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    Is the idea of ‘maternal instinct’ a myth?

    Rebecca Gale

    THE WASHINGTON POST – Like so many women in this country, Chelsea Conaboy went back to work shortly after having her first baby. She sat in a makeshift closet, trying to pump breast milk, and wondered when the magical “maternal instinct” she’d heard so much about would kick in.

    “I had this ingrained sense that there would be a biological process that carries me through those early hard days,” she said. “When it didn’t happen as I expected, I thought something was broken in me.”

    Conaboy eventually realised she was like countless others who struggle with some part of the transformation to new parenthood. So Conaboy, a health and science journalist, began researching what she calls the myth of the maternal instinct, and how it has been perpetuated.

    She talks to us here about her new book, Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood, the science behind parenting, gender roles and human attachment, and how we need to reshape the outdated and false narrative that has limited our lives and experiences. (This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

    Q: You write that this concept of a maternal instinct was created as a cheap, nonscientific device designed to push women to have a lot of babies. Why has that concept been so widely accepted as truth, and what has begun to change?

    A: The thing that I take issue with is that this is an “instinct.” An instinct is a rigid idea, a fixed pattern of behaviour. Parenthood is not automatic. It’s a major transition and an upheaval from the brain.

    The maternal instinct idea was written into scientific theory in the early part of the 20th Century by religious men who had a stated interest in compelling White, well-off women to have more babies.

    One of my favourite parts of the book is when Leta Hollingworth calls these myths “cheap devices”. She was this pioneering psychologist who wrote in 1916 how women are being compelled to have babies by the same methods that compel soldiers to go to war. There was this glorification of motherhood and the obfuscation of the hard parts. The rates of maternal mortality were 60 times higher (in 1916) than by the end of the (20th) Century.

    There’s a reason why the maternal instinct feels true. There are these hormonal, experiential, neurobiological processes that happen in parenthood, but they aren’t what we’ve been told. They aren’t these automatic, innate things that women have from the time they are born, and only women.

    Q: You mentioned that you thought postpartum depression was going to be like the flu – either you would have symptoms or not. How does the myth of the maternal instinct play a role in our inability to address postpartum mood disorders, and what can we change to improve outcomes?

    A: We need to be normalising the sense of distress and challenge. This transition to motherhood can be really gruelling. It can be joyful and full of wonder and love. (But) I don’t actually know anyone who got through to parenthood without some psychological distress, whether it was infertility, or pregnancy loss, or childbirth difficulty or trauma, guilt around breastfeeding or the return to work. It’s just gruelling.

    I don’t want the message to be that it’s hard for everyone so stop complaining. This is really hard, we all need support through it. Our systems in place are not enough – for many of us we are going to need more support.

    It is true that biological processes happen to parents, but it requires so much of us.

    Requiring support is not a sign of you being a bad mother. It’s you going through a difficult transformation. In a society that doesn’t recognise that as such, it’s perfectly normal to need help.

    The parallel I like to draw is with the adolescent brain – the hormonal shifts and that it’s fundamentally adaptive and [this developmental time] has a major increase for the risk of mental illness. We have used that science to build more support for teenagers – later school start times, how we talk about substance use and risky behaviours, and how we’ve changed how discipline is used at school. We need a similar conversation with the parental brain.

    Q: This concept of a maternal instinct has shaped so many of our public policies. As more nontraditional families take shape and more men are stepping into caregiving roles, do you see a shift in public policy as well?

    A: It makes me really hopeful that this conversation could change, as more people experience being captured by their babies, how caregiving can be transformative.

    The standard (for clinical care) is now one six-week appointment for birthing parents. That is not the standard in our peer countries. (The American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists) has called it inadequate, and called for a more holistic approach – for physical needs and mental health needs.

    This is a time of development. We need to give all parents the time and financial security to focus on that. It’s true for mothers and non-gestational parents. The things that change the brain are hormones and exposure to the babies. You get that exposure through time in direct care of the child. Non-gestational parents need that (time) also.

    We also need to change the conversations we have and how we talk to one another about our individual experiences of parenthood and what expectant parents can expect. We can be talking more frankly about what it’s been like for us, helping other people to know what to expect and what kind of support they might need.

    Q: What are some of those examples of individual change and changing how we talk about the postpartum experience?

    A: After my first son was born, there was a breastfeeding support group at the hospital. I got assurances that he was growing and getting the latch right. But at this gathering of 20 women and their babies, we never talked about the mental health part of it. I kept thinking, “Am I the only one that is feeling the shift in myself?”

    My hairdresser is 20 weeks pregnant. She was talking about the nursery and baby shower, the cute onesie. I kept trying to talk about how to be an advocate for herself for her physical and mental health. She was receptive to it, but it’s uncomfortable because it’s not the norm. We celebrate so much in that time and we build mothers up, but we also need to be having frank conversations with them about what they are going to need.

    Q: Researchers have found that as more mothers have entered the workforce, not only have the standards for what we think a good mother is ratcheted up, but so has the expectation that mothers should shoulder all of these burdens with ease and grace. Your book is an attempt to poke holes in that punishing narrative. Ten years from now, when we’re talking to new parents about their experience, what could that shift look like?

    A: In 10 years, I would love for expectant parents to have an opportunity and take stock and acknowledge that this is going to be a major shift in themselves and not just their time and sleep schedule. They can think about their own mental health history and if they might need more support – and if they do, have it available to them. This would be a very normalised part of the conversation with their doctors and doulas.

    But this is just a starting place and only one piece of the process. You can’t really know what it’s going to look like until you’re in it.

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