The big idea: why the maternal instinct is a myth | Books

The weighing scale at the weekly breastfeeding support group I visited gave me some reassurance I was doing all right feeding and caring for my son, who was born small, at under six pounds. Even so, I was filled with worry: about feeding and caring for him, about whether I was enough, about why I didn’t feel the flood of warmth and certainty I had expected in new motherhood.

As I sat there listening to other people trade tips about pumping, getting a better latch or preparing for the transition back to work, I looked around and wondered about all the things they weren’t saying. Did they feel it too – this clash between how they thought it would be and the reality? The sense in themselves that something had shifted, so deep it seemed impossible to name? And if not, what did that say about me?

In the months that followed, as I searched for words that could describe what I was feeling as a new mother, I came to understand that there was nothing wrong with me. In fact, I was just as I should be – a committed, attentive, protective parent. But there was a whole lot wrong with the assumptions I had carried into the role. Specifically, the ingrained idea that a readymade maternal instinct would propel me through those first hard days of motherhood.

The notion that the capacity for caregiving is wholly innate and automatic, as well as distinctly female, is a lie. It leaves women feeling broken when, in their first days of motherhood, they experience something else – shock, fear, uncertainty, anger, sometimes alongside joy and wonder. And it leaves so many other kinds of parents out of the story.

In fact, what we know about the science of the “parental brain” serves to validate the experience I went through. It shows that new parents enter a period of hyperresponsiveness in the first months postpartum. This is so they can tend to their babies and engage in an intense process of learning to read and respond to their cues, to predict their needs and know how to meet them. That does not come about through a rigid instinct – a fixed pattern of behaviour – but through a process, one of adaptation, that is inherently quite gruelling. New parenthood is a time of major upheaval for the brain, shaped both by hormones and by exposure to the very powerful stimuli that babies provide. It’s thought that anyone who commits themselves to caring for a baby can develop this parental brain, no matter their sex or path to parenthood.

Learning about the parental brain changed my view of myself as a mother. I wasn’t broken. I was changing. But the more I read, the angrier I felt – why hadn’t I learned this in the prenatal classes I took, or in the many baby books I read?

That may be in part because of the stickiness of the idea of maternal instinct. Even if we see it as outdated to some degree, it is hard to dismiss entirely. It feels true. Generation after generation of mothers have cared for babies. We believe that something compels them to do that. And the idea offers comfort – the promise of falling in love with a child at first sight and a kind of certainty in the face of the unknown. We feel ourselves changed by parenthood, parts of us mirroring the protective “mama bear” and the nurturing “mama bird”, and we see this replicated in others.

A long line of experts has named those changes for us. I think of maternal instinct as a classic case of disinformation, something that seems true and gets repeated over and over until we believe it reflexively. But it is not based in science. It is rooted in religious notions of mothers as selfless and committed entirely to the role.

In evolutionary theory and in the writing of naturalists at the end of the 19th century, such ideas were projected on to other animals, whose maternal behaviours are actually far more varied than the entirely protective, self-sacrificing figure that the moral view of motherhood favours. Early psychologists soon defined maternal instinct as, in the words of William McDougall, stronger than any other, “even fear itself”, something that provided a woman with the “tender emotion” necessary for the role that became her “constant and all-absorbing occupation”.

Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who presented himself as an expert on human bonding based on his work with geese, frequently described instinct using a lock-and-key metaphor. His work had a major influence on British psychologist John Bowlby and his theory of attachment. Historian Marga Vicedo has detailed how the connection between the two men and Bowlby’s writing after the second world war carried forward the idea of maternal instinct, even as some scientists had begun to turn away from instinct as an explanation for behaviour.

Bowlby’s work changed our understanding of infants and their needs for the better, but it presented a good mother as someone who not only cared for her child but who also provided a very specific kind of maternal love which became the key to a child’s healthy development.

In the 1960s and 70s, a new generation of researchers challenged the Lorenzian view of a fixed pattern of behaviour in mothers. Psychobiologist Jay Rosenblatt and colleagues at Rutgers University studied rats and found that both males and virgin females, on exposure to pups, also developed “maternal” behaviours. They found that time spent with the young – and not only hormonal changes – were incredibly important for mother rats, too. In short, experience mattered.

Anthropologist SarahBlaffer Hrdy, among others, began asking questions about the primates she studied whose behaviour did not match the evolutionary theory she had been taught. Mothers, she wrote, were “just as much strategic planners and decision-makers, opportunists and deal-makers, manipulators and allies as they were nurturers”.

The work of Hrdy and Rosenblatt is the foundation for the modernday study of the human parental brain. Some feminists have pushed back, particularly against Hrdy’s work on the biological mechanisms that shape motherhood, saying it promotes a traditional view that has too often been a trap for women.

I see it differently. New parenthood is a major stage of development. The biological changes that come with it are deep and profound, but they are not what we’ve been told they are. They are not automatic, nor are they the sole preserve of mothers driven by a rigid, inborn female predisposition towards caregiving. Instead they are the product of intense focus on the needs of another, the result of a rewiring that comes as we assume the responsibility for a near-helpless child and start the hard work of caring. That should be the contemporary answer to any question that begins: “What if I’m not cut out for this?”

Mother Brain: Separating Myth from Biology – the Science of the Parental Brain by Chelsea Conaboy is published by W&N.

Further reading

Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal by Lucy Cooke (Doubleday, £20)

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes (Harper Wave, £25.99)

The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America by Marga Vicedo (University of Chicago, £26).