Women Are Not Born With The Maternal Instinct Our childhood and the current culture determine how we mother our kids

It is a fallacy that mothering is instinctual. That women by default know the nitty-gritty of caregiving. Recently, Meghan Markle in a video to mark her son, Archie’s birthday, was branded unmaternal. Opinions were divided about whether or not she had the much revered and idealized maternal instinct.

Society and literature have erroneously painted the maternal instinct as a women’s default state of being. And, the woman who lacks the maternal instinct is shamed as being a flawed human being.

Women Are Not Born With The Maternal Instinct
The maternal instinct is not something that comes about naturally, it is learned

The truth is the so-called maternal instinct does not come naturally. Like all behaviors, maternal behaviors are the product of the conditioning of the environment. The past and current – childhood and societal expectations of a woman’s role.

Our Childhood Plays A Big Role In The Development of  Maternal Instinct

How we behave with our kids is in majority of the cases, is influenced by our own experiences of maternal love or non-love.

I remember when I was 12-years, my mother’s brother’s wife came to my maternal grandmother’s house threatening to divorce her husband and dumped her kids.aged 1 and 2 years onto my aged grandmother. (And I was promptly and connivingly enlisted to babysit them). Her job was her priority and if her husband was not willing to give up his overseas job, then the kids were not her responsibility.

It was shocking – ‘how can she do this‘, I questioned my grandmother. She explained, ‘ ‘How she will take care of children, her mother used to not cook for them.’  I did not understand the connection then, but do now.

Harlow’s Monkeys

Psychologist Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments revealed that early caregiving deprivation was found to have retarded the mothers’ emotional development.  Harlow found that once these monkeys gave birth, they cared little for their offspring. He wrote: “these monkey mothers that had never experienced love of any kind were devoid of love for their infants”. While some mothers simply ignored their children, Harlow characterized others as “evil” and abusive and in some instances even killed them.

If maternal love was instinctual there wouldn’t be so many bestselling books on difficult mothers, mean mothers, neglectful and rejecting mothers, mothers who cannot love, etc. What’s worse is in many cases the cycle continues for generations.

Social Influence on Maternal Behavior

Today to be just a stay at home mother is looked down upon. The feminist movement changed the whole landscape of motherhood. Now women are expected to prioritize their careers over caregiving. You are expected to keep your maternal instincts under wraps.

Furthermore, rarely does the maternal influence occur in a vacuum or within just one generation. Particularly the marriage/relationship dynamics unbeknownst greatly influences mothering.  Other factors that impact maternal response are birth order, temperament matching, or “fit” between mothers and offspring or preferences for a particular gender.

Postpartum Depression – The Maternal Instinct Doesn’t Kick In

The maternal instinct has been venerated in literature and religion. No woman can escape the all-pervading imagery of the Mother Mary. Not feeling inordinate love for one’s own babe feels shameful. However, it is fairly common not to feel overwhelming love for one’s child, particularly soon after it is born.

It is a myth that oxytocin just courses through your body over-riding all the other depressive feelings you struggled with. In fact, many women who previously did not feel depressed may experience postpartum depression. This inhibits the maternal instinct from kicking in.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has admitted she had ‘no maternal feelings’ for her second baby, Moses, now five.

‘I just didn’t feel anything . . . I couldn’t connect, and still, when I look at pictures of him at three months old, I don’t remember that time,’ she has said.

Too Numb To Feel Love

It was the same with me when my son was born.  I had expected to be instantaneously flooded with intense feelings of love. That the so-called love hormone, oxytocin would saturate my brain and body. And I’d be transformed into the all-loving earth mother.  Sadly, most survivors have to re-learn the language of love.

I felt nothing, I looked at my son like he was some inanimate object. I was too numb struggling with C-PTSD which was exacerbated by my unsympathetic partner. The pain and hurt of the past did not allow me to enjoy the present.

Thankfully, my son was an unfussy baby and I had no problems with breast-feeding. Furthermore, even though my partner was terrible as a partner, he was an amazingly attuned hands-on father up until his death.

Thus, the first two years of son’s life my lack of maternal feelings did not affect my son. Slowly, as time passed taking care became an automatic habit. Practise makes you adept which eventually makes it instinctual. Additionally, the sweet antics of my child helped my maternal feelings to slowly kick in.

Being a mother is all about becoming mindful and sensitive. It takes effort and practice. I had to train myself to be a mother.

Learning The Art of Mothering – Becoming Sensitive

Once upon a time, one learned how to take care of babies by watching the women in our families and community take care of them. Nowadays those learning opportunities are all but lost. We have to rely on books and online media.

I was fortunate to have a kindly neighborhood grandmother. She advised and guided me when I was lost and struggling with the demands of a small child.

The key to raising an emotionally robust child is being a good enough parent. You have to be attuned to your child not all the time but at least when it matters.

It is about what the child wants and sensitively responding to their needs.

Meghan’s Misattunement

Meghan did seem misattuned to what her son wanted. When he picked up another book and gave it to his mother, Meghan promptly dismissed it and kept it aside, saying ‘let’s finish this book then we’ll have that book.‘ Then when he threw the book down on the floor playing the game of throw which is very common in kids that age, she just didn’t seem to catch on.  If you compare Archie’s video with the one below you will see the lack of serve and return interaction.

According to the Havard Center on the Developing Child simple serve and return interactions between adults and young children help make strong connections in developing brains. Sensitive parental care, characterized by the prompt and adequate response to the child’s signals and needs. It predicts a more secure attachment relationship, higher levels of cognitive competence, and fewer psychological problems.

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

Faking It, Till You Feel It

Being a mother was a learning curve for me. It was not easy. I had to dig into my own history and remember the loving interaction with my mother before she died. Furthermore, I read all I could about mothering. It took lots of effort to be mindful and sensitive to my son’s needs and feelings.

Even then I just about managed to hang on.

Being a single mom with C-PTSD.there were times I was so triggered and would lose my cool.  And I had to learn to pull back and repair the rupture.

Moreover, one needs to remember, the early years of 0-3 are the critical years of right brain development – the foundation of personality development and emotional self-regulation.

Even though one may not feel maternal, one has to fake it. Thankfully with time, the positive loving interactions with my son overwrote the pain of my past. Gradually, the Mom persona became wired in my brain.

Scientist Laura  Glynn who has extensively studied the so-called mommy brain says:

‘Mothers, are made, not born.’

So, don’t fret or feel ashamed if you don’t instinctively feel maternal towards your child. Start taking proactive steps – learn the art of mothering even before having a baby. Mothering, like all skills, takes dedication and practice to become good at the job.

Image Source: Pexels

Additional Resources:


The Secret Life of Babies



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