Understanding motherhood: how maternal instinct emerge, can it be lost

Motherhood is a profoundly significant aspect of many women’s lives. The arrival of a new baby is always a momentous and unforgettable occasion. It’s often believed that the love for a child is driven by a natural, inherent mechanism known as the maternal instinct. But does this instinct truly exist? If it does, why do some women abandon their children, and if not, why do we continue to have children generation after generation? Most importantly, what should a mother do if she finds herself feeling that she doesn’t love her child? Let’s delve into these questions and unravel the complexities of the maternal instinct.

Unraveling the Concept of “Maternal Instinct”

The term “instinct” typically describes standardized, genetically programmed behaviors. Many animals exhibit instincts—simpler creatures often rely more heavily on instincts. For instance, spiders instinctively weave intricate webs without any external guidance, and birds migrate south for the winter without the need for a navigator or compass. Furthermore, animals care for their offspring and often sacrifice their own resources for their young, even if it threatens the mother’s survival.

The maternal instinct is widespread among most animals, particularly those that give birth to only a few offspring during their lifetime. The fewer the offspring, the more extensive the care provided by the parent. For instance, fish seldom protect their eggs or actively watch over their fry, as they produce many offspring, and survival depends on the fittest. In contrast, mammals are highly involved in nurturing and feeding their young.

Does the Maternal Instinct Truly Exist?

On one hand, humans possess advanced nervous systems, allowing them to learn, generalize experiences, adapt, and create new behaviors. Human behavior is not rigidly predetermined by nature, as it is in many animals.

On the other hand, proponents of “human instincts” often point to the instinct of self-preservation and the maternal instinct. However, the existence of suicide and self-harm contradicts the concept of a self-preservation instinct. Furthermore, the absence of a unified genetic program for child-rearing in women does not confirm the presence of a maternal instinct.

In this context, let’s define the “maternal instinct” as an individual complex of emotional and behavioral responses toward a child, characterized by a profound attachment and love for the child.

The Mechanism of Attachment Formation and the Absence of Maternal Instinct

If humans lack instincts, how does the attachment between a mother and her child form? The answer lies in the hormones produced in a mother’s body during pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. Pregnancy hormones—estradiol and progesterone—make women more sensitive and calmer, reducing stress. During labor, oxytocin, estrogen, and endorphins come into play, stimulating contractions and alleviating pain. The hormones produced during breastfeeding—oxytocin and prolactin—stimulate milk production, reduce aggression, and heighten attachment to the child. These hormones also help erase painful memories of labor and facilitate postpartum recovery. This underscores the importance of early breastfeeding.

The Significance of the Maternal Instinct

While the birth of a child is a joyous occasion, the demands of caring for a helpless infant can be overwhelming. Some newborns cry incessantly, which can lead to feelings of aggression in exhausted mothers. To address this, evolution has developed a mechanism where mothers form strong attachments to their offspring, demonstrating care and enduring sleepless nights and emotional exhaustion.

When and How Does the Maternal Instinct Emerge?

The maternal instinct is not a straightforward, uniform concept, and its onset varies among women. Some women begin experiencing it even before they consider having children, while others may awaken to it during pregnancy or lactation. Some may not feel its effects until later, but this does not mean they won’t love their child; their love may be more conscious and mature.

Approximately a year after childbirth, the hormonal instinct wanes. By this time, most women have adapted to caring for their child and developed a bond that isn’t solely dependent on hormonal factors.

Can the Maternal Instinct Be Lost or Absent?

There are instances where a newly birthed mother doesn’t immediately feel strong emotions for her child. In the early days, this is normal. However, if postpartum blues persist, leading to exhaustion and signs of postpartum depression, it indicates a physiological imbalance that prevents the mother from experiencing unconditional love for her child. Seeking medical or psychological help is crucial in these situations.

If a mother is functional and cheerful but still lacks strong emotional feelings for her baby, it’s advisable to consult a psychologist. Delving into her emotions and understanding the root causes can potentially help awaken genuine love for the child. It’s important to distinguish between fatigue and a lack of maternal instinct. Feeling fatigued after a few hours of separation from the baby is normal, but if after two hours of comforting the baby, a mother still feels no love, it’s more likely exhaustion than a sign of a “cruel mother.”

Can the Maternal Instinct Be Developed?

As mentioned earlier, maternal instinct development is closely tied to hormones produced during breastfeeding. Thus, breastfeeding is highly beneficial not only for providing essential nourishment but also for fostering maternal love. If breastfeeding isn’t possible, cuddling, playing, and interacting with the baby can also stimulate oxytocin release—the love hormone.

Maintaining a balance between rest and quality time with the baby is crucial. While it’s essential for a mother to recharge, spending time bonding with the baby helps develop attachment and love.

Is There a Paternal Instinct?

Unlike mothers, fathers don’t undergo the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Therefore, the term “paternal instinct” is not widely recognized in scientific literature. A father’s love for his child is influenced by various factors, including his dreams, personality traits, attitude toward the child’s mother, and the time spent with the child. Fathers who actively participate in the pregnancy and childbirth process tend to form stronger attachments with their children.

It’s normal for men to feel somewhat detached from their newborns initially. Many fathers describe their initial impressions as surprise and disappointment at the absence of immediate warm feelings. Their primary concern often revolves around the well-being of their partner after childbirth, as they’ve known her much longer than their newborn child.

To develop stronger paternal love, it’s beneficial for men to actively engage in pregnancy and childbirth preparations, creating a sense of anticipation even before the child’s arrival.

Maternal Instinct Test

To assess whether you’ve awakened the maternal instinct, consider the following statements:

  • You enjoy holding your child, cuddling, and playing with them.
  • You’re captivated by your child’s actions and expressions.
  • You miss your baby if you haven’t seen them for a few hours.
  • You feel concerned when your child is unwell or behaving unusually.
  • You experience mixed feelings when people outside the immediate family play with your baby.
  • You become anxious when you lose sight of your baby.

If you answered positively to most of these statements, congratulations! Your maternal instinct has been awakened. If you responded mostly negatively, it’s worth reflecting on why your maternal instinct may be weaker or seemingly absent.

What Makes a Good Mother?

A good enough parent is someone who loves their child, grows with them, and acknowledges their imperfections. Such a parent is willing to recognize problems and actively seek solutions.

Here are a few tips from a psychologist on how to become a good enough parent:

  • Prepare for pregnancy, both emotionally and financially, and ensure the child is desired.
  • Educate yourself on child psychology and pedagogy to better understand the dynamics between you and your child.
  • Establish clear roles and responsibilities with your partner, paying attention to their involvement in household and childcare duties.
  • Spend quality time with your baby—holding, playing, and cuddling. This promotes relaxation for the child and fosters a sense of attachment.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek help and advice when needed, but be cautious about potentially harmful advice. It’s impossible to know everything, but addressing problems and actively working toward solutions is essential.

Loving your children is a simultaneously challenging and rewarding journey. Every woman approaches this task in her unique way, but with patience, self-discovery, and support, she can find her path to acceptance and effective child-rearing. Additionally, reading books by experienced teachers and psychologists can provide valuable insights and answers to many questions along the way.