Is There Really A Maternal Instinct?

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Sweet Mother
By Rosemary Ekosso
When I was a teenager in the Cameroon, my mother returned home one day and told me that a girl had just been arrested by the gendarmes for throwing her new-born baby in a pit latrine.
“We women went there and booed her”, my mother said, a look of determined satisfaction on her face. I was going through my teenage shocker phase at the time, and I told her that many of those women were hypocrites because they had daughters who had had abortions on the quiet, and that the girl who had thrown her child in a pit latrine was no worse than the ones who could afford an early abortion performed by a doctor.
Abortion is illegal in Cameroon, but there are myriad ways of getting around the law. In fact, the major considerations among women who want to have abortions, or people who push them to do so, seem to be discretion and the possible effect on the women’s health.
I am not, by the way, making any case for or against abortion.
The girl arrested by the gendarmes is not alone. Many of us have heard of women who killed their new-born children. Many of us have had girlfriends or wives who have had one or more abortions. Many of us have, in fact, been the girlfriends or wives who had the abortions. Others have urged pregnant women to have abortions.
Why do we do it?
Sara Blaffer Hrdy, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis, says in a book published in 1999, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, that it is because there is no such thing as a maternal instinct.
She has been studying maternal behaviour for more than three decades, and her research has covered both languor monkeys and centuries of birth records and even telephone directories in Europe, which show a frighteningly frequent history of infant abandonment. In addition to humans and monkeys, thirty-odd other species carry out infanticide.
Hrdy says: “Mothers do not automatically and unconditionally respond to giving birth in a nurturing way.”
I thought that prolactin was supposed to promote nurturing behaviour. It seems though, according to Hrdy, that while prolactin encourages nurturing, protective and defensive behaviour, even in men (yes, they too secrete prolactin), it is also linked to other emotional tendencies, including aggression and postpartum depression.
She says later: “A woman who is committed to being a mother will learn to love any baby, whether it’s her own or not; a woman not committed to or prepared for being a mother may well not be prepared to love any baby, not even her own.”
What Hrdy rejects is the convenient idealisation of motherhood. She agrees that there are maternal responses, but thinks they are biologically conditioned, and cautions against the improper use of the word instinct.
Given the history of infanticide, I tend to agree somewhat. There can be some doubt about who the father of a child is, but there cannot be any doubt as to its mother. This means that based on natural selection, mothers are more sensitive that fathers to the needs of their children.
It does not mean that they will be unconditionally sensitive, or that when other concerns, such as social status, money, revenge, convenience and career are present, the women will invariably choose their children.
I think the whole motherhood thing is affected by the social organisation in which we live. Because women stayed at home and looked after the home and the children when men went out hunting, they became very good at it. Girls are taught from childhood to understand that they will be mothers one day, and everything in their upbringing prepares them for that role. But even with such careful preparation, the system fails. It fails more often than people are prepared to admit.
It is frightening to think that your mother might not have wanted to have you if your birth was likely to deprive her of things she felt were more important.
It is so frightening that when women, especially feminists, try to suggest that the mothering instinct is only a convenient figment of our social imagination, they are criticised and described as unnatural.
But look at cultures like some in India, where there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the population. In most countries in the world, there are approximately 105 female births for every 100 males. According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing from India’s population as a result of systematic female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.
The reason some Indians kill their daughters is because they will have to pay a huge dowry when the girl gets married, and this might lead to financial ruin. So they attack the problem from the outset, and kill their daughters before they become too expensive. The mothers who do this, or allow this to be done, go on to have and love other children.
The same happened in pre-communist China. According to Ansley J. Coale and Judith Banister in Five Decades of Missing Females in China, “A missionary (and naturalist) observer in the late nineteenth century interviewed 40 women over age 50 who reported having borne 183 sons and 175 daughters, of whom 126 sons but only 53 daughters survived to age 10; by their account, the women had destroyed 78 of their daughters.” Communist China was also very keen reducing the birth rate, and as a result, Census data from 2000 found a national average of 117 boys born for every 100 girls.
Whatever the reasons for infanticide, we all know it exists. The question this raises is what it means for the idea of maternal instinct. Is this a myth that is essential for the fabric of society as we know it, and which, therefore, cannot be challenged for fear of giving women the kind of ideas that might endanger this fabric? Or is there indeed a special, mystical link between a mother and her child that has nothing to do with the hormone prolactin?
Are women natural mothers or do they have to work at it?
As this is a relatively new area of research, it is too early to tell for sure. But I detect ominous rumblings, and I fear that they will only become louder with time. If all women were constantly and unremittingly maternal, we would not have wicked stepmothers. And if un-maternal behaviour was a rare aberration, we would not have so many cases of abortion and infanticide.
Rosemary Ekosso is with the International Court of Justice, the Hague, Netherlands. She blogs at
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