A little friend of my daughter’s has just had one of her parents walk out, to start a new life with a new partner. Given that they were a heterosexual couple, and based on your observations about the world, can you guess which parent stayed behind to feed, care for and try to comfort a shocked and grieving little girl?
Go on. You know the answer. We all know which way round this usually works.
This is a problem for our most assiduous egalitarians. Despite more than 50 years of efforts to abolish “gender stereotypes”, the difference between mothers and fathers is still such that it is almost always — as it was in this case, too — Mum who picks up the pieces when Dad takes off. But you can’t pursue “equality”, “progress” and “freedom” to their logical ends, without making men and women functionally interchangeable. And this means that every such pronounced asymmetry between men and women is not so much a natural feature of human nature, as a problem to be solved.
This is surely the most charitable explanation for an apparent ongoing campaign in the New York Times, to denaturalise motherhood. The most recent salvo was the claim last week, to widespread furore, that “maternal instinct is a myth that men created”.
This isn’t an isolated incident: in the past two years, motherhood has been a horror movie, an environmental catastrophe and a recipe for martyrdom. Women who reject it get admiring profiles. And when — unusually — it is Mum who abandons the kids, this isn’t shocking, it is a stimulating challenge to the ultimate taboo. But dig a little deeper, and this apparent effort to undermine the “naturalness” of motherhood reveals a deep progressive confusion as regards women, bodies, and babies. And this, in turn, raises questions about the unexpected implications of pursuing equality to its logical conclusion — questions that should give many feminists pause.
Despite what the Grey Lady may say about maternity being male-chauvinist propaganda, there’s no shortage of evidence across many species that there actually is something unique about the bond between mothers and their young. There are field birds who will let a tractor roll over them before they will leave their clutch of eggs. Mother bears are proverbially protective of their cubs. Anyone who’s seen footage of a mother elephant mourning a dead baby, or cows bellowing after their calves are taken away, can see that there’s something there.
There is a straightforward evolutionary explanation for the maternal bond: it increases the chance that young animals will survive until they are able to take care of themselves. It would be strange if humans were the only animal species for whom this were not the case. But nor is this bond wholly universal, or wholly automatic. It can be interrupted. There are anomalies, such as mothers across many animal species who sometimes kill their babies. In the human world, some women don’t want babies at all, or feel nothing after they’re born.
This, in turn, points us toward feminism’s favourite hunting-ground: the boundary between nature and nurture. For the truth is that maternal behaviour is both natural and social. In her 2021 book on “the science of moms”, Mom Genes, science writer Abigail Tucker cites studies that show new mothers are more sensitive to babies’ cries. We’re better at distinguishing cries of distress. We think about our babies more. And a great deal of this is primed during pregnancy, as gestation transforms women’s brains in distinctive ways.
Dads, meanwhile, also bond with their offspring. But they do so later, and more slowly: paternal interest ramps up about a year after birth. And developing it is conditional on contact with a baby. Tucker quotes a Michigan State University maternal behaviour researcher who states flatly that while fatherhood also changes men’s brains: “The magnitude [of hormonal change] that you see in a mother is nothing like you see in any person at any other time.” And as Tucker puts it, while new moms are hormonally primed to seek out experience with infants, dads need the experience to get the hormone hit: “To become a father, the first thing a guy has to do is stick around.”
In the NYT article that triggered all this fuss, Conaboy notes this hugely important and permanently transformative biological aspect of motherhood only in passing. While all parents experience brain changes, she says, “the biological mechanisms for change are quite different for gestational and non-gestational parents”. Her focus is on the nurture side: for as Tucker would agree, mothering isn’t purely “natural” or instinctive. It’s also a skill, learned in part from our own mums and from our wider social circle.
She’s not wrong to argue that “maternal instinct” greatly over-simplifies a complex sociobiological process. Nor is she wrong to point out how politicised it has become. For by treating it as wholly “natural”, this complex process can be generalised from a descriptive to a prescriptive norm: not a question of what usually happens, but one of what should happen.
And being told what you should be doing, based on the shape of your body, is anathema to a modern liberal. No wonder: for the story of the modern world is one of political and technological struggle against limits of every kind. And motherhood really does impose particular constraints on women, constraints which have, throughout history, shaped the work we do, the lives we lead and our social and political relation to men.
Unsurprisingly, then, a central facet of the women’s movement, from the 19th century on, has concerned our relation to pregnancy and childrearing, whether individually or at scale: whether we can refuse pregnancy, how we deal with unwanted pregnancies, and which provisions are in place for raising children, to name but a few.
Today, our tech-enhanced pursuit of parity between the sexes is well advanced. Why, then, shouldn’t we pursue absolute equality, in the name of progress? From this perspective, evidence that the maternal bond has a learned component is manna from heaven. Perhaps, it suggests, this means we can stop noticing the far-reaching neurobiological effect gestation has on mothers, and in the process find a way to break free of yet another limit.
For while we still experience any constraints of any kind on doing exactly what we want — even biological constraints — someone is bound to be oppressed. And this includes absolute freedom to configure families any way we like: even the faintest suggestion that there’s something special about mothers oppresses not just those women who don’t want to be mothers, but also, as Conaboy puts it, “the rights and recognitions of same-sex couples and transgender and nonbinary parents”, whose “ability to care for their children is often questioned”.
The solution is to lean hard into the nurture, while downplaying the nature, and imply that with a bit of diligence we can thus make parental bonding egalitarian across gestating and non-gestating “parents” alike. New research on “the parental brain” shows, Conaboy says, that “the idea of maternal instinct as something innate, automatic and distinctly female is a myth”. Instead, if only we Do The Work, “scientists now believe the outcomes may be similar for anyone — including fathers, adoptive parents and nonbinary parents — who truly invests time and attention in caregiving”. If parents other than gestational mothers can only be induced to try hard enough, then, the results “may”, she says, be “similar” to those experienced by gestating mothers.
Perhaps. But “similar” and “identical” are, well, similar rather than identical. “Truly” is also doing some heavy lifting here, as is “may”. Conaboy’s thesis, at least as filtered through the NYT’s relentlessly anti-maternal editorial lens, doesn’t have anything to say about those non-gestating parents who are disinclined to Do The Work. And I would venture to suggest that these are the cases where the enduring sexed asymmetry between mothers and fathers becomes visible — and gets entrenched in popular understanding, albeit in over-simplified form, via the term “maternal instinct”.
On the surface, Conaboy’s almost-blank-slatism is simply an argument for widening the scope of who may be considered important as parents — as though anyone disputes the obvious truth that there exist a great many devoted adoptive parents. But in effect, and seemingly unnoticed by the author, it’s an argument against granting any special meaning to maternity as an embodied experience or particular type of relationship.
For confusingly, even as the thrust of her argument takes aim at the idea that motherhood should merit any particular distinction, Conaboy seems to suggest that this nonetheless adds up to a case for improving maternity provision. Barely two paragraphs after claiming that anyone can synthesise a mother-like bond if they try hard enough, she’s arguing that this means Americans should demand better perinatal services, and address America’s (frankly barbarous) lack of federally mandated maternity leave.
And while this is true, it also reveals the central, irreducible liberal mummy-issue. For, on the one hand, feminists may wish to empower mothers to flourish — which, you might think, would mean thinking about mothers’ specific needs and the policies that might meet them. But if, on the other hand, we want everyone to be equal, that means opening the maternal experience beyond mothers: that is, denaturalising those facets of maternal experience that are arbitrary, evolved, embodied and — yes — at least partly instinctive. And this militates against acknowledging mothers’ specific needs.
The result is a hopelessly muddled argument. It claims, based on historic variations in how men and women rationalise our sexed differences, that nothing underpins those differences except power. Then, almost in the same breath, it acknowledges that these differences exist and have a biological substrate, and that this has real policy implications.
But we can’t simply throw up our hands and say this confusion is yet more evidence of a malign plot by men to psyop women into being docile housewives. We can’t have it all ways: we can’t both demand special provision for pregnancy and childbirth, and suggest that the absence of such provision is evidence of patriarchy. Not if we’re also going to suggest, as Conaboy does, that celebrating mothers’ embodied experience as unique and worthy of special protection is also evidence of women’s oppression, because the aim is to set women apart and constrain our social role.
In the bitter ongoing battle between gender-critical feminism and trans activism, it’s common for the former to accuse the latter of “erasing women” — that is, replacing any mention of women as a sex with the unfalsifiable category of women as inner identity. But it might be more accurate to say equality is erasing women. If you pursue the logic of absolute parity between the sexes all the way down, you hit a brick wall of evolved sociobiological differences, that has emerged over millennia in connection with historically distinct roles in raising kids.
Of course, contra what the cartoon-conservative position might claim, such instincts aren’t deterministic. How they play out varies immensely, depending on culture and material context. There is plenty of feminist scope for adding to that variation by questioning and modifying how we inhabit our embodied sex differences.
But experience should have taught us by now that making something “inclusive”, that was previously ringfenced, is tantamount to abolishing it. And noticing that there’s a lot of wiggle room in our instincts isn’t the same as declaring that the instincts themselves don’t exist, or can be overridden if we only Do The Work. Once we make that claim, in effect we’re saying mothers as such don’t exist.
And this is not an argument for better perinatal provision. It’s an argument for making such provision available to everyone, whether or not you’re a mother — because there’s nothing distinctive or important about being the “gestational parent”. We should ask ourselves how feminist that actually is.