Some things are just not said, just not considered. They fall so far outside of our Weltanschauung they are inadmissible. And we take such comfort in their ubiquity that we no longer feel a need to discuss them. They are so self-evidently true, so axiomatic to our understanding of existence that they seem indispensable. Crucial… Even transcending the need for sentience.
Maternal instinct, for example -the irrevocable compulsion of a mother to protect her offspring even at the expense of her own safety. Characterized as selfless and incorruptible, it often escapes the genetic prison of species boundaries. It is one of those rare attributes that has such survival benefits that it blossomed under the rigorous pressures of evolution. It really is, at least in hominid terms, sacrosanct.
Or is it…? Sometimes there is a need for stepping back from the forever-yawning abyss of unquestioning acceptance. After all, what is instinct? Is it just an under-examined behaviour whose pervasiveness has convinced us of its Darwinian utility? Or is it something else –a hope, maybe? A tachistoscopic view of that which we would like to believe has survived the rigours of the collapse of Eden?
A rather obscure article in the Guardian newspaper –one of many, once I discovered it- attempts a more dispassionate analysis of the universality of maternal instinct: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/30/detach-myth-motherhood-from-reality-future-generations?CMP=share_btn_link
It’s addressing the expected attitude of the mother to her baby and the seemingly global societal requirement of her self-effacing altruism towards it –and usually the offspring of others, as well. It’s not attempting to comment on whether or not the woman chose to become a mother –or indeed, whether that might play a major role in her subsequent attitude towards the responsibilities involved. It’s more concerned with the fait accompli.
I have discussed the issues and deeply-rooted cultural assumptions around the decision whether or not to become pregnant in the first place in a separate essay in June 2015: To Have, or not to have ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/to-have-or-not-to-have/ ).
No, the Guardian article questions not so much the concept of maternal instinct, as its expanse –or perhaps more accurately, its inexhaustibility. Its sempiternity… ‘[…] maternal instinct is not a switch that exists in every woman, ready to be flipped as soon as she smells a baby. Relationships between mothers and their children are frequently far more fraught than the myth leads us to believe. It shocks us that mothers can be selfish. […]There is scientific evidence to suggest that the maternal instinct may even be contingent on a woman’s circumstances.’
In fairness, I suspect that the article may be a sort of authorial apologia: ‘I myself have had to face down questions from family, friends and even strangers who don’t understand my wish to have only one child. The thought of having more children terrifies me, and has nothing to do with the love I feel for my son. […] a similar argument can be made that maternal instinct may sometimes depend on whether a mother has the support she needs. We’re not a species designed to cope alone. Indeed, we’re at our most social when it comes to parenting, often recruiting many people around us to help. It really does take a village to raise a child. Without any help, it can be desperately tough.’
The author feels that the ‘reasons why women feel the way they do about children is under-studied’ and I certain agree. ‘[…]motherhood is not always an against-all-odds epitome of selfless caring. Sometimes it can involve emotional calculation, weighing the needs of both parent and child. We all assume that a mother always wants the best for her child, above her own needs. What we seem to deliberately ignore is that a child’s welfare can also depend heavily on the mother’s own needs being met.’
Near the end of her essay, I think she makes it clear why she felt it necessary to discuss the topic: ‘For the sake of both mothers and children, we need to begin detaching the myth of motherhood from the reality. It’s unfair of any society to expect women to be the best mothers they can be without economic or emotional support, just because they should love their children.’
I would like to think that as an obstetrician I am not a completely disinterested party in all this –although, of biological necessity, I approach the subject as a non-participant. And now, in retirement, perhaps even more so -I watch from the shadows, as it were, but I’m nonetheless attentive to the roiling milieu. It’s hard to ignore.
I was sitting in the corner of a coffee shop recently, enjoying the relative solitude, when two women sat down at the table next to mine.
“My daughter keeps foisting the kid on me whenever she wants to go out,” one of the women said to her friend.
“Emily, you mean?” the friend said with a slow, disapproving shake of her head. “And Jacob…” It was obvious that she objected to a mother –not to mention a grandmother- talking about her family as if they were nameless burdens. Then her expression softened. “My Louise used to do that, I remember. She’d show up at the door unannounced and put Andrew in my arms…”
The first woman took a sip of her coffee and shrugged. “I suppose they all do it, eh Joyce?”
Joyce smiled at the thought. “I used to enjoy the challenge of working Andrew into my day.”
Joyce was a happy person I thought, as I tried to pretend I was reading my book, unaware of their presence. She was probably in her fifties, dressed casually in a grey sweatshirt and dark green track pants, and looking for all the world as if she was enjoying her life.
The woman beside me, however, was tense. I could hear the frustration in the timbre of her words.
“It’s just not fair, though,” she said to Joyce, her voice almost whining.
Joyce’s eyes twinkled even in the soft light of the corner where we sat. “Mothers have to have a break, Mary…”
“Break?” Mary interrupted angrily, “I never got a break, Joyce! I had to bring up two kids all by myself after Ralph left… By myself!”
I could almost feel the exclamation mark slamming onto the table in front of her.
It clearly upset Joyce, and I could see her taking a deep breath before responding. “Wouldn’t you have loved it if you’d had someone to leave them with every once in a while?” Her eyes were spotlights focussed on Mary’s face.
Mary shrugged again. “But I didn’t, Joyce… That’s the point.”
A tenderness suddenly appeared on Joyce’s face and she extinguished the angry glare as she recalled her eyes. “But Emily does, Mary… And that’s the point,” she said, almost in a whisper.
I’d finished my coffee by that point, so I thought it might seem rude to continue to sit there and listen. But as I l pushed back the chair to leave, I couldn’t help but notice the smile that had finally surfaced on Mary’s face. And something deep inside me smiled, as well; the course of true love never did run smooth…