On the Myth of Maternal Instinct

maternal instinct

In my 2017 childfree trending piece, I discuss how in recent years we’ve been seeing more talk about pronatalism. Some articles use the word directly, some not. An excellent feature article that appeared on money.good.is magazine last fall by Mike Mariani gives us a great example of the latter.

Titled “Generation Kidless,” the article interestingly starts with describing home buying preferences of Millennials, which seem different than what many people  have considered a “dream home.”  As Mariani writes, “These millennial couples often seek smaller houses and condos in urban areas, with close proximity to jobs, restaurants, and friends.” And “for a handful of reasons, including the increasingly optional matter of parenthood, the four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot colonial set deep in the lush, sprawling suburbs may not be the universally coveted dream it once was.”

Mariani doesn’t stay there long before he delves into why Millennials want smaller homes. We leave the dream home conversation and go with Mariani as he explains why it’s time to “interrogate the social contract that nudges all of us to have children” – aka challenge the specific pronatalist myth of maternal instinct.

The Invention of Maternal Instinct  

Mariani contends that society “invented the maternal instinct” at the time of the Industrial Revolution. As I discuss in The Baby Matrix, I would say that it actually came before then. In America, along with colonization came myths related to maternal instinct. Early American settlers needed children, and lots of them for homestead survival. As a practical matter, having children increased chances of survival and brought economic benefit to a family.

However, in those times, women’s valued reproductive role didn’t come without physical and medical risks. Sociologists tell us that when a social role comes with difficulties, a myth needs to surround it to keep it in its most positive light. In the case of motherhood, myths needed to be created to continue to guarantee women would have children and ensure survival.  In other words, circumstances necessitated a need to promote a mindset, or a “retrofit,” as Mariani calls it. He discusses this effect at the time of the Industrial Revolution:

“The Industrial Revolution’s new division of responsibility necessitated a reconfiguration of the family unit, and Western cultures had to adapt. So they retrofitted special traits onto women, now exclusively responsible for raising children. These women, the incipient myth suggested, were biologically hardwired to rear children. It was this gendered instinct that made them uniquely suited to their new role as a family’s sole caretaker.”

Busting the Maternal Instinct Myth 

While not showcased enough, researchers, writers and scholars have busted the maternal instinct myth. In her 1916 pioneering paper, “Social Devices for Impelling Women to Bear and Raise Children,” early feminist Leta Hollingworth wrote of the sources of this myth, or “social devices” as she called them, that were needed to encourage motherhood. Elizabeth Badinter does a whole book on the topic, The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct (1981), which as Mariani summarizes, “ultimately finds the concept to be a social construct rather than a biological trait.”

I also love journalist Laura Kipnis’ 2015 essay, “Maternal Instincts,” in Meghan Daum’s, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed.  Generations of pushing the maternal instinct as an “inviolable truth” cemented biological cause to what is actually a social and cultural phenomenon, and Kipnis rightfully points out that no matter what time in history, this thinking does not reflect “eternal conditions.” She writes, “One way to keep gender roles in place, it would seem, is to convince an entire civilization that they are embedded in our genes.”

Exactly.

What’s more true? Mariani posits that parenting instincts can exist on a “kind of continuum,” some women with stronger maternal instincts, some not as strong.  Yet he backs away from this idea, concluding this “would be too inconvenient to the myth (not to mention a challenge to an economic structure that’s largely still in place today).” Agreed.

Cultural Constructs on Childbearing

Mariani smartly goes further to dissect how society has culturally constructed other attitudes toward childbearing. When it comes to not having children at all, it seems many people forget the realities of times past. Mariani reminds us that:

“We tend to think of childlessness as uncommon, something that has only recently become more viable as a life choice. In truth, for many Western countries, childlessness was actually more prevalent in the early 20th century than it is today. It was only from around the 1920s to the 1960s, with the Silent Generation and the baby boomers, that childlessness became rare. Yet we treat this ephemeral period of history as though it stretched back to the Middle Ages.”

In the arc of history, social and cultural constructs have all too often driven what the masses believe as truths.

I find it so very encouraging that sites like good.is run features that challenge pronatalist myths! More talk about why we think the way we do about parenthood and reproduction helps people see through mindsets that at their core, are really just outdated social and cultural constructs. And seeing the truths genuinely opens the gates to making reproductive decisions that reflect being true to oneself and our world.

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