The Maternal Instinct Is A Myth And We’ve Got The Science To Prove It
‘Maternal instinct’ pathologizes women who don’t want to have children. But that ‘maternal drive’ is often cultivated through pregnancy itself.
When I hear the term “baby fever,” a certain image comes to mind. A baby — literally having a fever — which finds me in the emergency room in the middle of the night right before the deadline of a career-making article is due.
Another vision of “baby fever” is being vomited all over after my child has drunk a large blueberry milkshake. Other visions involve broken bones, infections, antibiotics and allergic reactions, sleepless nights, and living in the twilight stages of permanent anxiety, while my partner is sound asleep dreaming of solid food intake.
Basically, “baby fever” is anything except the desire to have a child.
The concept of motherhood is terrifying to me. Yet my social media feed is inundated with Twitter post after Facebook album after Instagram story of people who may have, once upon a time, tried to convince me to participate in a variety of threesomes — but who now seem to occupy their time with appeals to the public on the consistency of their kids’ bowel movements, and the incomprehensible joy they feel when being vomited all over after their kid has consumed a blueberry milkshake.
So I’ve concluded that, at the very least, the prerequisites to being a good parent have been somewhat sanitized in mass media — meaning, if I want to become a mother, not particularly liking (knowing how to take care of or even currently enjoying the company of) children now doesn’t exclude me from being maternal later. It’s not an urge that needs to claw at my uterus. It can just be a decision.
In fact, there is one thing that gives me comfort in the road ahead to motherhood: Not a single one of us has a maternal instinct.
It simply, plainly does not exist. Just ask Dr. Gillian Ragsdale, a biological anthropologist who teaches psychology with the Open University in the United Kingdom. She says that the word “instinct” is being misused time and again in the context of parenting, because it’s often confused with a “drive.”
Not particularly liking (knowing how to take care of or even currently enjoying the company of) children now doesn’t exclude me from being maternal later.
“Instinct is hard wired. You don’t really think about it. A drive is motivating, it gives behavior direction, but it’s not an irresistible force,” she tells me during a Skype interview. In that sense, human beings have very few instincts — even the instinct to eat can be denied (just look at dangerous mainstream diets). If a woman chooses not to become a mother, then the biological changes that happen during motherhood won’t happen either, because there is no need for a maternal drive, something that Dr. Ragsdale attributes to hormones.
“The maternal drive can be hormonally influenced, for example by pregnancy. This is the same in other mammals. Once the offspring is there in front of them, that’s when the maternal drive generally kicks in — but not always even then.”
In fact, pregnancy itself is a common way to cultivate that “maternal drive.”
That’s what happened to my friend of the past 20 years, Amy Spears. We met on America Online when I was 14 and she was 18, and we’ve been internet stalking each other ever since. She says she never planned or wanted to be a mother, but it happened anyway. “I cried for three days when I found out I was pregnant, and another three once I decided to keep him.”
Like most of the women I spoke to, she was worried about how having a child would impact her autonomy and her social life. But unlike others, she walked into the decision knowing that she would be a single mom, because the father had begged her to have an abortion, something which at first, she wanted too. Everything changed when she went to the clinic with her old roommate.
“I saw the ultrasound and something just clicked. It was like, ‘We’re having a baby.’”
Amy says that her maternal drive didn’t really kick in until a year after her baby son was born. “I remember crying while he was crying for no reason one night, and I actually said ‘Who let me bring this baby home? They gave it to me and let me just leave the hospital?’”
Undoubtedly a wonderful mother, Amy nonetheless couldn’t help from scrutinizing herself to the point of exhaustion — constantly comparing her experience with pre-conceived notions surrounding motherhood.
“I never questioned having him. I just remember thinking that something must be wrong with me for not having that overwhelming ‘motherly’ feeling.”
It was through what she calls “going through the motions” (what Dr. Ragsdale calls “grooming”) that this eventually changed, but it still took time. “I did all the things I was supposed to do, but I felt like I was an imposter sometimes. I didn’t get the full on ‘mom love’ until months after.”
The “maternal instinct” casts women as natural care givers, when in fact mothering is not something that comes very naturally for a lot of people. As a result, stories like Amy’s are often excluded from the narrative. There is, of course, a distinctly gendered component to this; for both women and men, parenting requires a lot of work, but society feels more comfortable imposing a standard of innate parental ability onto women — perpetuating gender roles that ultimately support a patriarchal society.
According to the 2012 research paper Emotional Regulation of Fertility Decision Making: What Is the Nature and Structure of “Baby Fever”? by Gary L. Brase and Sandra L. Brase, “Feelings about babies and decisions about fertility could be based on the extent to which people have (or have not) internalized general gender norms of their ambient society.”
In that sense, “baby fever” is an effective marketing tool for baby showers, and a popular (albeit trite) plot for Hollywood rom-coms, but little more. “The ‘maternal instinct’ concept pathologizes women who don’t want to have children,” says Dr. Ragsdale. “We have a problem with patriarchy. It’s advantageous to portray women as natural caregivers so that they feel it’s a duty.”
According to the 2012 paper Fertility Preference Inversely Related to ‘Legacy Drive’ in Women, But Not in Men: Interpreting the Evolutionary Roots, and Future, of the ‘Childfree’ Culture by Lonnie W. Aarssen and Stephanie T. Altman, that’s exactly what it was.
They posit that most of reproductive psychology throughout history has revolved around the idea that “men had children because they wanted to have sex or leave a legacy, but that women had sex because men wanted to have sex or leave a legacy (regardless of whether or not it was indeed what women wanted).”
The ‘maternal instinct’ concept pathologizes women who don’t want to have children.
Very little has changed. Western societies may support the idea of parenting in theory, but often fall short in practice when it comes to supporting women during and after pregnancy. In places like the U.S., where motherhood is often a career death sentence, categorizing women into those who are “maternal” and those who are not hinders a society from looking at ways to make motherhood more attractive, while also punishing women for becoming mothers by stripping them of financial income, and reducing them to antiquated roles that were never a proper fit to begin with.
Contradictions like these are difficult to navigate when a woman decides that she wants both children and a career, and compounds with fears of being unable to meet unrealistic expectations of motherhood.
“Women who preferred to be ‘childfree’ could rarely exercise that choice throughout countless generations of patriarchal dominance over the course of human evolution,” say Aarssen and Altman. There was simply no significant historical precedent for women to develop a “strong parenting drive,” because they were not afforded a choice in the matter.
Dr. Ragsdale believes that, in combination with these strong historical precedents, motherhood has become less attractive because society has replaced supportive, nurturing communities with the internet — an endless list of URLs offering conflicting advice, evangelical mommy blogs, and all the judgment that money can buy. She explains:
“The social isolation of mothers is a relatively new development in human evolution — where women live in small nuclear families and raise their children alone. If you look at other places around the world, children are raised in communities and you’ll find lower levels of depression and anxiety after childbirth as a result.”
By comparison, being at the mercy of the World Wide Web is a nightmare for new parents. Amara White knows this feeling all too well. She had her first baby in Canada with her husband, far away from their homes in New Zealand and Australia.
“There is so much information on the internet about parenting…if you read parenting blogs and forums before having a baby, it is truly enough to put you off the idea,” Ragsdale says.
Not surprisingly, what helped was surrounding herself with the right people during pregnancy, which she spent worrying about everything from sudden infant death syndrome to her daughter one day developing an eating disorder.
“I overcame these irrational fears by steadfastly building my community…building a community of mothers and fathers who parented similarly to me,” says Amara.
“Those same women I surrounded myself with were there for me when my daughter was sick, when I just needed some adult ‘before we were moms’ alcohol time…they made life so much easier to deal with, especially as I had zero family around for support.”
Amara was nurturing the maternal drive by consciously seeking out the kind of environment that was most conducive to raising a child — something without which she believes would have made motherhood agonizing.
“Cultivating a maternal drive is bit like learning language,” posits Ragsdale. “Children are exposed to that early on and learn language from the people who are speaking it. If children were conditioned to be more ‘maternal’ from an early age then the drive might be stronger as adults.”
While some women appear to have a stronger maternal drive, it’s often because they’ve been cultivating that behavior from a very early age, from toy dolls and games to babysitting for neighbors, a job rarely asked of or imposed upon boys. But for many women, like an ex-colleague of mine, it’s okay if the first question that pops into your mind during pregnancy is “Can I ever have wine again?!”
“Maternal drive can definitely be cultivated in women, but I’d like to see it cultivated more in men,” says Ragsdale. “I think we should be introducing the idea to men at an early age. We have sex education, but no parenting education.”
Perhaps that’s why I have more confidence that motherhood can be a logical decision and still be a beautiful, unique experience where my “maternal drive” can be a journey rather than a destination. But I’ll have to reserve my judgment until, as Dr. Ragsdale would say, my offspring is sitting right in front of me, begging to be held. I will do this — until she starts to regurgitate that blueberry milkshake, and I hand her over to her father.