“The maternal instinct is a myth that men have created.”
That’s according to a recent New York Times essay by Chelsea Conaboy, who says it’s time to upend old “pernicious” ideas about motherhood that are rooted in distorted traditions.
Conaboy challenges cultural expectations of motherhood and how women are meant to experience it – a rapturous bond in which a woman “is able to divine and instantly fulfill all the needs of her baby, and everything do it on its own”.
Without a doubt, the cultural distortions around motherhood are real and damaging. Societal expectations of mothers and motherhood need to be tempered.
But in the process, Conaboy reduces the profound biological, psychological, and moral capacities of mothers to little more than a cultural construct designed to diminish them. Women deserve better than that. And we can recognize and celebrate the unique capacity women have for motherhood, while rejecting the cultural distortions that limit and distort that power and influence.
Let’s start with social media.
The online world of neatly curated images means that real life is often obscured, especially when the messy work of nurturing and caring for life is involved. And taking on the challenge of caring for a deeply vulnerable life can be inherently disappointing, even without the constant bombardment of images that seem to show other women doing it effortlessly.
After a day of caring for a colicky baby, potty training a toddler, or talking about a teenager’s social anxieties, most of us can’t help but ask “How did my mother do that? Why didn’t she tell me?
That’s only more likely in a world where motherhood is portrayed as cherubic babies dressed in designer clothes cuddled by beautifully made-up women sitting in perfectly designed Pinterest nurseries.
Add to that the fact that over the past few decades we have reinforced our cultural expectations of the intensity of parental involvement. The cultural forces that produced the “helicopter parent” came with the cultural norm of “intensive mothering,” where being a “good” mother means bonding at birth, breastfeeding, carrying the baby, sleeping together, and accurately interpreting every cry and every grimace, while feeling deep joy and ethereal connection.
Conaboy is right that our culture has for far too long demanded that women, and especially mothers, be selfless, useless, and wantless. It also recognizes that men have too often been left behind, a long-standing result of the creation by industrialization of the separate spheres of work and home. From then on, motherhood became identified with “disinterested love ready to sacrifice everything” to keep the home, while fathers returned to rest after leaving the “greedy and competitive world” of professional work.
In the process, fatherhood became narrowly defined as providing money, limiting fathers’ potential to influence and connect at home, and leaving women responsible for the lion’s share of the work. This has long had to change for the good of men and women, as well as for their relationship.
But if our efforts to increase the shared responsibility of working from home mean we eliminate the reality of the unique and profound abilities of women and men, we have diminished the strength of both. The biological, psychological and moral capacities of mothers – as well as fathers – cannot easily be ignored.
For nearly a century, theorists and researchers have explored the importance of maternal influence on child development. Over the past decade, unprecedented developments in the field of neuroscience have confirmed what we could only theorize before. From the moment an infant leaves the womb, he has one main task – to establish an emotional communication link with a caregiver whom he feels to be constantly responsive. Infants of all animal kingdoms seek out a particular caregiver: their mother, whose heartbeat, smell, tone of voice and touch they know and for whom they immediately show a preference.
A mother, too, is psychobiologically prepared to establish the link by which the emotional communication between them, essential to development, can occur. And so for months – face to face, body to body, sound to sound, brain to brain – they communicate and co-regulate, a mother intuitively regulating the emotions of the infant, who has little capacity to regulate them – minimizing the negative feelings, while maximizing positive, soothing and calming feelings.
In the process, approximately 1 million new synapses are formed every second, leading to a right-brain split in which personality development, attention span, stress regulation, the ability to feel and read emotions , the development of self-awareness, social intelligence, empathy and the capacity for intimacy are centered.
In the words of neuropsychologist Allan Schore, quite literally, “Mother nature and maternal nurturing combine to shape human nature.
This is an important start for continued and profound maternal influence. So much so that the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s landmark Early Childhood Care and Youth Development study led researchers to conclude that maternal education is the single most important influence. strongest and most consistent on human development.
That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect process. Estimates suggest that most of the time, mothers won’t read the clues perfectly, and there will be breaks and mending again and again in their connection. But the psychobiological priming in mother and baby that propels this critical and remarkable process is nothing short of miraculous. Enough that whenever it is possible to help a struggling mother, we do so, to increase her ability to provide the essential bond needed for development.
And what about fathers? Far from being secondary helpers or babysitters, neuropsychological development indicates that fathers also form a unique bond with a child that is important to their development. Maternal influence and paternal influence are different systems. Each link plays a vital role, beginning with the mother during the earliest period of development and the father playing a larger role from infancy onwards, each shaping different brain structures and processes. These distinct systems of maternal and paternal influence continue throughout development.
Despite these powerful “instincts”, the reality is that most parenting does NOT happen in blissful hugs and happy coos. Most of the time, we don’t know what to do to help our children, whether they are infants or teenagers. And many of us will struggle to feel overwhelmed, trying to meet needs beyond the knowledge and skills of the most capable among us. But we do it because the connection is so deeply meaningful that we barely know how to measure it.
And as Brene Brown puts it, the mess of “imperfection” actually provides “our richest and most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning, and love.” Pretending that there is a perfect instinct actually hinders our ability to be open to the experience of truly coming to see, know, love and connect with another soul. As K. William Kautz writes, “Perfection is not possible. Intimacy is.
Mary Eberstadt once wrote about talented journalist Marjorie Williams, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the midst of a remarkable career. In a now famous column written just before her death, Williams failed to describe the political intricacies she was so adept at analyzing and devoted her career to. Her final column, Eberstadt noted, was “of course, about her children.”
“For mothers and fathers who learn the hardest way of all that time is as short as a birthday candle, family and especially children are not everything; for the most part, they are the only thing,” Eberstadt observed.
Maternal (and paternal) instinct is not a myth, although our cultural interpretations may be. Motherhood is both a capacity and a responsibility. But it is also a profound privilege.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.