Does a maternal instinct actually exist?

He was laying on my chest, this globular little human covered in undefined fluids, and I just stared at him with my mouth agape. I knew he’d just emerged from my own body – I certainly felt it happen – but I still couldn’t reconcile the idea that he, in fact, belonged to me. I searched his face for something that would help it all click into place. But that familiarity that I’d been expecting wasn’t written there. What was this squirmy little thing?

Later I’d realize that I’d been in shock. My brain hadn’t caught up with the physical event that had just happened, and I was reeling in physical and emotional confusion. This was partly due to a frightening, precipitous labor (I’ve since learned that this isn’t uncommon in these types of births), and also due to the fact that this was all new to me.

As minutes passed, I laid there waiting for that flood of love that everyone had assured me would come. I was hungry for that sense of wholeness that I’d longed for through rounds and rounds of fertility treatment, desperate to get to this point. As my baby’s own rooting instinct took hold and he searched my body for food, I found myself wondering why my own instincts seemed to have gone missing. I had no idea what to do next.

What was wrong with me? 

I’ve shared before that kids weren’t something I was certain I wanted while growing up. (They seemed so immature, after all – not great conversationalists.) So when I didn’t experience that rush of warmth and knowing that I’d expected upon the birth of my first child, I wondered if maybe the younger version of me had realized what I had later missed – I was missing some core gene that housed the maternal instinct.

When breastfeeding turned into an impossibility for me due to some medical issues, I wondered why I had tempted fate. Should I have taken infertility as my sign that this role wasn’t for me? Was my lack of connection to my son at first glance proof that I was an imposter? And as I waded through those early days and weeks of parenting, was my complete lack of direction yet another sign that I’d royally screwed up in this whole planning my life thing?

I now know – that it took me far too long to figure it out – that I was suffering from the impacts of birth-related trauma and postpartum anxiety (plus, a colicky baby), and those issues manifested in spiraling thoughts and painful self-doubts.

But as I talked to friends and later patients about their own experiences, I recognized pieces of my story in theirs. Some of them described that magical, oxytocin-fueled high holding their baby for the first time, but plenty of others had found themselves asking many of the same questions I had asked myself. Where the hell was the maternal instinct they’d been promised?

As it turns out, the maternal instinct is possibly the biggest piece of fake news we’ve been fed in the last several centuries. You read that right. The maternal instinct doesn’t actually exist.

I’ll admit that, despite what I just shared about my own struggle in finding it, it took me some time to fully accept that my search had been in vain.

Part of what made it hard to acknowledge was that over time, I had started to feel that deep and abiding love for my baby, and for my subsequent children. I did find myself being able to interpret their cries, feeling that part of my body was missing when I was away from them, and intuiting what they needed before anyone else could. So maybe I’d just had a late-onset instinct?

When I went back to my Psychology 101 notes, however, I realized that my connection to my kiddos was indeed not based on instinct. Instincts, as they’re scientifically defined, are biologically driven patterns of fixed behaviors that occur in response to stimuli. Take the diving instinct, for example: when a mammal’s face comes in contact with cool water, nose and sinus receptors signal their brain to close the airway and reduce the heartrate. The mammal couldn’t turn this off if they tried, as it’s happening outside of conscious or controlled awareness.

Mothering – and parenting more broadly – has actually been found to have none of these patterns of fixed behaviors. Human beings in general have fairly few instincts left, thanks to our developed brains that give us choice and flexibility. Certainly, if instincts were going to be preserved, a maternal instinct would have been a useful one for the sake of our species. But scientists simply don’t find good evidence of this.

When I talk about this with parents, moms are often quick to dismiss the science because it feels so disparate from their own experiences. “But I have that sixth sense about if my kid is awake in the other room,” they report. Or, “I just know how to calm my baby in a way that my partner doesn’t.” The reality is that these experiences are totally valid and likely very true. They just don’t come from instincts.

So where do they come from? They come from exposure, practice, and time. And moms, in general, get a lot of that – hence why our responsiveness to our children and our intuition looks so “natural.”

It’s the same phenomenon that happens with tasks like cooking or other domestic care. Women on the whole spend more time doing it, and so get better at it. Because they’ve become better at it, their partners feel less capable and so tend to expect – implicitly or explicitly – that women will take the lead on this task. Suddenly it’s become the “default” and the justification for that is that the one partner is simply “good at those kinds of things.” They just have an “instinct” for it.

Replace cooking with just about any childcare task and you find the same result. Women do tend to become better at soothing their baby because they tend to have many more hours per day having to soothe the baby. The toddler does demonstrate a preference for mom because they’ve spent more time with mom. It’s not a matter of gender. It’s a matter of practice.

I’m a sucker for time-use studies because they show in black and white and without bias what’s happening in a system. And what time-use studies repeatedly show is that mothers spend more hours per week engaging in childcare tasks. For coupled heterosexual parents with their youngest child under the age of one, fathers are spending about 55% of the time that mothers are engaging in childcare. If I went out and practiced pickleball twice as often as you, I’d probably be better at it than you.

It’s one of the many compelling reasons that parental leave for fathers is so critically important. The best form of this seems to be when it can happen early in the child’s life and when it involves solo parenting time by the father (otherwise moms tend to step in too much). With that time and practice, data shows that men get more of that critical practice and become just as skilled and confident as moms at the tasks of parenting.

So if the maternal instinct doesn’t actually exist, what is the life-altering pull that I have for my child? Put simply, it’s love and attachment, which in many ways is even a cooler explanation than instinct. The fact that we can grow into our roles as mothers and parents is yet another amazing way that we as human beings can evolve. The fact that we can build attachment and confidence in our skills is actually really hopeful too. It means that we aren’t expected to just “know” with each new phase of parenting – which hopefully translates to giving ourselves lots of time and grace to figure it out.

Years later, my final birth experience also happened quickly – this time so quickly that I didn’t make it to the hospital as I’d planned. I ended up giving birth in my dining room with the paramedics rushing in to try to assist. I was pushing my daughter out as they arrived, and they told me to stop so they could put me on a stretcher. I looked at them and almost laughed, and then proceeded to deliver my girl into the arms of her grandmother.

After the energy had calmed a bit, the paramedics – who I later learned had never delivered a baby – remarked that it just seemed like I knew what I was doing. “You really just did it yourself. Mother’s instinct, I guess.”

With my last child held close to me and the oxytocin flowing, I responded, “No, just a lot of practice.”

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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