“Maternal instinct is a myth that men created.”

That’s according to a recent essay in The New York Times by Chelsea Conaboy, who says it’s time to upend “pernicious” old ideas about motherhood that are rooted in distorted traditions.

Conaboy challenges cultural expectations about motherhood and how women are expected to experience it — a rapturous bonding in which a woman “is able to instantly intuit and satisfy her baby’s every need, and to do it all on her own.”

No question — cultural distortions around motherhood are real and damaging. There is a case to be made for tempering societal expectations of both mothers and motherhood.

But in the process, Conaboy reduces the profound biological, psychological and moral capacities of mothers to little more than a cultural construct designed to diminish them. Women deserve more than that. And we can acknowledge and celebrate the unique capacity that women have in motherhood, while spurning the cultural distortions that limit and warp that power and influence.

Let’s start with social media.

The online world of carefully curated images means that real life often is obscured, especially when the messy work of nurturing and caring for life is involved. And facing the challenge of caring for a profoundly vulnerable life can be inherently disillusioning, even without the constant bombardment of images that seem to show other women doing it effortlessly.

After a day of caring for a colicky baby, potty-training a toddler or talking through the social anxieties of a teenagers, most of us can’t help but ask, “How did my mother do this? Why didn’t she tell me?”

That is only more likely in a world where motherhood is portrayed as cherubic infants in designer clothes being snuggled by gorgeously made-up women sitting in perfectly designed Pinterest nurseries.  

Add to that the fact that, in recent decades, we have ratcheted up our cultural expectations of how intensively involved parents should be. The cultural forces that produced the “helicopter parent” came along with the cultural norm of “intensive mothering,” where being a “good” mother means birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping and accurately interpreting every cry and grimace, all while feeling deep joy and ethereal connection. 

Conaboy is right that our culture has for too long demanded that women, and especially mothers, be selfless, needless and wantless. She also recognizes that men have too often been left out of the picture, the long-standing result of industrialization’s creation of the separate spheres of work and home. Consequently, motherhood became identified with “disinterested love ready to sacrifice everything” to guard the hearth, whereas fathers came home to rest after leaving the “greedy, competitive world” of professional work.

In the process, fatherhood became narrowly defined as providing money, limiting fathers’ potential to influence and connect at home and leaving women responsible for the lion’s share of the work. That has long needed to change for the sake of both men and women, as well as their relationship. 

But if our efforts to increase shared responsibility for the work of home means we eliminate the reality of the unique and profound capacities of women and men, we have diminished the strength of both. The biological, psychological and moral capacities of mothers — as well as fathers – cannot be easily dismissed. 

For nearly a century, theorists and researchers have explored the significance of maternal influence on children’s development. In the past decade, unparalleled developments in the field of neuroscience have confirmed what we could only theorize about before. From the moment an infant leaves the womb, she has one primary task — to establish a bond of emotional communication with a caregiver she experiences as consistently responsive. Infants across the whole animal world look for a particular caregiver: their mother, whose heartbeat and smell, tone of voice and touch they know and for whom they immediately show a preference.

A mother, too, is psychobiologically primed to establish the bond through which the emotional communication between them, one that is essential for development, can occur. And so for months — face-to-face, body-to-body, sound-to-sound, brain-to-brain — they communicate and co-regulate, a mother intuitively regulating the emotions of the infant, who has little capacity to regulate them — minimizing negative feelings, while maximizing positive feelings, soothing and calming. 

In the process, an estimated 1 million new synapses form each second, leading to a doubling of the right brain in which the development of personality, capacity for attention, regulation of stress, capacity to experience and read emotions, development of self-awareness, social intelligence, empathy and capacity for intimacy is centered.

In neuropsychologist Allan Schore’s words, quite literally, “Mother nature and mother nurture combine to shape human nature.” 

That is an important beginning to continued, profound maternal influence. So much so that the landmark “Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development” by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development led researchers to conclude that maternal nurturing is the single strongest, most consistent influence on human development. 

That does not mean it is a perfect process. Estimates suggest that much of the time mothers will not read cues perfectly, and there will be ruptures and repairs over and over again in their connecting. But the psychobiological priming within mother and baby that propels this critical and remarkable process is nothing short of miraculous. Enough so that whenever it is possible to help a struggling mother we should do so, in order to increase her capacity to provide the essential connection needed for development.  

And what of fathers? Far from being secondary assistants or babysitters, neuropsychological development indicates that fathers also form a unique bond with a child that is important to the child’s development. Maternal influence and paternal influence are different systems. Each bond plays a critical role, beginning with the mother during the earliest period of development and the father taking a stronger role beginning in toddlerhood, each shaping different brain structures and processes. These distinct systems of maternal and paternal influence continue across development. 

In spite of these powerful “instincts,” the reality is that most of parenting is NOT spent in rapturous snuggling and joyful cooing. Much of the time we don’t know what to do to help our children, whether infant or teenager. And many of us will struggle with feeling overwhelmed, trying to meet needs that surpass the knowledge and skills of the most capable among us. But we do it because the connection is so profoundly meaningful, we hardly know how to measure it.

And as Brene Brown articulates, the messiness of the “imperfection” actually provides “our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning and love.” Pretending that there is some perfect instinct actually impedes our ability to be open to the experience of really coming to see, know, love, and connect with another soul. As K. William Kautz writes, “Perfection isn’t possible. Intimacy is.”

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Mary Eberstadt once wrote about the talented journalist Marjorie Williams, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the midst of a remarkable career. In a now-famous column written right before her death, Williams did not describe the political complexities she was so skilled at analyzing and to which she had devoted her career. Her last column, Eberstadt noted, was “of course, about her children.”

“To mothers and fathers who learn the hardest way of all that time really is short as a birthday candle, family and especially children aren’t everything; for most, they’re the only thing,” Eberstadt observed.

Maternal (and paternal) instinct is not a myth, though our cultural interpretations of it might be. Motherhood is a both a capacity and a responsibility. But it is also a profound privilege. 

Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.

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