The Maternal Instinct

“There is no such thing as maternal “instinct”: the word does not in any case apply to the human species. The mother’s attitude is defined by her total situation and by the way she accepts it.”  

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949
Pablo Picasso: Woman and Child (Marie Therese and Maya)
Pablo Picasso: Woman and Child (Marie Therese and Maya) (1938)

French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir shocked the world with her denial of the maternal instinct in her 1949 book The Second Sex. By then, the question of whether there is a maternal instinct that shapes women’s emotions and makes them better than men at childrearing already had a long history. And discussions about the existence of such an instinct and its implications have not abated. The maternal instinct has often been at the center of scientific and social debates about women’s nature, their rights, and their duties in society.

Is maternal instinct only for moms?” “Do fathers make good mothers?” What is the evidence for a “prolactin-mediated maternal instinct”? These are some questions that authors in the popular press have posed recently while reflecting on new research in endocrinology and neurology. In those fields, research on maternal affects and instincts has raised important issues: Are the parts of the brain commonly associated with emotion different in males and females? How do male and female brains respond to hormones such as oxytocin? Are parents of both sexes equally able to identify whether a crying baby is their child? 

Scientific views about the maternal instinct have shaped the construction of motherhood, maternal affects, and gender roles in different societies. Furthermore, sometimes science has been called upon to adjudicate whether women should bear the major responsibility for childrearing.

Yet, despite the crucial role science has played in shaping social views about the female mind, motherhood, maternal affects, and parental roles, we don’t have a full historical account of scientific explanations of the maternal instinct and their social impact. My book aims to fill this gap by examining various scientific explanations of the maternal instinct in their historical contexts. 

Mother Love and Human Nature: A History of the Maternal Instinct will explore various scientific explanations of the maternal instinct from the late 19th century to the present, from discussions about the implications of Darwinian evolution for understanding male and female psychology to recent research about hormones and the brain. For well over a century and right to the present, the maternal instinct has been used to delimit women’s psychological makeup and social roles. It is time that we take a critical look at the science used to support ideas that have restricted women’s and men’s opportunities for personal growth and social change.