Ah, the maternal instinct – sometimes lauded as possessing mysterious, almost divine powers and at other times derided as an excuse for obsessive, smothering, or controlling behaviour – and everyone who has a mother has an opinion about it.
Opinions about how much maternal instinct you have and therefore how good a mother you are or not, are up there alongside opinions about the benefits of breast over bottle and the discipline of children. Everyone not only has an opinion but feels obliged to inform mothers about them, especially new mothers.
For some the voice of their maternal instinct is a clear, unquestioned voice. For others it is a whisper they can only sometimes hear or, as in my case, a clear voice but one which I felt was untrustworthy and even potentially dangerous.
So how do we learn to hear this instinct, yet alone trust it when it sometimes seems to fly in the face of expert advice or accepted wisdom?
The first time I came across expectations of my possessing some innate, secret knowledge about mothering was when I was a 20 year old uni student enjoying my freedom and with zero interest in children. A couple of male friends and I visited our friend Simon, who happened to be minding his young twin brothers while his mother popped out briefly. When for some unknown reason the three-year-old twins began to cry and Simon couldn’t distract them, I noticed all my friends looking to me for the answer – as if I somehow would intuit the problem and offer the perfect solution.
Sadly, I was as clueless as them. I asked Simon what he thought the problem was to which he rather tersely replied, “You’re a woman, you tell me.” I was completely floored, but my spluttering indignation did nothing to change their minds. Regardless of my lack of interest in and experience with children, my friends’ opinion of my innate abilities remained unchanged. Apparently being female was all it took to completely understand child behaviour. Did this mean I was lacking a maternal instinct? Was it something that would come when I was older? What if I had my own children and I felt no different?
Years later when I had my first child I again questioned the quality of my maternal instincts. Whilst I had bonded with baby Oscar shortly after his birth, I was so overwhelmed with the responsibility of being the chief carer of this little being that instead of listening to my instincts, I questioned and second guessed every thought and instinct I had. I felt I would endanger his life if I didn’t act the way books advised or not follow the advice of nurses, doctors, other mothers – or anyone with an opinion, really.
With no family support available, except my equally inexperienced husband, (both my mother and my mother-in-law died young) I had no female mentor to guide, offer support or teach me to quieten my racing mind and listen to the whisperings of my instincts.
I’d read several books on baby wrangling and child rearing, but baby Oscar resisted all attempts to keep him asleep. Months went by with him determined not to sleep for long periods of time and with dire warnings from my GP ringing in my ear about babies who aren’t good sleepers being prone to developing conditions such as ADD amongst others, my panic ratcheted up. (I have no idea if this was scare mongering on my GP’s part or true, but it did nothing to alleviate my panic).
Even though baby Oscar was gaining weight and seemed very healthy, I felt there was something wrong, something I was missing. He would go to sleep only to wake, sometimes crying, not long afterwards and this didn’t seem right to me. But my concerns were dismissed by every health care professional I consulted and I was constantly told, often patronisingly and even once, angrily, that baby Oscar wasn’t the problem, my inexperience as a mother and being unable to teach him to remain asleep was the problem. So apparently my instincts were wrong and the best thing to do, I was advised, was to ignore them and learn some practical methods for getting him to sleep.
It was on a day visit to Tresillian to learn some sleep-inducing methods that I discovered other women were struggling even more than me. I witnessed one poor mother so frozen with self-doubt it rendered her helpless in the face of her crying child. Her toddler son approached her and started grizzling. She looked at him unsure of what he wanted and offered him food and a drink both of which he angrily brushed away. His distress increased and I watched as this poor woman’s angst-ridden face reflected the myriad of solutions racing through her mind leaving her rigid and unresponsive and staring at her, by now, very distressed child.
I leaned across to her and said, “Just pick him up and give him a cuddle.” As soon as I said it I regretted it. “Oh no,” I thought, “I just gave unsolicited advice to a stressed-out mother.” I girded my loins, but she picked him up and he immediately snuggled into her and stopped crying. She looked at me with wide-eyed astonishment, “How did you know to do that?”
“I don’t know,” I told her truthfully, “it just seemed the right thing to do.” It was the first time I thought perhaps my instincts could be trusted after all. I asked her if picking him up had actually been her first response, but that she’d over-thought it and rejected it? “I have no idea,” she told me, “my mind becomes so panicked when he cries I go completely blank and I can’t move or do anything.”
I could at least hear my instincts even if I didn’t trust them. But others, like this poor woman, were struggling to even hear them.
Finally, after several months, a different GP diagnosed baby Oscar with silent reflux which was preventing him from staying asleep for any length of time. It was a relief to know my instincts had been right and it wasn’t just my inexperience or ineptitude at being a mother.
By the time our daughter Tallulah was born, I was more confident but still under-valued my instincts compared to everyone else’s opinions. When she was diagnosed with autism I immediately read every book and article available and spoke to anyone I could find that had experience with the condition.
As I wrote in my short story, ‘Trusting Tallulah’ a winner in the Parenting Express/My Child magazine short story competition, all this achieved for me was disempowerment, exhaustion and confusion. Only when I put down the books and closed the door on the world and listened to my instincts, could Tallulah show me the best way to help her. It was often scary having to trust my instincts to this extent, as it was truly flying by the seat of my pants. I had no idea if following them was indeed the right thing to do for her or if I was creating an unmitigated disaster.
But what I did learn is that there is no general ‘best way’ of doing the right thing for every child; no ‘one-size-fits-all’ method, but rather by listening to our instincts about each specific child, we can parent them individually in the best way possible. I’m not discounting the wealth of information and advice as well as support that is out there, but putting it through the filter of our instincts first often provides a short cut to the best outcome for our children and therefore ourselves.
Listening to our instincts isn’t all there is to parenting properly, but I believe it is the best place to start. By taking the time to stop, quieten our racing minds and listen to this sometimes whisper-quiet voice, we develop the confidence to trust ourselves, quieten the insecurities and watch, listen and learn what it is our children need from us. Our children feel seen and heard and therefore cherished and from my experience, creates a profoundly deeper, calmer and more connected bond with them, which is the whole point of it all anyway, isn’t it?
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem