Matters of Motherhood: Do You Have a Mothering Instinct?

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons

“You really are quite the mother hen,  Angie!”; the booming,  heavily accented voice of a long-time Australian family friend (who, in the spirit of extended kin, we have always called “Uncle”) resounded, as I chased after a niece in an almost futile attempt to put some bug repellant on her while she played in the garden.

I pondered for a moment and came to the conclusion that I, in true hen-like fashion, do tend to “mother” people; seeking to keep them safe underneath my wing.  My daughter would likely say that I am a rather overprotective, worry-wart of a mother hen.  And to that, I say, “Cluck, cluck.”  That’s the way the wattle wiggles, I suppose.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Missing mothering instinct?

Image by odwallafemme via Flickr Creative Commons

In my teens, and well into my young adulthood, I never thought I would want kids. I was always so full of reasons and excuses not to have little brats.  Among the top:  “Now why would I want to bring kids into a world such as this???”, and the classic “I’m not cut out for it.”

I felt that my “mothering instinct” was nowhere to be found, and maybe I should put out an ad for it on the back of a milk carton or print some flyers to put up around the neighborhood.  “Missing:  Mothering Instinct.  If found, please return to Angie Duarte.  Reward.”

But that started to change as I grew into my late twenties. Some would blame it on the ticking and tocking of the biological clock, perhaps; others, on the fact that many of my friends were already well into their 2nd and 3rd little tykes.

I don’t know what it was.  I just know that I found myself ogling teeny-tiny outfits at shop windows, with a tad of longing.  Just a tad.

Mothering matters

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The whole issue concerning the mothering instinct is still highly debated and largely contested.

In 2008, a study titled, “The functional neuroanatomy of maternal love: mother’s response to infant’s attachment behaviors”, conducted by researchers in Tokyo, seemed to prove that a mother’s impulse to love and protect her child is hard-wired into her brain.  With the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.), researchers studied the brain patterns of 13 mothers with infant babies of around 16 months old.

The babies were filmed smiling at their mothers during playtime in the research facility’s playroom.  Then, the mothers were asked to leave the room, and the babies were filmed crying and reaching for their mommies (cue collective “awwww” here.)  The mothers were then made to watch the video playback, while they were being scanned.  Brain waves showed that the mothers not only responded more actively to their own babies, but also responded more intensely to the videos of the babies in distress.

Research authors noted that “results showed the highly elaborate neural mechanism mediating maternal love and diverse and complex maternal behaviors for vigilant protectiveness.”  In English, a mother’s brain seems equipped with the mechanisms that allow for nurture and protection of their babies.

Of course, the study did not include fathers, who – as many argue – are possibly just as instinctively nurturing as their female-parent counterparts.

Other studies on hormones point towards biological reasons for the mothering disposition.  The hormone oxytocin (also given to induce labor and childbirth) was injected into female Rhesus lab monkeys that had no mothering experience, and the monkeys started behaving motherly towards unfamiliar infants.

Still, other research indicates that a gene could be responsible for mothering.  And of course, there exists the whole contest between mothering as nature (instinct) or nurture (learned.)

Matters of mothering, because mothering matters.

Those big, brown eyes

Image by John Finn via Flickr Creative Commons

I honestly cannot pinpoint where I stand on these issues – I have yet to make an informed decision.  I DO know, however, that the day my daughter Andie was born is the day my life changed forever.

I’ll never forget it.

Andie’s Dad and I walked into the Lamaze labor room; a touch anxious, but more confident and self-assured than anything else.  I was, after all, the “star” student of my Lamaze class, so why would I NOT have an easy enough, all-natural birthing experience?  I came prepared; birthing plan in hand, photocopied in 5.  I handed copies out to each intern.  They looked at me with what seemed a combination of wonder, stupor, ridicule and disbelief.  A chortle or two of derision; an exchange of bitingly condescending looks:  “This crazy woman has NO idea what she’s REALLY in for…”

Thirteen hours bordering on forever of oxytocin-induced labor (thanks to an already torn water bag and a non-cooperative cervix), I found myself screaming at the interns to get the doctor.  Lamaze shmamaze.  I just wanted to pop this baby already.  “Now THAT’s more like it,” the interns must have thought, as they gave me patronizing looks.

Long story short, I – the star student – was the only one of the class that ended up delivering via emergency C-section. Thus, I heard the sound of my ego-balloon deflating, in a very pathetic way.

But all that hardly mattered, as the doctor pulled Andie out and held her up for us to see, in a very Simba cub at Pride Rock moment. My heart swelled, as tears of joy – and relief – streamed down my face.

Her oh-so elated Dad, with marching orders to follow our daughter wherever they took her until she was properly cleaned and tagged with her little pink bracelet, chased after the hospital trolley with our precious cargo on board.  I was wheeled into the recovery room, but not until after we stopped at the nursery, where Andie – crying her lungs out in protest – was being bathed, allowing me one last look ‘til later.

Hours after, as I held Andie in my arms and stared deeply into her beautiful, big brown eyes, I knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do for her. This little one, swaddled in customary pink like a papoose Barbie, had in that moment become the main reason for my being.

American teacher and author, Elizabeth Stone said that “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”   Truer words have never been spoken; ever.

Mothers are people, too

Image by Flavio~ via Flickr Creative Commons

Eighteen years after that day, my daughter is still my life’s core. I have learned, though, that mothers are individuals, too.  We are people with our own unique dreams and aspirations; the fulfillment of which makes us better as women and as mothers.

“Mother” does not necessarily mean “martyr,” although many times, the definitions may seem synonymous.  Mothers should not be faulted for wanting a life beyond the very wonderful role they have been given. Sadly, mass media and pop culture have reinforced societal expectations, and have made it rather difficult for mothers to pursue their own dreams without being judged.  Yes, that mentality exists to this day and age; albeit it is not as pervasive as in years gone by.

Perhaps the best Mother’s Day gift that children (and spouses) can give their moms (and wives) is the realization that a mother – your mother – is her own person, too.  Actually, she is her own person, first and foremost – and from this abundance, all else flows. There comes a freedom for all, when this realization becomes an active revelation, and you “release” your mother to be all she can be.

I would never trade being a mom; not in a million years, not ever.  I would never trade being Andie’s “Mama,” to be precise. But I am deeply grateful that I have the space to see my other aspirations come to pass.

Have I always made the best choices, as a woman and mother – HECK, NO.  I have had to pick up the pieces that have crashed loudly and resoundingly to the ground, as a result of bad – really, really bad – decisions.  But I do my best to move forward, to be the best me I can be; in hopes that my daughter will be better than I ever was.  Perhaps, that is the best gift that I can ever give her.

 

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