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Maternal Instinct: Why There Isn't One Way to Be a Mom

As you prepare for the birth of a child, you may have been told by well-meaning friends and family that, when your baby arrives, you’ll “just know” what to do. We often hear about the so-called maternal instinct that connects us evolutionarily to animals (a la a mama bear with her cubs). The idea goes that, the minute you become a mom, you’ll innately sense what’s best for your child’s care.

Maternal Instinct: Why There Isn't One Way to Be a Mom

But babies don’t come with guidebooks—and their birth may not flip a switch in your brain that suddenly informs you how to raise them, down to the last diaper change and sleep training decision.

The truth is, maternal instinct is largely a myth, and relying on instinct to guide you can potentially be harmful. If you don’t feel that becoming a mom has turned you into an instant expert, don’t dismay! Here’s what you need to know about maternal instinct.

What Is Maternal Instinct?

There’s no single definition of maternal instinct. To some people, it represents the desire to become mothers, while to others, it refers to mothers’ moral or emotional compass around what’s right and wrong in the raising of their children.

Still others think of it as a drive to protect your children from harm. However, for the purposes of science and research, no official parameters have been set around what does or does not determine a maternal instinct.

Is Maternal Instinct Real?

It’s no surprise that changes occur in the body and brain during and after pregnancy. Postpartum levels of chemicals like oxytocin (the “happiness hormone”) have an impact on the bonding that occurs between moms and their new babies. Breastfeeding can especially boost the release of oxytocin, leading to more feelings of well-being and attachment to your baby. 

Other research reveals that pregnancy substantially changes women’s brain structure. A 2016 study, for example, found that the degree of change in the brain’s gray matter during pregnancy predicted how close moms would feel to their babies.

However, these physical adaptations don’t necessarily indicate an all-encompassing instinct that “kicks in” when baby enters the scene.

“We do know a woman's brain does change during pregnancy, forming new neural pathways to help prepare to care for a baby,” says therapist Kayce Hodos, LCMHC, PMH-C, NCC, who specializes in counseling pregnant and postpartum women. “But this doesn't mean that breastfeeding, changing diapers, or even connecting with baby comes naturally to every mother. Science has not been able to prove there is anything innate that makes a woman naturally maternal.”

Instead, in large part, mothering is a learn-as-you-go role. Like any other new undertaking, it takes time and experience to hone your expertise.

What If I Don’t Experience Maternal Instinct?

If you don’t experience a sudden “light bulb” of maternal mastery upon your child’s birth, there’s no need for concern—and definitely no need to beat yourself up.

"There are enough things to worry about when you become a mother. Whether or not you have a maternal instinct shouldn't be one of them."— KAYCE HODOS, LCMHC, PMH-C, NCC

Rather than relying on instinct to answer your new-mom questions, seek out support from others. Hodos offers several suggestions for trusted resources in your community:

  • A great pediatrician to call when you're worried about your child's health

  • A lactation consultant when you're having issues with breastfeeding

  • A therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health if you're feeling anxious or depressed

  • A support group of other moms who get how difficult motherhood is

Sometimes, feeling that you don’t possess a maternal instinct may be the tip of a postpartum depression iceberg. If you’re experiencing symptoms like guilt, agitation, listlessness, or lack of interest in self-care, you may be suffering from a postpartum mental health disturbance. Seek help as soon as possible from your doctor or other healthcare professional.

Drawbacks of Relying on Maternal Instinct

Although maternal instinct sounds like it would make for smooth sailing in child-rearing, relying too much on an "internal compass" can actually come with drawbacks.

For one thing, excessive self-reliance might lead to uninformed (and potentially harmful) parenting decisions.

Expert recommendations like when to start your child on solid foods or how to use a car seat properly exist to keep your child safe and healthy. The everyday decisions of how to raise your child are ultimately up to you (and the child’s other parent), but it’s important not to discount expert guidance.

Hanging onto the idea of maternal instinct may also set you up for harmful black-and-white thinking—such as the belief that you either have it or you don't, or that a lack of maternal know-how means you're a poor parent.

“Believing in the myth that maternal instinct will guide you as a mother is setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Hodos. “There is so much advice and information out there that it can feel very overwhelming and lead us to think there's one answer to every challenge, but this isn't realistic. No woman has this mothering thing all figured out.”

Cultivating Your Strengths as a Mom

You may not be able to will the mothering instinct into existence, but you can take action to refine your identity and strengths as a mother, as well as cultivate qualities that will make you a great mom.

“I would encourage new mothers and women who are considering having children to focus on their values and ways to pass those on to their children,” says Hodos.

Try taking some time to evaluate which values are important to you as a mom. What kind of mother do you want to be—compassionate, laid-back, fun? Writing a mission statement of your motherhood could be a concrete way to establish your sense of self as a parent.

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