Maternal Instincts: What a Crock

by Natasha O’Rourke
Natasha O’Rourke

Sometimes when I’m driving and I stop suddenly, I shoot my right arm out by instinct. “Mom Arm,” I used to call it, because that’s what my mom did when we were little. I liked to think it was evidence that, even before I had kids, I had that magical thing we call maternal instinct. Look at me, my amazing lady body just naturally knows to protect my (hypothetical) children. But now, I have real-life kids, and I’m here to tell you, it’s bullshit. 

First of all, I’ve renamed Mom Arm “Purse Arm,” because let’s be honest, that’s what I’m really protecting. With modern safety laws, my kids won’t be riding in the front seat until they’re teenagers and the only one in danger when I stop short is the blueberry muffin I just hid in my purse or, on rare occasions, my dog Rosie, who likes to ride shotgun. (For the record, my Mom Arm has failed her numerous times. I always save the muffin though.) 

Secondly, all the other things. For the first six months of her life, high on sleep deprivation and ice cream (breastfeeding burns 500 calories a day!), I put my newborn baby to bed around 10:30 pm. I was just going with my “instincts.” It wasn’t until I was at my new mom group, chatting with my new mom friends, that I learned that normal people put their babies to bed at like 6 or 7 pm, instead of waiting until the Friends reruns on TBS are over. All of a sudden, I had a whole new baby. Turns out, babies need lots of sleep, and they don’t give a shit about Friends.  

Did you know that smell is the sense with the strongest link to memory? I do. Because I still remember the scent of barfed up strawberry Yo-Baby yogurt on a car seat like it was yesterday. Not sure why my maternal instincts didn’t kick in and give me the Mom batsignal that letting your baby mainline yogurt before a road trip is a bad idea. Maternal instinct wasn’t much help on how to get barf smell out of a bucket seat either.  

Maternal instinct also didn’t teach me to breastfeed properly. A saintly woman named Beverly did – she wasn’t shy about crumpling up my breast into an origami bottle nipple and shoving it into my baby’s mouth. Thanks, Beverly!  

Maternal instinct didn’t show me how to get my babies to sleep. Repeated readings of The Happiest Baby on the Block, shushing until I was blue in the face while bouncing on an ab ball [editor’s note: Abs! Ha!] and then not-so-quietly sobbing in the fetal position until my husband took over the shushing/bouncing – that worked.  

Maternal instinct didn’t help me potty train two children. Daycare did. High five, daycare teachers! I love you like a toddler in potty training loves stickers.  

Maternal instinct doesn’t get my kids to eat vegetables besides cucumbers, raw carrots, and bok choy. Nothing does.  

The whole idea of maternal instinct sets us up to feel like failures.

And between the mommy wars, the wage gap, and our inability to write with normal pens, doesn’t the world already give us enough reasons to feel that way?   

A friend of mine strapped her infant into the Baby Bjorn and set off for a walk around the neighborhood. The baby started crying, so the mom followed her instincts and did that bouncing thing that all parents do. She ran into some friends at an outdoor café and chatted briefly, as the baby continued to cry and she continued to bounce. Then she went to the post office, where the baby’s crying intensified and so did the bouncing. Finally, a woman behind her in line gave her the dreaded, “Excuse me?” Oh great, my friend thought, here comes the unsolicited parenting advice about how my baby needs socks or a sun hat or how Baby Bjorns are bjad.

“I think your baby’s leg is stuck under her body.” Sometimes the unsolicited parenting advice is helpful, people. My friend stopped bouncing that poor child on her own folded-up leg, untangled the small mangled limb, and the baby stopped crying. I guess now’s as good a time as any to confess that that friend was me. I just didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as Idiot Mom. Too late? 

The good news is, we don’t need maternal instincts.

We have human instincts. You know, the ones that tell us, “I’m doing alright on this mom thing,” “I should put on pants today,” and, “Just eat that lasagna, it’s not enough to save.” 

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