As a new mom, I had no clue what I was doing. I felt lost and scared and confused. And I also felt guilty and ashamed for feeling so lost and scared and confused. I had thought that maternal instinct would kick in and I would just know what to do. That I’d know what my baby needed. That I’d effortlessly fall into this new role of mother. None of that happened.
My transition to the role of mother did not come easily or naturally. Those maternal instincts were MIA, which was upsetting to me because I have pretty strong instincts in general. But there was no ethereal maternal glow around me. I didn’t know how to be nurturing or tender when I felt so touched out and exhausted. And I felt like a terrible mother because of it.
My husband, on the hand, seemed to slide into parenting mode rather effortlessly. He would happily hold and bounce our crying newborn for hours. He would rock him and gently change his diaper. He knew what parenting advice to heed and what to take with a grain of salt. Why didn’t I feel that way? Why didn’t I know what to do? Weren’t all those maternal instincts supposed to kick in? What was wrong with me?
Turns out, there was nothing wrong with me. There is something wrong with the way our society tells us how to mother. Something wrong with the way we tell mothers how to feel. Something wrong with the way we tell mothers what to do and know.
And that maternal instinct I was so worried I was missing? Well, turns out it’s a myth.
Women are not born with some mental and emotional chip in our brains that automatically prepares us for motherhood. Mothers aren’t biologically more tender or nurturing than fathers. Mothers aren’t genetically equipped for child-rearing more so than fathers, nor are we more inclined to gleefully self-sacrifice our own wants and needs.
We’ve just been told that these things are true for ever and ever since the beginning of time.
“The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one,” writes Chelsea Conaboy, author of the forthcoming book “Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood” in the New York Times. “It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.”
Conaboy and others are shining a light on the faulty “science” that has formed and exacerbated the maternal instinct myth in an attempt to equalize the roles and perceptions of parenthood.
“New research on the parental brain makes clear that the idea of maternal instinct as something innate, automatic and distinctly female is a myth, one that has stuck despite the best efforts of feminists to debunk it from the moment it entered public discourse,” Conaboy writes.
The roots of ‘maternal instinct’ and its impact on women
The maternal instinct myth has roots in Christianity, the rise of capitalism in the Industrial Revolution, and Charles Darwin’s observations of the animal kingdom in which females tended to care for their offspring while males competed with other males. Over the past two centuries, men continued to rely on these beliefs to confine women to the home and the roles of child-bearing and child-rearing.
Sure, they cloaked their sexist beliefs in flattery and false empowerment, calling motherhood a “vital power” and “higher purpose.” But let us make no mistake: fawning over women as some kind of nurturing goddess and characterizing the role of mother as a “higher calling” are ways to hold women back—from education, jobs, independence, financial security and confidence in her own worth.
How the myth of ‘maternal instinct’ shows up today
Lest we think these sexist ideas are a thing of the past, sadly they are not. “Maternal instinct is still frequently invoked in science writing, parenting advice and common conversation,” writes Conaboy. “And whether we call maternal instinct by its name or not, its influence is everywhere.”
Today the myth of maternal instinct shows up when people make comments like “I don’t know how you do it” when a mom is struggling to wrangle her three kids in the grocery store—without offering to help her. We see it in the abysmally low pay for childcare professionals and teachers, who are largely women. We see it in the gender pay gap—something that even I, as a feminist, didn’t really understand until recently because the reality of it is just too harsh and nonsensical.
We see it when we tell new moms to “trust their instincts” without asking them what those instincts are or considering that their instincts might actually be anxiety. We see it every time a woman is asked, “Who’s watching your kids?” when she’s away from the home. We see it when schools default to calling the mom when a child is sick.
The myth of ‘maternal instinct’ makes parenting harder
The myth of maternal instinct isn’t just harmful to women and mothers. It hurts all of us. It drives opposition to policies like universal childcare, affordable birth control and more robust paid parental leave policies, while at the same time fueling anti-abortion legislation.
The myth of maternal instinct can prevent children from seeing men and fathers as the tender nurturers they are. It denies fathers the full breadth and depth of the emotional bonds of parenthood. It can cause women to avoid seeking treatment for postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. It creates a hierarchy of what it means to be a “good mother” by glamorizing the self-sacrificial “mom martyr”.
Bottom line: the myth of maternal instinct prevents us from being the parents—and people—we are meant to be.
The only way we can move beyond the myths of motherhood is to keep speaking our truth. So here’s my own brutal and beautiful truth of motherhood: I was woefully unprepared for new motherhood. The transition to motherhood took much longer than I expected. I have become a better and more confident mother with time. Being a mother to my children is among the greatest joys of my life, though motherhood is sometimes a gut punch that knocks the wind out of me. Women who are willing to share the raw and gritty parts of motherhood have saved me. And sometimes (often times) my biggest role model for the kind of mother I want to be is actually my husband, who my children are fortunate to have as a father.
We’ve made a lot of progress in dispelling the myths of motherhood, and we’re continuing to make progress. Let’s not stop now. Our children’s futures—and our own lives—depend on it.