Humans are mammals. On that we can all agree. What we no longer agree on is what that means for having babies, raising children, and living in our current society. A recent blog post on maternal instinct suggesting that maternal instinct is a myth and hurts everyone really digs deep into the idea that we are not our biology. The author writes that women “are supposed to instinctively understand how to hold, feed, and soothe their infants. But neither social nor evolutionary science support the notion that ‘maternal instinct’ is real.” The problem with making statements like these are that it oversimplifies what might be considered “instinct”. We are truly social animals. Moreover, we learn by imitating and watching others. Because we live our lives so far removed from watching other mothers—including witnessing childbirth and breastfeeding—it of course will not come very naturally. We may fumble around and if we are determined enough, the mechanism may happen more smoothly and easily, eventually. But without the experience of other women, along with their guidance, to help us along, the “instinct” will not always kick in. To say that women are necessarily not innately good caregivers is misleading. We all have the capacity for caring for others; some take to it more readily and openly without much thought. Others need to observe how it’s done to get to the same place. The author actually touches on this point when she writes, “culture, not instinct, is the predominant mechanism for skill exchange between generations.” Which is entirely my point: what often gets ignored is the fact that we are bringing up families in isolation and not within the previously common social network that extended beyond the nuclear family. Because we, ourselves (or at least most of us), were raised in nuclear families, our exposure to childbirth, infant care, and child rearing is limited to what we see in media along with what we read from “parenting” books (and articles such as the one proclaiming that maternal instinct is a myth). We don’t know anything about having babies and raising a family until we experience it ourselves for the first time. This is incredibly daunting, and so different than previous generations, not to mention other cultures, where women help women during childbirth. Where women help women postpartum to heal. Where women help women with mothering. It’s not just left to the mother’s shoulders. The new mother is not—and should not be—expected to go it alone.
In all of my readings on maternal depression, there is one aspect that I just cannot shake. Women are too often left alone to mother their children. What might happen if we had more community interaction with other caregivers and children? What might happen if we brought not just peer mothers together with kids, but older adults? Adolescents? What if we encouraged families to grow up together in an intergenerational, interconnected, community environment? I believe, from my own experience, that just being around one other person with their children for a large part of the day takes the edge off. I am a better parent when I am around others. Especially if those others share my ideas about children and expectations for their behavior and how to nurture their development. I know that being around others (and also being in nature) are key factors to mental wellness and being able to overcome any issues with maternal depression. And yet, there are days (weeks?) when I cannot get myself out of my house with the children. It is a struggle. We have nowhere to go. The children typically don’t wake up early enough to make it to a 10am planned event. Where is the ability to meet in a communal space at any time, for however long you want, and know that there will be other supportive families there?
My partner and I have tried to create such a community. We are still trying to create it. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this writing, we are not seeking to put the children into traditional daycare/preschool/school. So we keep trying to create a community of like-minded parents and children (of all ages). An intergenerational village in our modern culture. In the four years we have been in Southwestern Virginia, I have hosted weekly co-ops in our home, created a Gentle Parenting group, started a Free Forest School chapter, created a mamas circle, and also recently tried to initiate a Meditating on Motherhood group, where we learn mindfulness based cognitive therapy techniques to help relieve some of the felt isolation in families (because maternal depression and its effect on the family is real). Mostly, my family seeks an intergenerational unschooling learning COMMUNITY. I dream that this unschooling community will be the missing piece for so many of us suffering in isolation; where we, as caregivers, can come together and be with others. Even if the caregivers just sit in silence. I want our community space to be that place of support that is so lacking in society; to fill most of the voids that the lack of a village leaves.
Maternal instinct is not a myth. Our current societal structure that we can have it all is a myth. We cannot have it all, and we certainly can’t have it all by ourselves. We are not meant to do this alone. I believe that community—and culture—play a much larger role than many who discuss motherhood and society currently explicitly acknowledge. The civilized, western-based, individualistic, isolated, nuclear family we know so well is absolutely not how we social creatures are meant to live. I hope that one day, more of us will get the community we were meant to be a part of.