Maternal Instinct Isn’t Real, but the Myth Makes Parenting Harder

Consciously or subconsciously, parents buy into the idea that women are natural caregivers. It's not true and it hurts everyone.

Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Every chance she gets, Jennifer approaches mothers she doesn’t know who look like they’re struggling with parenting and whispers, “I hate being a mother.” The mothers always look shocked at first. Then, quietly and gratefully, most agree.

“It’s weird how societal pressure works,” says Jennifer, a mother of two and university professor in New Hampshire. “How our culture expects not only that you will know how to mother, but that you will enjoy it and that it will fulfill some deep need in you. But I hate being a mother. I love my kids deeply, more than I love myself, but I hate being a parent.”

Jennifer’s unusual form of activism is powerful because it challenges the cultural mythology around motherhood. Mothers, we are told, share special bonds with their children and are programmed to be selfless and natural nurturers. They are supposed to instinctively understand how to hold, feed, and soothe their infants.But neither social nor evolutionary science support the notion that “maternal instinct” is real.

Unrealistic expectations are real. Cultural conditioning for caregiving roles is real. Male reticence to participate in specific aspects of parenting is real. But maternal instinct is just a damaging idea that clouds discussions of co-parenting and gender equity. There is simply no reason to let biology make mothers feel like they need to bear the full burden of parenting or for dads feel like they’re not on equal footing from the start.

“Social conformity has tremendous power,” says Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D., a biological psychology professor at the Ronin Institute (and a mother), who describes the expectation that women are natural-born caregivers as an outgrowth of patriarchal thinking. “I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to hand me babies, and I tell them I don’t really do babies. They react like I’ve said something really obscene and shocking.”

Some mothers enjoy their rep as chief and most able caregiver, but expectations can be a burden for many women, not to mention same-gender, trans, and adoptive parents who aren’t biologically tied to their kids. Women might feel misled when they read well-meaning pregnancy articles assuring them that although parenting is super hard, some sort of maternal “instinct” will “kick in,” like a jump-started car battery, and they’ll cherish every minute of it. And if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them. The disconnect between expectations and reality can have a negative impact on mothers’ mental health as well as on their children and their relationships with their partners.

Academic inquiry into fatherhood and motherhood is a relatively new phenomenon. (It’s also political, with some feminists arguing that the idea that motherhood is a product of patriarchal oppression ignores the experiences of women of color, who historically had less reproductive freedom than white women.) And the research to date has focused more on mothers’ impact on their babies’ health and well-being than on mothers themselves. Scientists are only now beginning to study the apparent neurological effects of motherhood. Japanese researchers gave mothers MRIs and concluded that their brain scans showed evidence of “vigilant protectiveness.” Another study, published in April, found that mothers’ brains are “wired” to gather their young.

Here’s the problem: That April study, which was conducted by NYU Langone Health, was a mouse study and therefore not particularly relevant to humans. Humans are apes, and behaviors are taught and learned in apes. Culture, not instinct, is the predominant mechanism for skill exchange between generations.

As Darcy Lockman, psychologist and author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership told us, “Human beings don’t really have instincts. Primates don’t. We have a neocortex. There are animals that rely primarily on instinct to survive. Human beings are not among them. We have a more developed brain and we require learning to survive, which has made us more able to adapt to our environment. So, parenting skills are learned, not innate for males as well as females.”

“We can’t assume a brain change means any one specific thing. A cellular change doesn’t translate to something singular or specific like ‘makes you a better parent,’ ” says Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and the host of the podcast Motherhood Sessions. “There’s no reason to think that biology is a defining factor in how a family should be structured.”

Historically, heteronormative roles in Western culture have created a sharp division in what it means to be a mother and father, she says. (And we need only look to the multiple studies finding no evidence of psychological harm among the children of gay parents to see that conformity to gendered roles isn’t better for children.)

“There’s a real trend in our culture for women to feel plagued with guilt for not always enjoying motherhood,” she says. “And moms might misinterpret not always enjoying being a caretaker with the fear that they’re not cut out to be a mother. That shame can fuel depression.”

Worry over not living up to the maternal ideal can be lonely as well as depressing. Stacey B., a researcher in North Carolina, was staunchly child-free until meeting her husband, Jay, when she was 39. They didn’t try to get pregnant but didn’t do much to prevent it either. When Stacey got pregnant and decided to keep it, thinking she might soon age out of the option of having a baby, some of her child-free-by-choice friends seemed personally offended.

“[Jay and I] were both terrified,” Stacey says. “I found out I was pregnant near Christmas, which made the holidays difficult. I knew I couldn’t drink, and I started to isolate myself because it was easier than facing my friends and the situation head on.”

She spent New Year’s Eve home alone crying in bed while Jay was working, she says.

“I was nauseous and hormonal and already mourning the loss of my life as I knew it,” she continues. “And I was scared that I wouldn’t enjoy motherhood or wouldn’t be good at it, scared that I wouldn’t bond with my child, scared that I’d regret the decision to have the baby and would be miserable.”

Stacey rolled the dice on motherhood and won: Once her daughter was born, she says she took to parenting much better than she expected and now loves being a mom. Hearing her daughter cry makes her feel an urgency she has never felt before, and she often wakes up moments before her baby stirs at night. She cares for her in a way she says feels instinctual.

Other moms don’t fare as well in the gamble. A study published in 1980 concluded that 40 percent of first-time mothers felt indifferent the first time they held their babies. The researchers noted that mothers who had difficult births were more likely to feel a lack of connection and that they felt more affection after a week. But a 2018 study also noted that many mothers felt disillusioned after giving birth and were still struggling to love their babies months later. The pressure on some mothers to be perfect doesn’t go away and can lead to burnout, as a parent and at work, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 found.

Scientists also have found that skin-to-skin contact with babies helps foster bonding, but those effects aren’t particular to biological mothers. Biological dads and non-biological parents can experience a release of so-called “love hormone” oxytocin, too. What’s more, a 2009 study found that fathers’ attachment to their unborn babies can be just as strong as mothers’.

“Instinct” is a totally different thing, explains Ragsdale. We have what you might call drives or cues, but humans don’t have instincts, which are innate triggers you can’t control, she says. Many people have a drive to care for tiny cute things, such as babies or kittens, Ragsdale says, but men respond to those cues just like women do.

The so-called maternal instinct in humans is just a cultural story, adds Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University and author of Loving Bravely.

“It’s a narrative we use to lower the bar on fathers and ice them out,” Solomon says. “Sometimes other women will huddle up around a new mom and baby, and dads can feel iced out. That’s why it’s so important that we have paternity leave policies in place so men and women can experience the early fumbling and figuring things out together.”

Stacey, for instance, took about four months off from work after her daughter was born. Her husband took only two weeks.

“And during those two weeks, he worked on projects around the house while I mostly tended to our daughter,” she says. “That is a critical learning period, and the expectation falls heavily on the mother.”

Stacey acknowledges that Jay felt useless when their daughter was a newborn: “I would beg for help, and he’d say, ‘But she only wants you,’ ” she says. “While that was true to a certain extent, the more hands-on he became, the more his comfort level increased, and the more our daughter responded to him and allowed me some much-needed breaks.”

Ragsdale says her husband was similarly put off at first when their baby was still milk-obsessed and would look past him to look for her.

“Men have to realize that that will be a short spell and that they should persevere and not give up,” she says.

Also helpful is letting go of the idea that moms are innate parenting geniuses and dads are mere bumbling breadwinners. That starts with the freedom to be honest about how you’re feeling, Solomon says. Feeling like you can say to your partner, “I don’t know if I’ll like this. How much are you willing to do?” or “Our kid is being an asshole right now and I’m having a really hard time,” helps parents feel heard, less lonely and isolated, and like they can ask for help when they need it, she says.

And we need to change the currently narrow story about what it means to be a mother.

“We should be mindful about how we talk to women as they’re becoming moms,” Solomon says. The idea that things will be intuitive and will click is easier the more a woman is able to calm herself down and stay in the present with her baby, and forget the stories about how she ‘should’ be or feel.

“There’s a whole gamut of perfectly acceptable responses to such a major life change as becoming a mother, but the only expected one is complete bliss,” Stacey says. “That’s not the reality for everyone. But I see more women being ‘real’ about their parenting experience, which over time will hopefully normalize the wide array of postnatal feelings and responses.”

Jennifer says she is real with her kids and that it probably helps them to have more realistic expectations about parenthood.

“I’m not baking cupcakes or doing art projects,” she says. “But I now realize I’m a good mother because I love my kids deeply.”