Maternal Instinct - Real or Myth? (I know what I believe!)

January 21, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Maternal Instinct – Real or Myth?

(I know what I believe!)

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Ellie J Photography  Newborn Photographer Coventry and Warwickshire

During this third lockdown and while I’m unable to work again, I’ve been trying to find subjects for my blog that might be of interest to readers and will also allow me to further investigate topics I'm personally interested in.

The maternal 'instinct' or 'bond' is one subject that has always fascinated me.  Is it real? Or is it just a myth? I know what I think, but I thought I'd put it out there for consideration as the subject of this latest blog.

Before giving birth myself I was sceptical.  I remember sitting in that delivery room staring into the newborn eyes of our eldest and waiting for that ‘magical moment’ I’d been assured would happen.  Having subsequently seen the Twilight movies (guilty pleasure) I now realise that what I was expecting was something like what Jacob experiences as he 'imprints' on the newly born Renesmee. It didn’t happen like that of course.  I was wheeled back up to the ward feeling a bit of a failure and thinking that this bonding malarkey was all boo hockey after all. 

Thirty years ago when our eldest was born, it was standard practice for the nurses to take your newborn to a nursery on the ward while you rested after labour.  Although I was exhausted and it was late, I could not settle that night.  My adrenaline was too high and there were babies crying all around me.  I remember being able to focus in on an individual (and very persistent) cry and I knew, without a doubt, that it was my son.  Sure enough, an exasperated nurse soon came in carrying my screaming baby and the very second she put him in my arms he went quiet.  That is exactly when it hit me.  I’d say it felt completely natural but at the same time, completely overwhelming. It's as if I was suddenly possessed by the spirit of a mother bear or ferocious lioness, and I knew from that moment on that there was nothing I wouldn't do to protect my child.

Since then, I’ve always known when something isn’t quite right with one of my children.  Even when the evidence says otherwise, or I’ve got no clue what’s going on, something inside of me has always pushed me to take action when necessary.

On countless occasions over the years I’ve woken from a deep sleep and found myself halfway towards one of my children’s rooms before they’d even stepped a foot off their bed after becoming ill in the night. I can’t explain it, it has just always been so and I know from many conversations with clients that they have experienced the same.

Occasionally, this instinct has been overwhelming.  When our eldest was 13 we were out on a day trip and had stopped off for a pub lunch.  Despite having only the tiniest of bites, our son began complaining of feeling sick and began to scratch at his neck. I remember feeling instantly overwhelmed with a certainty that something was very wrong. I insisted that we go immediately to the nearest A&E department and within half an hour we were in the back of a blue-lit ambulance, my son semi conscious and hooked up to a drip and heart monitor, on the way to the local children’s hospital.  It was terrifying. Our son had gone into anaphylactic shock due to a nut allergy that we had previously been unaware of. 

More recently, the same instinct had me relentlessly pursuing an answer to our youngest’s symptoms.  She had been poorly for a couple of weeks or so however, all blood tests carried out were normal and we had been told not to worry and that things would most likely get better soon.  Once again, I just knew I needed to do more. After further investigation she was found to have an Inflammatory Bowel Disease and is thankfully now on medication to control this lifelong condition.

So yes, based on my own experiences I am a firm believer that, however it comes about, a Mother’s Instinct is 100% real.

On further research I’ve found that a decade ago the Lancet medical journal published advice to doctors that they should treat parents’ fear and concerns seriously, because they know their child best. At that time, experts said that “a mother’s instinct is usually right if she believes her child may be dangerously ill”.

A quick Google search will come up with so many examples of what I’m blogging about today. For instance, I recently read a news story about a mum who took her 8 year old son to several different hospitals in pursuit of a diagnosis after repeatedly being told his illness was a virus.  She instinctively just kept on going, pushing for answers until he was eventually diagnosed with paediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a life threatening and rare condition linked to Covid.

How many of us have 'sensed' when our child is ill, sometimes before there are any recognisable signs of that illness?  How many of us just know that our child is worrying about something, before they've spoken a word?  Does that demonstrate a type of psychic bond, or is it simply due to an intense understanding of every aspect of our child's persona, giving us the ability to detect problems before anyone else can? 

I have wondered whether this instinct exists on a psychic level. As mothers, we literally 'grow' our children within our own bodies. From the moment of conception and then for nine months our babies are a part of us.  We share the same blood, the same nutrition, the same life force. We cocoon and protect them as they develop and grow and everything they are comes from ourselves and our partners. Surely there is a possibility that such an amazing link would remain in some form after our babies are born and we become separate entities? Are not twins believed to share a 'psychic connection' from their time in the womb?  Who can say then, with 100% certainty, that such a psychic bond can not exist?

Perhaps, on the other hand, this instinct is learnt.  Over time, an adult having responsibility for a child's wellbeing will unconsciously learn every 'cue' given by that child, resulting in an ability to quickly detect when something is 'off'.  An argument against this theory would be the stories of parents who instinctively know their very young babies are in danger, when their child is at far too young an age for all their cues to have been learnt.  However, an argument in favour of this would be the millions of parents/carers who possess a 'maternal' instinct, despite having no biological bond with their child/the child in their care.

And let us address the big elephant in the room.  Why are we calling this a maternal or mother's instinct?  What about the millions of men who share such an intuition? It is far more accurate to call this ability a 'parental' instinct!

Whichever of the two theories behind the existence of a parental instinct you agree with, there is more to it.

Evidence now exists to suggest that the alteration of brain chemicals adults experience when a child is placed in their care could explain parental instinct.

I read an article which describes how a grandmother and grandfather had their levels of Oxytocin measured before and after holding their new grandchild. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with maternal bonding and in the case of the grandmother, her levels rose by 63% after holding the baby. Interestingly enough, grandad's levels also rose by the same amount, it just took a little longer.

The article expressed the view that "mothers who give birth and mothers who adopt should both be considered 'biological mothers' based on the changes that happen in their bodies when they become parents, even without having given birth."

Another article I read explained how levels of Oxytocin, Serotonin and Dopamine were all heightened during the transition to parenthood, for both men and women and also for foster parents. It stands to reason then that anyone who becomes the carer for a child may feel some level of parental bonding, whether or not they are biological parents and no matter what sex they are.

The first article concludes that "as a species, humans remain biologically driven to form bonds with infants placed in their care".

That really does make sense, doesn't it?  When it comes down to it, we are all animals. Just think for a moment of the nature documentaries you've seen where, for example, herds of elephants will travel in a circle, with the youngest elephants in the middle, protected from predators.  You may also have heard that, should one baby elephant be orphaned, the rest of the herd will adopt him. Even whales have been found to care for other creatures in need.  Its comforting to think that deep down, we are fundamentally pre-programmed to care for others, despite all we see to the contrary. 

I find this whole subject fascinating and will be reading further on it.  For now, I will finish by acknowledging that there are, of course, those who will never experience a parental instinct or the desire to have children.  I have written this blog based on my own views and experiences, and we are all unique. I believe someone can be a very caring individual whilst never experiencing a desire to have children of their own and nobody should be criticised for the choices they make in this regard. 

As human beings we may not agree with each other all of the time, but we should always respect each other's choices.  After all, the world would be a much, much better place if we did.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe!



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