Why The Maternal Instinct Myth Can Be Harmful + What To Rely On Instead
Becoming a parent can be a monumental experience. Not only are you adding a new person to the family, but your entire dynamic can change in an instant. For women, in particular, the pressure to be a "perfect mom" can be pretty overwhelming. And no, we're not just talking about creating the perfect Instagrammable healthy school lunch—we're talking about the expectation of "maternal instinct."
In theory, maternal instinct sounds like a great concept since it makes it seem like motherhood is the most natural thing in the world. And while there's plenty to love about being a mom, most parents would agree that the transition into parenthood is anything other than easy and seamless.
What is maternal instinct?
For some people, maternal instinct implies that a woman wants to have children. More often, maternal instinct refers to the concept that, somehow, a woman's nurturing intuition will naturally kick in after giving birth. Suddenly, she'll know exactly what that tiny human needs without any guesswork, and she'll naturally transition into parenthood with zero hiccups along the way.
Either way you look at the concept, it almost exclusively focuses on women and children. This reinforces an idea about women not only wanting children but also being innately equipped to care for them. Anything that deviates from this idea is considered the negative exception.
Is it real or a myth?
Some women know from a young age they want to one day have children, and there are others who are just naturally comfortable caring for children. But as most parents will agree—especially with their firstborn—learning how to care for a newborn can be far from easy or instinctive.
Some studies point to early emotional bonding between mothers and their babies especially through the release of oxytocin during breastfeeding. Likewise, some studies point to early prenatal bonding occurring around the time that a pregnant woman first feels their baby move. None of those studies, however, support the idea of an inherent maternal instinct.
In short: Yes, the idea that all women have a "maternal instinct" is a myth. According to a 2018 study that researched attachment between new moms and their babies, it's not uncommon for women to struggle to feel connected1 to their newborn or have a sense of "motherly love" toward them immediately following birth.
Even though behaviors like skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding can aid in attachment, many of the women who participated in these studies took up to a week to express feeling a real connection. In some scenarios, it even took months for that bond to occur.
This topic gets even more complicated when you add in the reality of postpartum depression2, which can make the bonding experience more difficult or delayed for moms who struggle with it. Trying to manage newborn care while also juggling emotional strain is a tall order.
Other documented issues that can delay maternal connections include experiencing a traumatic birth3 that delayed holding the baby, not having the birthing experience4 you wanted, and the jarring reality of caring for a newborn5. These feelings of disconnect are actually quite normal. But due to societal pressures dictating that a woman should instantly feel bonded with her baby, many women expressed guilt and shame in countless studies when they didn't feel that immediate connection.
Why you should rely on community & support over instinct.
It's normal to feel overwhelmed with the realities of motherhood. No matter how picture-perfect your fantasy parenthood experience was supposed to be, just know that there are going to be hiccups. Every baby is different, and even though you just spent nine months carrying them, you're both getting used to each other.
As alluring as the notion of an innate maternal instinct might be, it's also a double-edged sword that can prevent you from getting help when you need it. By trying to adhere to the ideal that you should naturally know how to do everything—even if you've never cared for small children before—you're setting yourself up for failure.
When you struggle with a specific task like breastfeeding, transitioning to solids, or even potty training (which are perfectly common struggles), you'll measure your actions against a mythical concept that's impossible to uphold. Likewise, relying on "maternal instinct" as a hardwired force in those who give birth ignores the reality that fathers6 and foster parents are just as capable of performing child care tasks and experiencing increased oxytocin when engaging in bonding activities with their children.
Rather than subscribing to the notion of maternal instinct, embrace the idea that it takes a village to raise a child—lean on your friends and family for help when you need it. If you're struggling with breastfeeding, ask your mom, friends, other relatives who have experience, or seek out a lactation consultant who can provide personalized attention and help. Can't get a swaddle just right? Try again, or skip it and get a wearable baby blanket instead. There are plenty of options, and you shouldn't have to go it alone.
Resources to cultivate.
When you're in the thick of parenting, it can be a bit overwhelming. And from time to time, you might need outside help that you can't necessarily get from your "village" of friends and family. Finding credible outside resources is critical for getting support when you need it.
For when you hit a rough patch in parenting:
Even if this isn't your first time at the parenting rodeo, it's understandable if you have questions from time to time. Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing is an online resource created by Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., a former president of the American Psychological Association and the current director at the Yale Parenting Center. This site is packed with research-backed parenting tips to aid in conflict resolution and effectively manage problematic behavior.
For when breastfeeding gets hard:
Breastfeeding does not always go as planned. Getting qualified support—plus access to a local group of moms to help minimize feeling isolated—is important. While La Leche League's primary focus is on encouraging wider adoption of breastfeeding, their judgment-free philosophy and in-person groups can ease early motherhood anxieties.
For when you need science-backed health info:
Even experienced parents don't have all of the answers. Created as a user-friendly portal by the American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org is an online source that's perfect for looking up quick health-related facts about everything from prenatal topics through the teen years.
For when it's more than baby blues:
For managing the added expense of children:
Babies are wonderful, but they represent major expenses and legal complications for items like wills, guardianships, and more. Learn how to budget for a family, how to create a 529 college savings plan, or when to update your life insurance policies with Exhale Parent.
The verdict: There's no right way to be a mom.
Everyone's parenting style is different, and it's OK if you don't do everything just like the other moms in your life. Rather than holding yourself up against impossible standards or what the lead mom in your PTA group is doing, focus on what really matters. Every parent's goal is to raise a child who's not only self-sufficient but who's also emotionally mature and makes the world a better place with their presence.
Maternal instinct is a concept that is used far and wide in popular culture. However, the research doesn't necessarily back it up. And we say, that's a good thing: Instead of falling back on an "innate" ability to parent, learn to reach out and create a community to help you raise your child.
Dorian Smith-Garcia is a diverse writer across beauty, fashion, travel, parenting, consumer goods, and tech. She has written for Inverse, Healthline Parenthood, The Confused Millennial, XONecole, Glowsly, and The Drive along with a variety of other publications. She is a bridal and beauty expert/influencer and the creative director behind The Anti Bridezilla. When Dorian's not writing she's collecting stamps in her passport, learning new languages, or spending time with her husband and daughter.