Of Mice And Mums

Mothering Heights - Claire Smith

Mothering Heights - Claire Smith - Credit: Archant

I DON’T really remember the first time I saw all three of my children. It was more than likely due to the mixture of morphine/epidural/pethidine/oxytocin/codeine/shock that I was off my face on whenever I’ve given birth.

I sort of recall seeing my first born but I was busy hallucinating about a dog licking my face to zone in on the features of the newborn before me. So I certainly never had that surge of unconditional love and bonding when maternal instinct supposedly kicks in straight after the birth.

My experiences are more like that bit in Alien when the beast bursts out of John Hurt’s stomach.

Even years later, I still look at my kids in wonder, like a spaceman might look at an extra-terrestrial. Where did they come from? How were they made? What is this creature? Well, we’ve somehow managed to be bound together in a curious sort-of three legged race where we’ll only cross the finish line when they turn 18 and I have no idea how it happened. Ten years in and I’m still waiting for that natural maternal instinct.

I mentioned this to my husband recently and he laughed it off (possibly in a panic) and said I have great maternal instinct. He meant it in a ‘lioness protecting her pride’ way. When I have to pay out 50 quid to the plumber who found pencils shoved down a blocked sink, when my toddler wakes up during Homeland, when I get asked two minutes into a journey “When are we there???” – yeah I agree – my reactions to the kids can certainly be instinctual and definitely animalistic.

We are led to believe that the connection between mother and baby will be instantaneous, from the moment we get pregnant. That the bond will begin with the discovery of a new life growing inside us and that it will be strong and immediate. That taking care of our offspring will come naturally and not forced. It’s supposedly the greatest manifestation of love that floods in from the very first formation of the cells. But, you know what, I think love is a very different thing altogether. We adore our children, of course, but being maternal does not always come naturally.

I recently read an article about a study on female mice that shows there might be a genetic link to nurturing characteristics. Is there such a thing as a ‘maternal gene’, the report asked. Mother mice were injected with a molecule that silenced their oestrogen receptor alpha in an area of the brain. It was found that without the gene, the mother mice lost all maternal instincts. But it seems to me that the maternal instinct of humans is much more complicated than that of mice. I’m not even sure that it is a universal trait.

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Asking around, it seems that women have very different experiences of whether or not they sensed they’d be good at motherhood and, even more, how they feel about maternal instinct. Some say they always knew they wanted children, they dreamt about it since playing with Cindy dolls as a girl, who just seem to merge with their babies and love every minute. Others have told me that often they question if they’re any good at the role of mother, they find it hard and really have to work at it. Those that are willing to be completely honest have admitted that it’s not so much maternal instinct but more survival technique.

Maternal instinct is perplexing. It manifests itself in different ways and it can change. What you feel towards your baby can evolve into something very different when they are a child and who knows what happens when they’re a teenager. At some point in the years of child-rearing, I’m sure we all have moments where we don’t have a clue what we’re doing, when we don’t particularly ‘like’ our children and how we just try to do our very best not to screw things up. For some mums it is love at first sight, but for many it is a process of meshing that takes days, weeks, months and sometimes years.

The interesting thing when I’ve researched is that there are very few mothers who can outright say that they have a maternal instinct. Which goes against everything that we’re told. It is a widely held view that it’s ‘natural’ for women to want and look after children and those that choose not to have or admit that it’s tough are often questioned. I’m wondering, in fact – is maternal instinct a myth? Or is it simply different in every woman that becomes a mother? We love our children that’s for sure but we’ve all had those vomit-in-the-hair, how-long-til-bedtime, smash-the-toy-to-pieces, Husband-come-back-NOW moments.

I’ve questioned myself a lot this week, then I realised something. My non-maternal instinct is very much part of my maternal instinct. I say bad things to my children only because they can wind me up like no other human on this earth. I never fully ditch them in the supermarket when they’re kicking off because I want them to always be safe. I only ever throw the toy out of the window because they are bashing each other with it and I need to protect them. I force them to eat their meals so they stay healthy. I experience such frustration and exhaustion because they are my children – and this is surely deep rooted in my maternal love, right?

I know this because I have had two brushes with maternal instinct recently.

The first was when my youngest fell off the bed and cut his head badly on a toy. I was a wreck in that I totally freaked to the point where my friend had to completely take over and drive us to A&E. His hurt was my heartbreak and we were bonded as one in that moment.

The second was during a lovely cuddle with my daughter where we joked around and compared facial features. It was a great time that brought out my moderate maternal instinct and I felt truly bonded with her. Until she said “Mummy, why are you growing a beard?” and whoosh! there it was, gone again.

No ‘mum’ gene really is no problem. We might bond with them instantly or might wing it for years. It’s not a requirement for being a loving parent, that’s certain.

Maybe that’s the difference between mice and mums.