How the myth of maternal instinct perpetuates the myth of the Ideal Mother
Chelsea Conaboy on gender, neuroscience, and reimagining how we talk about new parenthood
In a piece for The New York Times entitled, “Maternal Instinct is a Myth that Men Created,” author of the new book, Mother Brain: How Neurosciences is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood, Chelsea Conaboy (on Twitter here and Instagram here) writes:
The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one. It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.
It keeps us from talking about what it really means to become a parent, and it has emboldened policymakers in the United States, generation after generation, to refuse new parents, and especially mothers, the support they need.
I’ve long privately and publicly railed against the notion that because mothers are supposedly “naturally” imbued with softness, gentleness, and an innate capacity for caregiving, we should not only be “naturally” good at care work and domestic labor, but we should enjoy it.
Even before I had specifically targeted maternal instinct as something to be viewed with suspicion if not downright antipathy, as soon as I had my first kid, I knew in my bones that the cultural belief that women are “good” at motherhood (and so should become mothers if they want to be considered “good” people) was a scam. I lack many, many characteristics of “natural motherhood” (read: gendered parenthood). I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly soft or patient, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself selfless. In the mornings, I’m frankly more concerned about feeding myself so as to avoid flying into a hangry rage than coddle my completely capable 10-year-old by toasting his bread for him. Nestled into my couch corner, earplugs in place, I hiss, “It’s my quiet time. You can make your own toast. Off you go.”
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I don’t conform to cultural maternal ideals and I never have, and if we want to weed the Ideal Mother™ from the garden bed of our collective understanding of parenting, we need to first tackle the roots. While there are many, many roots feeding the Ideal Mother™ (some of which are entwined with others!), maternal instinct is certainly a big one. So I was absolutely delighted to talk to Chelsea Conaboy about how the myth of maternal instinct undergirds the myth of the Ideal Mother™ and how neuroscientific research can help revolutionize the way we approach the massive identity/life shift of parenthood.
Sara: When did you first start thinking seriously about the maternal brain?
Chelsea: It really came from my personal struggles. My first son was born on the small side; he was five pounds 12 ounces. And we had just moved into a new house and we were mid kitchen-renovation and it was just a very stressful time and I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with worry for my baby, and all the usual things new moms worry about, but also worried about the worry itself. I felt like the worry was a sign that something was wrong with me, or something was missing, or that I had screwed up, that I had let my baby down already.
And so I went looking for answers, attempting to find something that could help me understand what was happening to me, and why I was feeling the way I was feeling. This was in 2015. My research on maternal anxiety showed me that there are significant changes in the brain in pregnancy and early parenthood, particularly in brain regions related to motivation, vigilance, and meaning-making. I found that these brain changes seem to underpin a lot of maternal anxiety and that these changes are part of a normative process of adapting to parenthood, you know? So that really shifted everything for me. It made me feel like, Yes I still have to deal with these feelings, but I don’t have to feel broken.
I was also able to understand that these feelings (like that hyper-responsiveness one feels in new parenthood) are part of this productive process that's actually helping me to adapt to this new role. Everyone’s brains change during new parenthood, so what does this mean for our lives as parents? And I remember sitting with friends and being like, The brain changes. It actually changes when we become parents! Why don’t we talk about that?
Sara: When did you start to think there might be a book to be written about all of this?
Chelsea: So I started to really focus on this issue of the maternal brain, and I wrote a piece for the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine about how maternal brain science impacted my own experience of motherhood, and also posed the question about why aren’t we talking about this and why isn’t this a part of prenatal education, right? The piece got a really huge response, and that’s when I thought there might be a book in it.
Sara: I feel like in early motherhood, we are set up to fail in so many ways. Especially if we’re socialized as female, many of us are raised to think that becoming a mother is the pinnacle of our achievements as women. It’s supposedly our “natural path” and all that essentialist nonsense. So on the one hand, we’re raised to think motherhood should fulfill us, but on the other hand, we’re given no tools to deal with the massive, emotional, physiological, existential shift of parenthood, right? And I really believe that if it was common knowledge that the maternal brain changes so profoundly, we’d be less likely to experience these personal freak-outs, you know? Like, Is something wrong with me because I’m worried my newborn is dead every time he’s sleeping? No – this isn’t unique to me. My brain is wired to be hyper-vigilant.
Chelsea: Yeah, I thought about that a lot in the process of writing the book. When I first started writing that Globe piece, I talked with a bunch of OBGYNs and asked, Why aren't we talking about this? And the message I got over and over was like, Well, you know, we don't have anything to precisely say about it yet. Like, the science is so new and there's nothing concrete we could do for individual parents, and we still have so much more research we need to do. But I kept thinking like, Maybe this research won’t change what parents can do, but it has the power to change their mindsets. And that really matters. I mean, if you bring a set of expectations into a situation, it really affects your mental health, and how you will respond to challenging circumstances. There’s a lot of research on this exact point, which I didn’t actually end up including in the book, but mindset matters. A lot. So I think that’s one good reason to arm parents with the basic understanding that the brain changes in pregnancy and early parenthood, and those brain changes will impact your experience.
Sara: Yeah, and it would be nice for doctors caring for pregnant people and parents to also be transparent about the fact that, like, throughout the vast extent of modern medicine, pregnancy and women’s bodies have not been deemed worthy of research or study or funding. Even if doctors could simply say, There’s a huge amount of research still to be done and we’re just now starting to tap into these findings, but one thing we know is that your brain and your body are going through immense changes. That would validate the belief that parenthood is a huge, serious life shift.
Chelsea: We have so many unanswered questions in addition to a whole host of stories we uphold as scientific fact that aren’t actually based in science. So it's like a double whammy of operating on the basis of a ton of unanswered questions and a slew of myths we pretend are answers to those questions, even though they’re nonsense.
Sara: Can you talk about some of those specific myths?
Chelsea: I mean, the big one is maternal instinct. This idea that women’s capacity for caregiving is wholly innate, automatic, and is particular to women, that only women possess this. In the book, I call the example of maternal instinct a classic case of disinformation; it’s something that seems plausible, has the illusion of science, and has been repeated over and over again, until we basically believe it reflexively. And even if we don’t believe it individually, it's been embedded in so much of our cultural conversation about parenthood, that we are influenced by it regardless of whether or not we consciously believe it. For example, I think I would’ve called the notion of the maternal instinct silly as a new mom, even though it completely shaped my own expectations.
The myth of the maternal instinct comes from religious ideas and the moral motherhood model that was essentially written into scientific theory at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century by men who were sometimes very explicit about their intentions. And they used the idea of maternal instinct as a way to socially control women, particularly white women. One of the people who wrote the most about maternal instinct in the early 20th century was a very staunch eugenicist who was very concerned about white women having enough babies to basically maintain white supremacy.
Sara: Yikes. And I would imagine it's a relatively easy pseudoscientific thing to argue because of course it’s a premise that rests upon the fact that humanity wouldn’t have survived this long without women’s built-in caregiving instincts or whatever, right?
Chelsea: Yeah, there's a stickiness to it. And I think one reason maternal instinct has been carried forward as fact is because it feels real. We do feel, like, biologically compelled to care for our children. And we see it in other people, like that kind of protectiveness, and nurturing impulse, you know? And then that feels like confirmation of it. My whole book is about these significant neurobiological changes and the actual transformation that comes with parenthood. So, yes, there are real biological shifts happening, but those shifts are different from what we’ve been taught (ie: maternal instinct).
Sara: You mentioned eugenics being a big contributing factor to spreading the myth of maternal instinct, and whiteness is so tied up with idealized maternity. How has the whole myth of the maternal instinct also been used to denigrate and harm marginalized folks and non-white people?
Chelsea: So after the Industrial Revolution, there was a separation of work according to gender. Women’s work was supposed to happen in the domestic sphere, and men’s work happened in the economy, in politics, and in religion. All of these things used to be intertwined, but after the Industrial Revolution, that all changed. Stephanie Coontz points out that a woman’s moral value in the home became really inflated post Industrial Revolution, and at the same time, immigrants, women of color, widows, and women from poor families were working outside of the home. Amy Westervelt writes about how many rules were developed during the early part of the 20th century that were meant to protect women in the workplace from unfair labor practices. And these rules were often born from the premise that potential and current mothers needed to be protected from being worked too hard. So some of these rules were like, shortened work hours and limits to the type of work women could do, but this ended up making women less appealing to employers.
These rules, along with many workplaces practices and labor laws, created a workplace standard to which women couldn’t easily meet. And at the same time, there’s this notion of a woman “naturally” belonging at home with her kids where she could live her truest “womanly” life. So if you were a Black woman who wanted to work because it provided value to your family, and so you could access a greater network of people to care for your children, and so you could provide a sort of backstop to your husband facing racial discrimination in his workplace, you were also demonized as a “bad mother” because you weren’t at home where culture mandated you should be. And I think this demonization of non-white mothers and Black mothers specifically has really carried forward throughout history.
And of course, the idea of the nuclear family is a very white ideal. So if you’re a mother of color who has a broader network of people caring for your children, you are not aligning with that nuclear ideal.
Sara: The premise of the goddess of the house is just patently absurd if you spend any time considering it. I mean, according to angel of the house lore, The Mother should be moral center of the home, and we should protect the home and its inhabitants at all costs. But if a mother isn’t in the home, she’s somehow not worthy of that same protection or granted the same moral power. Like, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, working-class mothers and mothers of color were often being mistreated in workplaces (along with their children), but that was “ok” because they were keeping the economy afloat. I mean, you can’t valorize motherhood when it’s convenient and wholly denigrate and ignore it when it’s not.
Chelsea: Absolutely. And that real or imagined woman who, like, gathered her children around her in her home and committed herself wholly to caring for them only existed because, you know, there was a 14-year-old Italian girl making that woman’s dresses in a factory, and there was, an Irish woman scrubbing her floors, and there was a Black woman doing whatever other tasks the angel decided she didn’t want to do herself, you know? So there’s always been a network of women working to support the angel of the house, and such a network has only ever been available to a very small subset of the population, and yet the woman benefiting from the network is upheld as an ideal for all women to aspire to.
Sara: In terms of my own research into momfluencer culture, there’s a new crop of angels in the house on social media. And they’re predominantly white, and they have various layers of privilege that enable them to project this angel fantasy. And sometimes this goddess of the home performance also intersects with a “mama bear” mentality. Like, Maternal instinct is everything, and you are the only expert on your own child, and your maternal identity can be effectively weaponized in all sorts of ways. But only if you’re the “right” sort of mother (read: white and class privileged). Could you speak to how the myth of maternal instinct can be weaponized for certain mothers and rendered meaningless for others?
I’m imagining a thin, conventionally attractive white woman with disposable income who chooses not to vaccinate her kids and claims her decision is based on her moral imperative to protect her children, and her maternal expertise trumps all other forms of expertise. But what would happen if a Black mother decided to, I don’t know, take her kid out of school because her kid was being subjected to racism? Like, is the Black mom’s “maternal instinct” given the same weight in this example as the white mom’s?
Chelsea: I mean, this maternal ideal and the myth of the maternal instinct have only ever been meant to apply to a select few, even though everyone else has been historically held to the same standard (but not granted the same authority). And this inequality was explicitly pushed forward into scientific theory.
Leta Hollingworth (who was problematic in her own way), responded to some of the early twentieth century psychologists writing about maternal instinct, particularly William McDougall, who was this notable eugenicist. And she was saying basically, like, “This is a lie. And I can see that this is a lie because you’re using the same tactics employed to compel soldiers to fight in wars to convince mothers to have more children.” And Hollingworth called it an overt attempt at “national aggrandizement” which really means “white national aggrandizement.” Maternal ideals have never been rooted in a scientific curiosity in how various mothers from various backgrounds in various life circumstances go about making the best decisions possible for their children. Ideals are always created to maintain certain standard around race and income.
Sara: I think we’re becoming more clear on how the myth of the maternal instinct plays out socially and culturally, and on a personal level. But I'm wondering how you think it plays into systemic issues?
Chelsea: I mean, deeply! We glorify mothers but we don’t support them and we allow them to be systemically undermined. Apart from a belief in the maternal instinct, why else would we not be giving mothers paid parental leave and universal, affordable childcare? There are no rationales not to provide these basic supports grounded in logic, science, best practices, or other country’s examples. I believe the leaders who come out and say, well, We don't want to pass universal paid leave or access to childcare legislation because we don't want women to leave their homes and let other people raise their children. Leaders have said that! And that’s completely grounded in the idea that it’s a mother’s natural role to be a caregiver and a domestic worker, that she’s the best at that type of work. She's naturally, biologically inclined to that labor and she has everything she needs within herself to do the job well.
When it comes to paid leave, maternal instinct paves way for the belief that women are meant to birth children, that they’re equipped with everything they need without needing additional time or support. The myth of the maternal instinct is also behind our complete lack of clinical care during the postpartum period. It is a wasteland! You know, there’s so much attention paid to us when we're pregnant, and then the baby arrives, and we have one standard six-week postpartum appointment, and that’s it! Maternal instinct also impacts maternal mortality increasing in the US, particularly for Black and brown mothers. We know that about 25% of those deaths stem from mental health conditions (sometimes leading to suicide). And we are doing so little as a country not only at the federal governmental level but also at the clinical care level. Professional groups have identified the need for more holistic postpartum care and there hasn't been a lot of movement. And so I think the myth of the maternal instinct is a really powerful force in our social policies and in our clinical models.
Sara: Yup. Even in how the pandemic played out, I mean, so much of mothers’ suffering can be blamed on gender essentialism and this myth that a mother is naturally equipped to manage the unmanageable. Mothers should keep their jobs afloat at home while their kids are online learning while also cleaning the home and cooking meals because they’re mothers and “mothers are superheroes.”
Chelsea: Right – mothers can do it!
Sara: And mothers should want to do it, right? That’s the other piece that endlessly incenses me. Like, if you’re not enjoying an aspect of motherhood, if you’re struggling with your maternal identity, or if it's not coming naturally, that’s an individual failing, not a broader cultural systemic failing. Also, like, back to pregnancy and the postpartum experience, I am frankly shocked when new parents don’t exhibit some sort of emotional and psychological upheaval during new parenthood. Like, I don’t have a single friend who hasn’t struggled in some capacity with the transition. The struggle is the norm!
Chelsea: Right. There’s this stress physiologist Molly Dickens, who studies the stress and systems of the body, particularly in the process of pregnancy and the postpartum period. And she told me “it's a fucking miracle” that anyone gets through this process without having some symptoms of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders solely based on biological factors (not even taking into account the societal factors!)
But yeah, our bodies and our stress regulation systems are pushed to the absolute max during pregnancy and the postpartum period and it’s all completely normal, but there’s a good reason psychological distress is a pretty universal aspect of this transition in life. And I wonder, if we could recognize this reality as a reality not a rarity, how much would we change?
I really like making the parallel between the transition to parenthood and the transition to adulthood through adolescence. We've pretty much all accepted this idea that adolescence is a time of really dramatic hormonal changes and really dramatic brain changes. It's fundamentally an adaptive time that helps us grow into adults, and it comes with incredibly elevated risks of mental illness, which require support. And pregnancy is a new stage of life that matches all of those parameters - the hormonal changes, high brain changes, high risk of mental health challenges that require support and all of it is also fundamentally adaptive.
Sara: I mean, do you think the reason the one life shift (adolescence) has been culturally and systemically accepted (and, at least in part, supported) and the other life shift (parenthood) hasn't been accepted in the same way is simply capitalism? If we accepted that the transition to parenthood is this huge physiological, emotional, and hormonal shift, then we’d need to give parents the support they need. And that support would require resources.
Chelsea: I do think that's a huge reason. I also think there are social forces at play. So my recent piece on maternal instinct for The New York Times got thousands of angry responses on the Times website itself and across social media, and these comments were largely from men. So while I think capitalism is absolutely a factor, I also think there’s a cultural unwillingness to reconsider our definitions of gender. Parenthood is one of the most gendered arenas of our lives, and changing how we talk about motherhood and how we treat mothers would also require people to change how they think and feel about women generally. And we know that seems to be hard for a lot of people.
Sara: Yeah. That's so depressing that the piece generated such negative feedback. I mean, I’m not surprised. But it sucks.
Chelsea: Yeah, it does, and it’s really sad. But I also felt like, Oh, I'm getting something here. I mean, calling out the maternal instinct as a myth is a necessarily provocative idea. And it sucked to deal with the negative attention for those few days, but it ultimately made me feel like the piece and the topic was important, and that I need to be talking about this.
Sara: 100%. You also point out in your NYT article that there are more honest conversations about mothering and about the construction of motherhood happening now. How do you see those broadening conversations moving the needle forward?
Chelsea: I feel most hopeful when I think about young people, right? Younger people becoming parents who possess a different understanding of gender and also a greater understanding of what it means to be a parent. Many more fathers are engaged in parenting, and many more trans and non-binary people are becoming parents and sharing their stories. And also, for the book, I talked to Nancy Folbre, who’s an economist and has written a lot about gender. And she posited that maybe we haven't been talking about the parental brain because men are afraid of having their attention captured by babies. And maybe women are also having fewer babies because we’re afraid of the same thing.
I think that’s true, but I also think that as more men engage in parenthood and experience that sense of capture, they’ll also better understand the risks and strengths of parenthood, and they’ll hopefully carry that knowledge into positions of power, which hopefully will effect change. But it’s slow change.
I mean, I’ve looked at some of the Instagram accounts you write about, and in some ways, they’re parallel to the angry commenters on my article. Both are endorsing this traditional idea of motherhood that is so extreme it feels absurd, right? It feels like these momfluencers and the angry men commenters are both displaying fear and discomfort with societal norms (slowly) shifting.
Sara: I mean, yeah, historically, when progress happens, it's one step forward, two steps back. One thing I was thinking when you were talking about the future generation, is like, I talk constantly about how hard parenting is with my kids. I'm just very transparent about how it's hard and how and why I struggle with it sometimes. So I do think that many kids today are disabused of the notion that like, mommy is just this “naturally” nurturing, patient, selfless goddess.
Chelsea: In our house, we talk way more openly about all things than how we talked in my household growing up. Including mental health! I talk to my kids about my anxiety, and how it feels and how I cope with it, you know? And my kids also have a completely different understanding of gender than what I grew up with.
My kids are even often prompting my husband and I to do better about educating ourselves, you know? So I just think all of these things are really powerful and are related to the stories we tell around parenthood.
Sara: Yes, totally. Anything else you wanted to mention that I didn't ask about?
Chelsea: In the book, I also talk about the nature of connection and attachment between parents and kids, which I think is related to the sorts of momfluencer accounts that make the connection between mother and child look so warm, fuzzy, and idyllic.
One of the accounts you sent me to peruse featured this mom, like, essentially playing dress-up in this big Victorian dress as she’s breastfeeding her child.
I spent a lot of time while writing this book grappling with how the research on attachment and parental brains is grounded (to a large degree) in the notion of maternal instinct. And I think my favorite part of the book is probably the part that addresses the fact that attachment doesn’t feel one way. We are taught to see attachment as a sort of formula, right? If you do these specific things, you will have a healthy pregnancy. If you do these specific things (vaginal birth, breastfeeding, spending all your time with your baby), you will have a healthy attachment.
Sara: I want you to keep going but omg Dr. Sears, Dr. Sears, Dr. Sears!!!
Chelsea: Exactly, exactly. There's a whole section about the Sears’ in the book, and like, by the time I had my kid in 2015, the Sears’ were starting to fall out of fashion, but the ideas they spread and popularized were still so prevalent.
Sara: I had my first kid in 2012 and I had the Dr. Sears pregnancy book (I remember making Martha’s “pregnancy salad” recipe sob sob), the Dr. Sears postpartum book, the Dr. Sears toddler book. And all of it wrought absolute havoc on my mental health. I just remember reading passages and sobbing, you know?
Chelsea: Ugh - yes! Chapter four in the book deals a lot with the Sears’ and attachment parenting. So at the start of the pandemic, my kids were two and four, and it was a really intense time in my own parenting journey, and I was absorbing intensive parenting stuff from social media and also researching parenting literature about the science of attachment parenting. And I remember like, losing my temper with my kids in the morning, and going to our home office for the afternoon (when my husband took over childcare) to sift through studies about how how a parent’s emotional control shapes their kid’s emotional control, and I was reading this stuff just losing it, you know?
Sara: Oof, YUP.
Chelsea: It’s hard to explain briefly, but ultimately, the conclusion I’ve drawn form my research is that attachment and connection is all about attention. Children’s frontal brains are shaped by our attention as parents.
And attention feels many different ways, and can play out in many different ways. And it doesn't always feel warm and fuzzy! It can be full of anxiety or worry or stress; attention simply means looking at your child and trying to meet their needs. And you can make mistakes in trying to do that, and those mistakes are actually an inherent part of the process. The whole point of our brains, basically, is to predict our future needs, and to figure out how to distribute our energy and our resources to meet those needs.
And when we become parents, the actual networks of our brains that enable us to make those predictions are extended to now also include the needs of our children. And you can't get accurate predictions without prediction errors. So the mistakes are part of the process. Mistakes are not a sign that we're bad parents or have failed our children. Mistakes are an inherent part of how we best serve our children.
And yeah, so the science shows that connection looks and feels very different for different people, and it reflects a really wide diversity of human caregiving.
Sara: I'm so glad you brought that up. Because you’re so right, our default understanding of a “healthy attachment” or “healthy connection” comes back to imagery and gender. Like, the picture of a pretty, femme mom with her baby nestled against her skin or whatever. It’s not a dad in the basement with his kid playing Jenga or Mario Kart or whatever.
Chelsea: Right, and if we want that pretty mom to be blissed out on skin-to-skin bonding with her baby, we also need to have a social system that allows her time off to do the bonding; that makes sure she has financial security; a partner or friends or extended family members cooking, cleaning and taking care of her other children. And back to that Instagram post, the caption reads: “Mother and child,” and like, we valorize mothers and babies as if they exist in space with nothing else around them, and that’s never the truth.