Biology, Meaning of Words

Explaining Motherhood: Is it Instinctive?


Motherhood does not come with an instruction manual, yet somehow women take to their motherly duties seemingly by instinctive ability. Many who are thrust in this role by choice or by circumstance face a lot of anxiety but pursue their role tenaciously regardless of the self-doubt. Reflecting society’s high expectations for mothers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“Men are what their mothers made them.”

Is Motherhood Instinctive?

In 2013, close to 4 million births were registered in the U.S., indicating a slight decline in birth rate. Even as women pursue high-flying careers outside the home, it remains clear that motherhood is a milestone integral to the story arc. While blazing new trails in the professional world, women have displayed their capacity to cope with the traditional role as nurturer and primary caregiver to young children.

An interesting study conducted by researchers in Tokyo used magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs to monitor the reactions of mothers shown silent films of their own infant in comfortable and under stressful situations. The mothers’ reactions to seeing their infant in distress were particularly strong, suggesting an instinctive biological response to certain infant care demands according to the authors of the study.

On the other hand, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis takes a different view based on her research. Instinctive maternal responses exist, but her research propounds that maternal instincts are more correctly described as biological conditioning rather than true instinct. Hrdy believes that a woman can care for any child regardless of biological connection if she had the existing desire to be a mother and was given time to be with the child. She has been involved in primate research for at least three decades and “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection” discusses which maternal behaviors are biological, instinctive or wishful social constructs. For a more in-depth article on Hrdy’s views, go here.

Instinctive and Learned Strategies

It is understood that the tasks and responsibilities of mothers are varied, expansive and ever changing as the needs of the children evolve. Nonetheless, mothers are able to navigate this pathway with aplomb, adjusting to the demands on their time, physical, mental and social capabilities.

The so-called maternal instinct could best be described as a predisposition to a range of strategies and responses to certain circumstances. These responses could be learned from other mothers and mother figures. Personal experiences often provide social cues and the framework through which mothers can negotiate the tasks associated with being a mother.

Maternal behavior in the animal kingdom

One of the ways that scientists in various fields seek to explain the nuances of maternal behavior is by observing the behavior of mothers in the animal kingdom.

Giraffe mothers are known to sacrifice their own lives to lions that are after their calves. African elephants will attack vehicles that they perceive as dangers to their young. North American killdeer will lure predators away from the nest by faking a broken wing and sometimes losing their life in the process. There are also documented instances when mother animals would step in and take care of babies that are not theirs, which is something that human mothers do all the time.

Understanding what makes mothers tick is a fascinating subject as mothers have been romanticized and idealized in many ways. In the end, what matters most is that mothers are given ample opportunity and adequate support to define their own place in society.


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