Maternal Instinct: Not What You Think It Is

25/01/2017 14:25

When people I know have babies, it always makes me think back to when I had my own, and how the reality of having children is so different from your expectation in so many ways. One of the expectations I had was that I would immediately develop a "maternal instinct" that would switch on as soon as I gave birth. It is something you always hear about - that mothers instinctively know exactly why their baby is crying, and how best to console them. I had always loved babies and children and so I didn't ever doubt that I would have this instinct.

So I gave birth to twins. And they cried. So I fed them. And they cried. So I changed them. And they cried. So I burped them. And they cried. So I cuddled them. And they cried. And I cried too, because I still had no blooming idea what was the matter. Their cries sounded like baby cries, and I had no better idea than before I had given birth what they meant. Never in my life had I considered that I would be one of "those" mothers who don't get the maternal instinct. If I, who loved children from the moment of still being a child myself, couldn't develop it, what did this mean? All those years I had thought I was cut out for motherhood must have been a delusion because here I was failing at the first test!

When you are in the throes of dealing with sleepless nights, colic, and physically recovering from the trauma of birth, you don't think straight. I wasn't able to sit back and look logically at what was happening (there wasn't the time!) I just kept waiting for something to "kick in". I looked at other people around me who would say with assurance "they're hungry" or "they have wind" and I would accept it as fact, because I had nothing inside me telling me otherwise. No preternatural ability, no primitive instinct switched on in my gut. I was lost at sea, rotating through a series of possible solutions to their cries; hunger, trapped-wind, wet nappy, too hot, too cold, too lonely. I felt ashamed that those around me seemed to know better than I did what my babies needed.

All that you have in those first weeks and months is constant trial and error. People may have their advice, but there are no guarantees that what they are saying is right. You make mistakes. Everyone does - that is how you eventually can hit upon the right answer. Sometimes it will come immediately, sometimes it will take you several failed attempts, and maybe you will have to reach out to others for ideas. But eventually you get there, and you survive, and you become more attuned to your child (or children) than anyone else.

Now those days of questioning my instinct are so far behind me, and the idea that someone else would know my children's needs better than I do seems thankfully alien to me. I'm not saying I always get it right, but through those first few months and years of the sleepless nights, the colic, the tears, the booboos, the giggles, the cuddles, you come out the other side having a pretty good idea what your children need. It's precisely through that floundering, and not knowing what the heck you are doing, that you end up knowing your child's every mood and facial expression, like and dislike.

If there is such a thing as maternal instinct, it's the instinct that you want to find an answer; you want the crying to stop, you want to understand your child's noises, you want to know how to make them happy, how to get them to behave, how to get them to eat their vegetables. You keep trying, failing, and trying again. You get it wrong. You think other parents manage better than you. (You also think some parents are loopy...) But at the end of the day no one else knows and loves your children as you do.

So for anyone who is about to, or has just had a baby, be patient. Maternal instinct is not a switch, it's more like a rapidly changing dimmer that converges to "on" without ever really reaching it. You just get more comfortable with not having any idea what you're doing - just as you master one skill, another problem will come up that you've never seen before, and you have to make it up as you go along all over again. None of us know what we're doing; we just have the instinct to keep trying.