Parents-to-be, experienced parents, and those thinking about having children are bombarded with the idea that maternal instinct is something all women possess.
It’s expected that women have some sort of instinctive desire to have children and somehow also know how to take care of them, regardless of needs, wants, or experience.
And while wanting to have children and take care of them is great, the idea that just because you’re a woman you should want kids (or that you should “instinctively” know what to do once they are born) is unrealistic and adds a whole lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress.
So, what is maternal instinct, and why has its concept lasted for so long?
“The word instinct refers to something innate — inborn or natural — involving a fixed behavioral response in the context of certain stimuli,” says Dr. Catherine Monk, a psychologist and professor of medical psychology in the departments of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center.
Based on that definition, Monk says the idea of maternal instinct implies that there is an innate knowledge and set of caregiving behaviors that are an automatic part of becoming and being a mother.
But in reality, “the idea of a maternal instinct can be quite exaggerated,” says Monk.
History would have us believe that maternal instinct is what motivates us to want to have children and then know exactly what to do once they arrive. However, Monk suggests that a mother — or anyone parenting a newborn or child — learns on the job, through instruction, good role models, and observing what works and doesn’t with each child.
This “learning on the job” happens from the time a baby is born. This is a time when many assume maternal instinct should kick in and result in instant feelings of motherly love.
But instead, according to
When these feelings don’t happen immediately or take longer to grow, many mothers have a sense of failure. They may feel this is a sign they have no maternal instinct. In reality, they just need support and help developing more open and realistic expectations.
Yes, the idea of maternal instinct is largely a myth, says Monk.
The exception, she says, is that a person, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, can gain early on and maintain throughout development, a keen sense of their child. But this ability is still different from maternal instinct.
For example, a parent may quickly suss out the specific meaning behind the cries of their newborn. They might also easily pick up on the behavior change that signals a head cold in their toddler. This stretches into the older years, when a parent can sense trouble brewing in a teenager’s room when it is too quiet.
“This ‘maternal instinct’ of a sixth sense for one’s child and what they need comes from intense closeness and deep love, spending hours with and thinking about the child,” says Monk. It involves seeing the signs because of a connection you’ve built with your child, not an instinctive understanding of motherhood. And it isn’t limited to mothers.
Psychotherapist, Dana Dorfman, PhD, agrees that many aspects of maternal instinct are a myth. “A mother’s intuition or innate sense about the baby’s needs may be attributable to their experiences, temperament, and attachment style,” says Dorfman.
Many aspects of caring for a child are learned through observation or “on the job” experiences. “Nursing, changing diapers, and feeding are not necessarily biologically inborn abilities,” Dorfman points out.
As parents connect and bond with their babies, Dorfman says they learn parenting skills through practice and experience. While some of this process may be “unconscious,” she says it does not necessarily mean that it is instinctual.
“When you become a parent, biologically, or otherwise, your brain chemistry changes,” says Dorfman. This doesn’t only happen to the person giving birth.
In fact, research shows that fathers and foster parents also experience heightened levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine during the transition to parenthood. This change in
The researchers of this study determined that the amount of time a parent spends with their baby is directly correlated with being able to identify their cries — not the gender of the parent.
To see where the term maternal instinct comes from, we first have to understand the difference between instinct and drive, because they are definitely not the same thing.
“In psychology, a physiological drive is a motivational state resulting from a physiological need, and a need is a deprivation that underlies the drive,” says Gabriela Martorell, PhD, a psychology professor from Virginia Wesleyan College.
An instinct, on the other hand, says Martorell is an innate, or unlearned response to a signal. Instincts are found in all members of a species and are the product of evolutionary pressures shaping behavior over time. In other words, drives are motivations; instincts are behaviors.
For the most part, Martorell says humans don’t have instincts in the same way most animals do. That’s because most instincts are rigid, unchanging, and provoked by a simple stimulus, and humans are flexible and adaptable.
“We might get hungry, but rather than having one set behavior like an animal does — such as pecking at a dot — we might hit up the fridge, or walk to a nearby coffee shop, or go to the grocery store,” she says. Most of our behaviors, while strongly influenced by evolution, are learned and changeable.
With respect to mothering, Martorell says the processes that shape our behaviors in this area are old and deep, but it would be a stretch to call most of them instinctual.
In addition, she explains that many actions could be better described as parenting behaviors rather than mothering behaviors, given both fathers and mothers are biologically prepared to engage in attachment relationships with children.
From an evolutionary perspective, Dorfman explains that humans are wired for procreation. “The female body undergoes many hormonal changes during pregnancy, and such hormone release impacts behavior, perceptions, and emotions,” she says. Shifts in estrogen and the release of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) encourage bonding, attachment, and attraction.
However, Dorfman points out, the drive to become a mother is not always innate, and many healthy women do not experience a “maternal drive.”
Moreover, Monk explains that many people choose not to have children while still expressing the mythical maternal instinct in different ways, such as being a devoted soccer coach to school-age children or a generous and caring teacher.
That’s why she believes we need to change our views and relabel “maternal instinct” as “caring instinct,” and thereby see this behavior where it is — all around us. It isn’t limited to only mothers or even to only parents.
The idea that women should want children and instinctively know how to care for them creates a lot of pressure, both societal and self-imposed. It also discounts a father or other parental figure’s ability to bond with their baby. Both fathers and mothers are equally capable of parenting behaviors.
These kinds of set expectations put pressure on people, which Monk says can contribute to postpartum depression. For example, some women (and men) find the newborn period less rewarding than they had imagined and can feel ashamed about this feeling. These emotions can contribute to self-blame and depression.
“To manage this kind of pressure, it’s important for moms and moms-to-be to remember that parenting is absolutely a learned behavior with significant influences from the past and a lot of opportunities to gain new influences and training in the present. There is no one way to be a good mom,” says Monk.
What we think of as maternal instinct is a myth, and perpetuating the idea that it is real is making parenting, and the choice to become one, even harder.
So let go of those unrealistic expectations. (There’s not room in the diaper bag anyway!) Parenting is a challenge you learn as you go.