She and her husband decided to send their seven-year-old daughter to a boarding school. Little did they know that this would be a roller coaster ride, for they had to prepare her to live independently. The most difficult part was getting her accustomed to sleeping alone in a different room.
One night, when the girl was fast asleep, her mother had a strong feeling that the child was falling off the bed. She immediately ran to her daughter’s room to find her sleeping on the edge of the bed, about to fall.
The rest of us might find this hard to understand, but mothers may know this feeling all too well. They say life is never the same once a woman becomes a mother. Indeed, mothers love and care for their children unconditionally, but it is strange how they can sense when their children might be in danger. Mothers seem to have a special instinct that helps them protect their little ones. It is what we call the maternal instinct. While some believe it is an internal drive, others believe it is the bond between mother and child, reflected in their caring behaviour. Counsellor Amita Mani believes it is a bit of both. She says, “It is an instinct that drives mothers to nurture and care for another life.”
Some mothers swear by their maternal instinct. Wedding planner Divya Chauhan is a mother of two. She strongly believes that maternal instinct is a heart-to-heart connect between a mother and her child. “Sometimes, I have this feeling that my daughter is not okay or that I need to call up my son. When that thought comes, I instantly know I have to call them up to make sure all is well with them. It is like a sixth sense,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Most mothers would agree with Divya. They ‘just know’ when something is wrong with their children. However, Nupur Varma, mother of a teenager, does not agree that it is an ‘instinct’. She believes it has to do more with the behaviour of a person. “For instance, my daughter doesn’t usually like taking a nap in the afternoon. So, when she says she wants to lie down in the afternoon, I know something is wrong with her. After a few hours, she develops a fever on such days,” she says. Perhaps, when you are emotionally attached to the person, you are aware of every little thing that is happening to them.
Of late, it has become a topic of debate as to whether maternal instinct is biological or psychological or learned. As women have been assigned the role of nurturers since prehistoric times, this instinct to nurture has come to be seen as specific to all females. Does that make it a learned behaviour? Perhaps, say some studies. They reveal that maternal instinct is hard-wired in females.
Some view it as a biological concept purely based on the changes a woman undergoes during pregnancy and motherhood. When a woman is pregnant, her body produces copious amounts of female reproductive hormones–oestrogen and progesterone. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland secrete oxytocin that triggers birth contractions, prolactin that stimulates the mammary glands, and endorphins to ease the pain of birthing.
To care and love another being, and be responsible for its life is being ‘maternal’.
Craig Howard Kinsley and Kelly G Lambert have spent more than a decade studying effects of pregnancy and motherhood on the female brain. Kinsley is Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology and Center for Neuroscience at the University of Richmond. Lambert is a Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the same university. A study by the duo suggests that after the birth, the neurons direct the mother’s attention and motivation to her offspring, enabling her to care for, protect and nurture her progeny with the panoply of behaviours collectively called ‘maternal’.
It might be easy to understand maternal instinct when it is your own offspring that is in question. But what if you feel maternal towards siblings, friends, others’ children, or even pets? A study funded by the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Comparative Medicine reveals that pets bring out maternal instincts in women. During the research, the fMRI brain activation patterns were examined as mothers viewed images of their child and their dog. Interestingly enough, mothers rated images of their child and dog as eliciting similar levels of excitement and pleasantness.
This tells us one thing: maternal instinct is not limited to one’s offspring alone, but extends to other children, pets, and other animals as well. Simply put, maternal instinct drives a woman to nurture another life. To care and love another being, and be responsible for its life is being ‘maternal’.
There have been various instances in the animal world where one animal has nurtured the offspring of another species. American author Lisa Rogak, in her book One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another, shares stories of animals who have become surrogate mothers to young ones from different species. Rogak writes about a seven-year-old baboon who nurtured an orphaned three-month-old bush baby, holding her in her arms all day long.
It is evident that nurturing comes naturally to a mother, be it her offspring or another’s. She will go to any length to protect and tend to another being. No wonder even Mother Nature is known to be nurturing, protecting us from all that is detrimental to our existence. Perhaps, that is why they say a mother’s love is unconditional and boundless.