Is the “maternal instinct” a myth?

The idea of a maternal instinct is deeply rooted in many human societies. But is there really such a thing? And can this powerful concept sometimes make lives harder – for mums who want their partners to play an equal role in care-giving, for dads who care deeply for children and for individuals who struggle to develop the feelings they’re told they should naturally have?

In this article, Sara Lindberg looks at some of the science, the psychology and its implications – and concludes that the so-called “maternal instinct” is more about “learning on the job” than any inborn, instinctive behaviours. “Parenting is a challenge you learn as you go.”

“Parents-to-be, experienced parents, and those thinking about having children are bombarded with the idea that maternal instinct is something all women possess. It’s expected that women have some sort of instinctive desire to have children and somehow also know how to take care of them, regardless of needs, wants, or experience. And while wanting to have children and take care of them is great, the idea that just because you’re a woman you should want kids (or that you should “instinctively” know what to do once they are born) is unrealistic and adds a whole lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress.”

“The word instinct refers to something innate — inborn or natural — involving a fixed behavioral response in the context of certain stimuli,” says Dr. Catherine Monk, a psychologist and professor of medical psychology in the departments of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center. 

Based on that definition, Monk says the idea of maternal instinct implies that there is an innate knowledge and set of caregiving behaviors that are an automatic part of becoming and being a mother. 

But in reality, “the idea of a maternal instinct can be quite exaggerated,” says Monk. 

History would have us believe that maternal instinct is what motivates us to want to have children and then know exactly what to do once they arrive. However, Monk suggests that a mother — or anyone parenting a newborn or child — learns on the job, through instruction, good role models, and observing what works and doesn’t with each child.