instinctive mothers

Instinctive Mothers : Are They Really Better? Overcoming the Social Stigma of Choice

Does instinctive motherhood or instinctive mothers actually exist?

Instinct has been defined as a behavior that is irresistible, automatic, and triggered by something in the environment. Further, it occurs at a particular developmental stage in all individuals of a species, requires no training, and can’t be modified. Clearly, motherhood is much more than just instinctive. If mothers believed it required no training, child care experts and parenting books wouldn’t exist. While there may be aspects of motherhood which are instinctual, many women resist becoming mothers.

For centuries women, however ineffectively, have utilized family planning methods. According to ancient records, those methods have included spermicide in the form of a lemon half and herbally induced abortions. Since contraceptives were invented and have become widely available, women now have the luxury of choosing not only when, but if, they want to have a child. However, women who choose not to have children are often stigmatized, and even labelled with some pretty insulting adjectives.

Manifestations of Social Stigma—Name-calling and Guilt

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed are among those adjectives. It’s also the title of a book, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed“, of essays by 16 different writers, both male and female, about choosing not to become a parent. It uses humor to counter the societal accusations of selfishness often directed towards women who choose something other than motherhood for personal fulfillment. Although some mixed reviews exist on the book, they also attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding motherhood, such as that women have a biological need to reproduce and that nothing else in life is as meaningful as having children.

Beyond the concept of the instinctive mother, motherhood is both a social expectation and a familial one. Women are often pressured by parents who are anxious to become grandparents, or siblings who want to become aunts and uncles, to become mothers. This pressure can be even more difficult to resist than a biological drive.

Biology and Choice

Today, many psychologists now believe that rather than all women being born instinctive mothers, their desire to be mothers may be a response to their social circumstances. For example, contact with babies alters hormone levels. Caring for younger siblings or babysitting for neighbors may serve as an environmental trigger. A host of other things, such as constant physical safety and material security can also serve as such triggers. The quality of the relationship with her own mother may also help determine a woman’s level of desire to become a mother.

Evidence is mounting that what was once believed to be an instinctive mother is actually motherhood as the result of a conscious choice. Further evidence shows that the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is not to choose motherhood. According to a recent article, in the 70’s only one in ten women remained childless throughout their lives. By 2010 that number had doubled to one in five. Among college educated women, it was one in four.

Reasons More Women Aren’t Choosing Motherhood

Aside from the availability of more effective birth control methods, one of the most compelling reasons more women are choosing not to become mothers is that there just isn’t enough social support. Rising costs have resulted in most families requiring a second income. That means that most mothers also have a paid job. This industrial economic shift took place before any supportive social systems were developed and put into place to accommodate the new parenting realities associated with industrialized society. The instinctive mother is becoming replaced by the adaptive mother.

One of those realities is that the important and time-consuming activities associated with the vocation of motherhood are unpaid. While they didn’t receive a wage, stay-at-home mothers did receive room and board in exchange for homemaking and child care.

Increasingly difficult economic conditions have resulted in women having to forego not just luxuries to stay at home with their children, but necessities. One of the environmental stimuli that triggers the hormonal element of the instinctive mother, economic security, is now often absent.

Some Famous Women Removing the Stigma of Childlessness

Popular actress Helen Mirren was once quoted as saying

“I have no maternal instinct whatsoever”

and is among those who have spoken openly about the stigma women who choose not to have children still face. For example, Julia Gillard, the prime minister of Australia was described as “barren” in the press. Such a word is pejorative in nature and conveys a sense of physical inadequacy as well as dry lifelessness.

Whether male political figures are fathers is rarely even discussed. Other women under the constant eye of public scrutiny who have chosen not to have children include Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and talk show host, author, and actress Oprah Winfrey.

Motherhood was once one of the only ways that women could contribute to society in a meaningful way. Now that nearly every profession has opened to them, women have a number of ways to contribute their talents and abilities to the wider world.

Motherhood is an admirable vocation, and enriches the world with children, their laughter, and their new perspectives and ideas. Society must do more to support instinctive mothers who pass on the best our generation has to offer to the next. However, it must also so more to support those women who choose to become not mothers, but role models in the form of living examples of the power of choice.

instinctive mother
Breton Brother and Sister, William Bouguereau, 1871, Credit Line Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Cathari

November 4,2015  |