“Motherly Instincts” and Other Fallacies

Q: If we are not biologically programmed to reproduce, where does “motherly instinct” come? Yes, you can make a decision to love and nurture a child, but I can tell you, as a mother, my decision to do so was driven by the undeniable natural instinct I felt within to do so.

A: First of all, we have to define “instinct.” Usually, when people use this word, they are referring to something they see as biologically preprogrammed — i.e., biologically inevitable. If nurturing and mothering are biologically predetermined, how do we explain the fact that a few mothers abandon, neglect or outright harm their children? And how to we explain the fact that by any standard of “proper mothering” there are degrees of competence and effectiveness? If it’s all instinctual and automatic, then good mothering would always happen.

Your question implies that either there must be “motherly instinct,” OR the choice to nurture must be a conscious one made at the time of the child’s birth. “I choose to nurture my child.” Most mothers will say it’s not like that. The “choice” to nurture their newborn is not consciously taken on, but implicitly given. Does this mean it’s biological? No, not at all. The reason the mothering comes so automatically to the new mother is that she has chosen to have a child, wanted to have a child, or — even if the pregnancy was originally unplanned or unwanted — on some level it’s consistent with her chosen, adopted value system to go through with proper mothering.

I don’t call the behaviors of a nurturing mother instinctual or biologically automatic. I call them a reflection of the mother’s implicit or explicit value system and value judgments. Consider abortion, or even adoption. When learning of her pregnancy, a mother has the option of abortion or adoption if she does not want to keep and raise the child. One mother will find either or both of these unthinkable, while another mother will consider and even act on one of these options. Is this because of “instinct,” one way or the other? Of course not. These decisions require conscious reasoning based on value judgments. When making such a heavy decision as to whether to have an abortion, or give up your baby for adoption, one’s subconscious premises and values must be brought to the surface. What you ultimately decide, whether you ultimately decide to raise the child (as most do), and how you act towards the child once born are all the result of various and sundry value judgments, emotions, thoughts, ideas, feelings and experience from a vast number of sources. It’s oversimplification to claim, “It’s all motherly instinct.”

The fact that we are not biologically preprogrammed to reproduce fits with the fact that once we do reproduce, the means for properly raising the child are determined by the attitudes, values and beliefs of the individual mother (and father.) As a case in point, consider the fact that expert opinions on how to best raise children, including while in infancy, can vary from one generation to the next. This is where human beings differ from wild animals, or even domesticated animals such as

dogs and cats. Dogs and cats operate on preprogrammed instincts determined by their biological natures. Human beings do have biological natures, but human beings also have conceptual faculties. Conceptual faculties refer to the human’s value judgments, ideas, beliefs and corresponding decisions about everything in life. This is why you rarely, if ever, see a dog or a cat depart from the biologically normal behavior after giving birth to puppies or kittens, while you see a whole range of behaviors among humans of different cultures and different individual belief systems when raising their children.

It’s true that most mothers don’t want to hurt their children, and most do not purposefully and maliciously harm their infant babies. But this doesn’t prove that it’s all instinct. You can’t generalize something about a particular human experience — becoming a parent — while evading the nature of human beings. You can’t say, in effect, “Well, humans are different from animals when they’re acting as accountants, lawyers, surgeons or architects. They’re clearly showing their conceptual nature then. But when it comes to a mother having a baby — well, that’s all instinctual.”

The misunderstanding on this issue reveals the broader misunderstanding about human psychology. Today especially — ironically, as a byproduct of advances in sophisticated science — most people assume that human behavior is entirely caused by biology. People are obese? Let’s find the “fat gene.” Some people kill and terrorize others? Let’s find the “murder gene.” Religion, for better or worse, has been a part of human history? There must be a “God gene.” Everything is biological in origin, and the fact that human beings are conceptual creatures, who act on ideas, feelings and beliefs which may or may not be rational in origin, is completely ignored, even (to a great extent) by science in this day and age.

It’s ironic how our advances in science, surely a wonderful thing to behold, have in some respects encouraged a return to more primitive ways of thinking. “All of this science shows how most things are genetic and biological. Therefore, there must be such a thing as motherly instincts.” It simply isn’t so.

The core of the error lies in assuming that because some behaviors come automatically, they must be somehow preordained. A person seems unwilling to acknowledge, “I’m having this feeling. It’s because of the way I’m thinking, or because of what I assume or believe.” Instead, there has to be something or someone external “making” you feel or act a certain way. By claiming that treating your infant in a loving way is all instinct, you’re basically saying, “It all came automatically, and is part of my biology.” Why do we have mothering books, then? Why do we have medical advice and opinions on how to best raise your infant? Why do some parents obsess on being perfect parents, while others are indifferent? Do choices, values and attitudes have nothing to do with it?

If you were, or are, a loving mother, you ought to give yourself more credit. Your willingness to take the lead and take responsibility for creating a new life are a reflection not of your biological destiny, but of your innermost core beliefs and values. They sound like pretty good values to me.