Valenti argues that complete maternal love and maternal instinct are overblown concepts used to promote the idea that mothers should be sacrificial and expert on all things related to their children.
To what extent do you believe in maternal instinct and the idea of all-encompassing maternal devotion? In your experience are these concepts mostly societally-generated or do they ring true to your experience or that of people you know? If you believe they are part of an un-natural societal ideal, what function does this ideal serve?
For me, these concepts mostly do not ring true. I have definitely had great instincts about my kids at times. I often feel like I know why they are acting a certain way, what they want or need, and notice things others don’t. Having said that, there are also many, many times where I feel totally perplexed by them. I often feel other mothers are aware of minutiae about their kids that I would never pay attention to, like how many times they poop. I also feel my husband has many moments of great instincts about our kids that I’m oblivious to. If I tend to get it right most often, it’s only because I’m with them the most. But I would say my husband is a close second, and could easily have “the best” instincts if he were with them more than I.
I guess I don’t believe there is a built-it maternal instinct so much as instincts we develop by spending time with our children and honing those skills. Also, some of us are just more keyed in to our children because we are more keyed in to others in general as part of our personalities. I see this more as an individual difference than some moms having more “maternal instinct.” The one thing I will acknowledge is that the female brain changes during pregnancy. This has been documented. Parts of the brain for relating and emotion gain cells, while reasoning and logic areas lose them (how many of us have felt the effects of this?) Okay, this makes sense, but I think we can draw some really overblown conclusions from this. In my experience, my husband is just as capable of instincts about our kids than I. And I also think if the brain is capable of changing like this it can also change due to demand. Perhaps stay-at-home dads experience similar changes?
The one other difference that is VERY clear to me between my husband and I is the impact of those societal expectations Valenti speaks of. I think some of why I have honed certain “instinct” skills about my kids is because I was expected to. A part of me felt that was my role. I didn’t always feel free to tune out. Not that Seth tuned out to a problematic degree. I just think he didn’t feel a need to overly obsess over the kids. I think the elimination example is a GREAT ONE. Is it possible to tune in to our babies enough to predict when they are going to poop? Probably. Is this necessary or even desirable? Not for me!
Just because we can have an instinct doesn’t mean it’s our duty to. I think much of the time when I notice the extent to which other moms obsesses over their kids, I have a choice. I can conclude they have “better maternal instincts” or I can conclude they felt more compelled to develop those instincts than I did. I may have used that space in my brain for any number of other things. The vast majority of the time, after that phase of life passes, I look back and think, you know what, I was right, there was absolutely no reason for me to measure how many ounces of milk they were drinking at that age, to anticipate exactly when they were getting tired, to predict when they were going to poop, etc. After all, isn’t part of growing up learning that if we want others to meet our needs we have to be aware of them ourselves and communicate them?
Now for that life-changing, mind-blowing maternal love. Still waiting for it. I do feel there was a point after I finally came down emotionally from bed rest, worrying I would lose my twins, dealing with infertility, miscarrying a year after my kids were born, etc., that I started to let myself feel a deeper love and devotion for them. On the one hand, I love them to an extent that scares me. I live in constant fear because I know if anything were to harm them, it would be hard for me to go on living. For me, that love runs very deep, but it’s far from all-encompassing. It has a great depth, but not that much breadth. It doesn’t keep me from wanting for myself. I also love my job, I love my husband, I love writing, I love engaging on politics and social issues. If anything, I feel more passionate about those other things now because I feel I’ve had to guard those feelings in a society where the expectation is that I won’t have them anymore.
My experience definitely leads me to conclude that the ideas of maternal instinct and complete maternal devotion are feelings we can hone and ways we can choose to interpret our experience rather than built into women. I think if one feels obligated to sacrifice everything else for one’s kids and does, one way to explain that behavior to ourselves is that we love our kids so much everything else has fallen away. But what came first, that love, or the forces that lead us to those conclusions about our behavior? I can’t say no women experience that powerful love that makes them effortlessly and without grief give up other aspects of their lives and selves, but I would argue in a society where that was not the expectation we’d see a lot less of those type of attributions to sacrificial behavior (and a lot less sacrificial behavior)!
Overall, I think it’s awfully convenient in a society that expects every woman to fend for herself and her offspring, for women to believe they have feelings and instincts strong enough to make them want to, and make them willing to do that. If we all stood up and said hey, we love our kids, but these instincts are a load of crap, and men, childcare workers, parents, aunts, uncles and neighbors are just as capable, the whole society would have to answer to us. It would have to respond to our reasonable requests for childcare support, parent friendly workplaces, equal pay not only for women and men, but for mothers and non-mothers, etc. Very convenient for us to be so focused on whether our own instincts are strong enough and our own devotion great enough that we never expect or demand those things!
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