Maternal Instinct

Another Mother’s Day just past. The lifetime bond that many of us form with our Mom’s is a source of joy not only to them but also to merchants, florists, and interstate telephone companies who benefit from our tangible expressions of thanks, nostalgia, and love each year. According to researchers, the mother-child bond develops readily for most women. The term “maternal instinct” refers to “an inborn tendency to want to protect and nurture one’s offspring.” A high percentage of animal mothers (human and primate especially) eventually come to feel this way once babies are born.

The terms “bonding” and “attachment” are frequently used interchangeably, but in fact, have quite distinctive meanings.Bonding refers to the parent’s tie to the infant and is thought to occur in the first hours or days of life. Even in modern, high tech hospitals, efforts are made to create as much of a ‘cozy’ atmosphere in the birthing rooms as possible. . .to allow an intimate setting for mother, father, and child as they meet (and hopefully bond) for the first time.

In contrast, attachment refers to the relationship between infants and their primary caregivers, which tends to develop gradually. Infant-caregiver attachment seems to solidify during the second half of a child’s first year, though it builds upon the history of shared experiences/interactions during the initial weeks and months of early childhood. In this sense, we Dads and other non parental caregivers can develop strong attachments to babies and can develop and deepen these relationships over time.

“Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.” Rebecca West (1892-1983) British Author Even women who never considered themselves “baby people” before giving birth can (and often do) develop strong positive maternal emotions once they become mothers. How a woman feels about babies before she has one isn’t an accurate predictor of the kind of mother she’s likely to become. Additionally, there’s a lot of media pressure these days to be “the perfect Mom”, and many women develop a great deal of apprehension about their ability to succeed when perceived expectations are so high. “Doing what comes naturally” can be superceded by efforts to be the ‘t.v. perfect’ Mom.

Is nurturing an inevitable consequence of parturition? Perhaps not. Despite the research, there seem to be a large number of modern women who are not so sure that mothering comes naturally. There are mothers who feel overwhelmed, resentful, angry or sad after their child’s birth. If these feelings persist, hopefully friends, physicians and family will direct the mom toward appropriate counseling. It’s in the best interest of both parent and child that interventions and assistance occur as early as possible in these settings.

Clearly, parenting is on-the-job training. And, after experiencing a multitude of trials and tribulations in my own parental journey, I have even more gratitude for a Mother and Father who took their jobs seriously, and reared four children in the process. For those of us fortunate enough to have had happy and fulfilling childhoods, we’ve just celebrated our Mothers once again. The biology and the bonding generate indelible ties. And, to end on a more pragmatic note, sociologist Ann Oakley is quoted as saying, “Clearly, society has a tremendous stake in insisting on a woman’s natural fitness for the career of mother; the alternatives are all too expensive.”

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
May 2001