Biology, Meaning of Words

Is there a biological instinct for becoming or being a mother?

being a mother

Are we primed or urged into being a mother? One would think so.  The immediate answer is yes. If not our species would not continue. However, we can easily see today is that women are giving more thought to having children and being a mother then ever before. So in point of fact, the immediate answer might be wrong. Let us have a look at how the experts define the words.

Defining the word ‘Instinct’

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“The words instinct and instinctive have borne a variety of meanings in the many different contexts in which they have been used. (…) For example, instinct can refer to reflexive or stereotyped behaviour, to an intuitive hunch, to a congenital aptitude or disposition, to a deep-seated impulsion (e.g., “maternal instinct”), to ways of acting that do not appear to have involved learning or experience in their development, or to knowledge that is inborn or subconsciously acquired. The concept of instinct is complicated by the fact that it ranges across behavioral, genetic, developmental, motivational, functional, and cognitive senses.”

Darwin was also well aware that the term instinct was used in several different senses. At the beginning of the chapter “Instinct” in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin declined to attempt to define the term:

“Several distinct mental actions are commonly embraced by this term; but everyone understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests. An action, which we ourselves require experience to enable us to perform, when performed by an animal, more especially by a very young one, without experience, and when performed by many individuals in the same way, without their knowing for what purpose it is performed, is usually said to be instinctive. But I could show that none of these characters are universal.”

Prudency with ‘Instinct’

Darwin was prudent with the word ‘Instinct’ and so was Freud. Although Sigmund Freud wrote in German, he used the German word Instinkt infrequently (here is an interesting article on Helen Deutsch, a colleague of Freud). He instead relied upon the term Trieb. While Instinkt generally refers to an automatic, unlearned response to a specific stimulus and hence is close to the English reflex, Trieb connotes urge, impulse and desire—what in motivational psychology is called drive. Freud took early on the biological view that there are two basic instinctive forces: self-preservation and reproduction. In 1915 Freud published a paper titled Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” where the self-preservation instinct virtually disappeared and sexual appetite dominated.

Even today, behavioral scientists, if they use the word instinct at all, generally restrict its use to specific patterns of behavior of animals. They rarely use it for being a mother.

Urge for being a mother

So we know from Freud we need to dissociate sexual appetite and urge for being a mother. Women today have no longer children as an outcome of sexual intercourse.  This dissociation can best be illustrated with figures on delaying pregnancy. Figures published in the beginning of the 21st century by the UK Office for National Statistics indicate that the pregnancy rate for women aged 40 and over has risen by more than 40 per cent in the last decade. Over the same period, pregnancy rates for women under 30 fell by nearly 15 per cent. (Laurie Taylor & Matthew Taylor, What are children for?, 2003, Short books, UK, p.52). If there was a biological instinct that told women to desire children or being a mother, then somebody must have changed the hour of alarm with a couple of decennia.

Not only are women delaying their motherhood but they decide also to have less children. To replace the European population couples need to have 2.1 children. Spain leads the way in Western Europe with a rate of 1.22 per woman, followed closely by Italy with 1.25 and Greece with 1.30. The UK has 1.64. Although France is proudly leading with 1.89, in general the northern countries have a higher rate than the southern. This is not at all surprisingly because the northern countries give women with children a different social role and much more support, not only with childcare.  Being a mother  or the social role at least is defined differently. The fertility rate across Europe is now 1.5. Without any changes in the current rates, and without  massive immigration, the population of the European Union will shrink from its current 375 million to 75 million by 2200.

Women have changed and will continue to change in the next decennials without a doubt. They chocked us before. To delay childcare or to only want a singleton must have come close to bravery considering the social condemnation. Being a mother of only one child has become much more acceptable : one family out of five in the US has a singleton. Women will continue to chock traditional audiences when voluntarily having children alone, with another woman or not at all. They will continue to divorce men because he was unsupportive in family life and childcare, the number one divorce reason nowadays.

Maybe nature has only foreseen sexual desires to make sure our species continue. Once a baby is born, nature has foreseen physiological reactions to make sure it gets fed and survives. But anything beyond becomes much more blurry.

being a mother
Nursing area sign by Pete Unseth. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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