responses made me pause.
Mutualism: My mother makes dinner, cleans the house and washes the dishes. In return, she gets us.
An example of a mutualism is a pregnant mother. She provides the baby food and a comfortable place to sleep. Then she gets to have a baby!
I wondered if these students missed the concept of a mutualism. The relationships they described seemed nearly parasitic. What were the students giving their mothers in return for their labors? Where was the mutual benefit?
As I ponder their responses, I realize they my students had perceived a truth that I had not. Children are a blessing and a benefit.
Even when considered from a strictly economic viewpoint, children are a worthwhile investment. My in-laws have saved little money for retirement, but they have reared eight children who love and respect them. None of my sisters or brothers-in-law would consider allowing their parents to suffer deprivation, and thus, they have a more secure future than many with 401K’s and saving bonds. My husband’s parents will not be need to worry about their future, even if the economy collapses, inflations rises to just a point that a loaf of bread costs $500 and Mexican crime lords overrun the White House. Their children will care for them.
Yet, children are a blessing in many less quantifiable ways. For example, children teach you to give, explains Anne Lamott in her delightfully human book about writing, Bird by Bird. Lamott says that both writing and raising a three-year-old “teach you to get out of yourself and become a better person for someone else. This is probably the secret to happiness. … Your child and your work hold you hostage, treat you like dirt, and then you discover that they have given you that gold nugget you were looking for all along.”
Christians call it edification. The painful stretching of oneself into become a more humble, loving, beautiful soul. That gift of stretching and the opportunity to serve more and more selflessly is the benefit of being a mother.
I drew a smile beside my students’ answers. Yes, the mother-child relationship is a mutualism, not a parasitism.