Perhaps the salient feature of Chelsea Conaboy’s 4,000-word screed in the New York Times is its title, “Maternal Instinct is a Myth That Men Created,” together with the fact that she makes essentially no effort to make the case. Or maybe it’s that she claims to have written a book about the neuroscience of parenting, but barely mentions science and, when she does, it’s in the vaguest manner that in no way supports her thesis.
If Conaboy’s actually interested in “maternal instinct,” it’s odd that she never says what she believes it to be. That may be because essentially no one uses the term anymore since it has no scientific meaning or significance. As such, “maternal instinct” is nothing but a straw man that she can knock down rather than dealing with the empirically-known realities of maternal behavior. So she’s content to quote a few men from centuries gone by and hope her readers will conclude that their misconceptions are still widely held. It’s a bit like criticizing current-day astrophysics by quoting ancient Greek astronomers. Yes, they were mistaken. Today, we’re actually quite knowledgeable.
The fact is that those men Conaboy derides simply observed maternal behavior in a very large variety of mammals and birds, behavior that clearly demonstrated the fierce connection between mothers and their offspring. Their conclusion that that behavior indicated an innate maternal “instinct” we can now say wasn’t accurate, but to criticize their error is only to tax them with not knowing what they had no scientific way of knowing.
That information was about the set of hormones that are stimulated by a woman’s pregnancy. Those hormones do what must be done in order for the human race and essentially all mammal and bird species to survive. They cause parents, mostly mothers, to nurture and protect their offspring, even to the extent of sacrificing all for their protection.
Most mammal and bird species are born unable to fend for themselves; they’d be utterly lost if left to themselves immediately after birth. Hatchlings can’t fly and therefore can’t get food and rely on their parents to do so. Human babies are amazingly immature and take years before they can begin to feed themselves and even longer before they reach sexual maturity.
Meanwhile, the job of parenting means doing the one thing non-parental adults never do – set aside their own safety and well-being. They do it because of those parenting hormones, without which their offspring would perish and the species die out. Let’s be clear, without those hormones mammals and birds would never have evolved, much less survived. Does Conaboy know anything about them? Does she know that, in about 95% of mammal species, it’s only the mother who produces those hormones and cares for the offspring? Do male prairie voles conspire to force resisting females into maternity? If we believe Conaboy, I suppose they must.
In place of the easily-accessed science on the matter, Conaboy substitutes, odd individual anecdotes in which women today are presented as clueless about the most basic aspects of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. In today’s world of astonishingly advanced science and our ready access to it, Conaboy asks us to believe that educated women are gob smacked to learn that maternity can be hard.
She quotes one Ali Wong about breastfeeding her baby, an activity she calls a “savage ritual:”
“I thought it was supposed to be this beautiful bonding ceremony where I would feel like I was sitting on a lily pad in a meadow and bunnies would gather at my feet while the fat-Hawaiian-man version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ would play.” She went on: “No! It’s not like that at all.
Yes, it turns out that adult life is not a fairytale. I guess Wong had to find out sometime.
Conaboy considers motherhood a male racket that targets women. That includes her belief that, if new mothers like Wong struggle with parenting, there’s “little room for that struggle within the prevailing narrative of motherhood…” That requires her to be (and hope her readers are) blissfully unaware of the countless websites, blog sites, sub-reddits, magazines, etc. that are devoted to mothers and motherhood, all of which include information about its hardships, sense of futility and occasional loneliness. The widespread availability of such basic information fails to support her narrative of the Patriarchy’s abuse of women, so she pretends the information doesn’t exist.
In Conaboy’s telling, men have set up the concept of “maternal instinct” for the purpose of convincing women that pregnancy, childbirth and childcare are, collectively, a walk in the park. So clever are we men that women know nothing of our nefarious scheme, or the facts about maternity, until it’s too late. By then, they’re pregnant and suffering and, above all, crying out for the opportunity to realize their true ambition – to work long days in a corporate cubicle rather than being saddled with the agony of caring for their newborn.
It’s an amazing system of belief. It requires Conaboy to ignore the millions of women every year who either want to become pregnant or who already have children for whom they prefer to care above all other activities. It requires her to explain why, in almost every divorce involving children, that mothers seek full or primary custody. It requires her to explain why, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the ratio of stay-at-home mothers to stay-at-home fathers is roughly 30:1. What about the fact that, when the first child comes along, it’s almost invariably the mother who cuts back her paid work to stay home? How does she explain Dr. Catherine Hakim’s findings that mothers, throughout the countries of the OECD, far more than fathers, state a preference for home and family over the workplace? Or the many datasets showing women doing less paid work than men and more childcare? Etc., etc.
Naturally, Conaboy never mentions, much less explains, any of that. She doesn’t because she can’t. She can’t because she’s writing from a basis of ideology, not science or common sense. And of course the Times is there to give her a forum.
This article originally appeared at The Word of Damocles.r