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Oh My Maternal Instincts, Where Art Thou?

Posted: October 19, 2016

My baby puzzles me. I’m a mother but apparently my maternal instincts are facing some unexpected delays in reaching me!

I had served myself some steamed rice, freshly made dal and a healthy dollop of ghee. I was just about to sit down to a comforting lunch when my mother-in-law, with all the enthusiasm of a first-time grandma exclaimed, “Oh yes! Are you going to feed her this now? It’s really good for her! There is protein and carbohydrates and fats – a balanced meal for baby.” I blinked. “No… it’s for me,” I replied as I guiltily looked over at the offspring playing with her toys.

As I ate my lunch, it got me thinking. I suppose I should have offered the food to my child first, shouldn’t I? After all isn’t that what all mothers do – or at least are expected to do? But, well, I was famished and she didn’t seem to be hungry.

Expecting the maternal instincts

Everyone had told me that motherhood is natural. Apparently, along with the bundle of joy comes a bundle of maternal instincts too. But on the night after my C-section surgery, I was exhausted from the long labour, on painkillers and sleepy. I could hear my new-born crying but honestly, I didn’t feel like springing out of bed with my arms outstretched towards her like the countless mothers we see onscreen.

At that point in time, I didn’t want to cradle her or comfort her. I was having issues with the baby latching and I didn’t want to be roused to try nursing a baby who kept wailing at my breast yet again. I was desperately wishing that someone – my mother, the nurses, the husband – someone would handle the baby and make her stop crying so that I would be left in peace.

Once I got home from the hospital, my search for this mirage called ‘maternal instincts’ seemed to continue. If the baby cried, people turned to me expectantly and asked, “Why is she crying?” I shrugged. I didn’t know.

“Why is she fighting her sleep?” I don’t know.

“Why is she refusing to bathe?” I don’t know. “Was the water too hot?” No. “Was it cold?” No. “Then why?” You guessed it, I don’t know. Perhaps, you should ask her?

It seemed that the quality assurance team of the Creator goofed up big time. Here I was – a woman and a mother to boot – but where were my maternal instincts, pray tell me?

Post-Partum depression and the new mom

The initial few weeks after childbirth is especially challenging because one is battling with fluctuating hormones, a weakened body and practically no sleep. I could have auditioned for a role in one of those weepy soap operas.

Everything – from a glass of milk gone cold to a terrorist attack in a faraway place that I hadn’t even heard of till then – made me break down into a snotty mess.

I don’t believe that I was suffering from any postpartum depression. But I can only imagine how much more tough it would be for a new mother who is struggling to cope with neonatal depression while handling a new-born. Although I had a lot of help available, at times even well-meaning adults can make you feel insecure about motherhood with their mindless advice.

The utter senselessness of their misinformation seems clear in hindsight; but when you are sitting there clueless about what to do with your wailing infant, feeling like a miserable failure of a mother because your maternal instincts are nowhere to be found, even the most absurd suggestions appear to be plausible.

Motherhood: It grows on you

With time, I’ve come to realise that maternal instincts are not something which are just inherent in every woman out there. I have never actually taken care of anybody before becoming a mother. I was the one who was petted and pampered at home and there was no way that I could instantly turn into an epitome of motherhood overnight.

I see a lot of people turning up their nose and becoming all judgemental when they see mothers who have nannies to help them out. This is especially true in the case of celebrity mothers. I’ve heard someone comment about Sushmita Sen (and even Angelina Jolie), “Oh she can adopt because she has the money to employ nannies. She isn’t the one who is going to stay up all night with a crying baby.” This statement is SO wrong on SO many levels.

First, it implies that mothers who adopt have no maternal instincts whatsoever. But for now, let’s not even go there. More relevant to the point that I am trying to make here, it also assumes that if I don’t want to sit up at night and comfort my baby or change my baby’s soiled diaper myself, then I am not a good enough mother. As though it is some sort of divine duty for mothers to clean stinky bottoms!

Would I have preferred to stay in my warm bed, instead of rocking my baby to sleep for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night? Of course. But that does not make me a bad mother. It makes me human, a real person with absolutely normal needs.

Maternal instincts are not some sort of magical powers that you are instantly blessed with as soon as you become pregnant or give birth. Months of close contact, caring and bonding with my child has finally enabled me to make an educated guess about her reactions. It has gradually helped me gain an understanding of her behaviour. After weeks and weeks of close monitoring and observing, today I can just about begin to hope to predict her actions.

It is however a continuous learning process. We still have our moments when I realise that I don’t instinctively know what she is going to do – or even what I am supposed to do with her. Yesterday, someone pointed to some sweet potato and asked me, “Will she eat this?”

Hmm. Let’s see. She might… but then again she might not. She might eat a bit and play with the rest or she might polish off the plate; she might fling it across the room and look at us to gauge our reaction, or she might carry the plate to the dustbin, tip it over and smile, so proud of her sense of civic responsibility… in short, my answer to the question is, I do not know.

Image source: shutterstock

Anne John plays with words for a living and would probably do the same even

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  1. Thank you for the only sensible post on motherhood I have read. Now it doesn’t seem so otherworldly to me.
    It is indeed sad that the society wants women to be superhumans, when all we ask for is to be recognised as fellow humans.

  2. Ha! Ha! Ha! Anne as usual you’ve nailed it with your honesty and easy style of writing! I couldn’t agree more with your post on so many levels though motherhood for me happened eleven years ago! Like you sooooooooo rightly point out, motherhood grows on you rather slowly (or at least for me it did!) especially when kids are small and are more dependent and almost completely unpredictable!!!! On a more positive note -may I add that It grows on you relatively faster (thankfully there is a light at the end of the tunnel l!) as they start becoming independent and more predictable!!! When one has been a “waking” mother for a sufficiently long number of both sleeping and waking hours…it suddenly dawns on us that perhaps for ages older mothers and women have seemingly conspired to keep us believing motherhood is a cake walk and immediately and endlessly rewarding!!! Which, what-did-you-know it certainly isn’t!!!! – certainly not right away and at all times!! Yep! some simple sisterly honesty seems to be the biggest casualty here over centuries of patriarchy, and co conspiracy by the side-kicks(our mother lady ancentors, grandmas and great grandmas over the centuries !!) Anyway, the good news is it gets better Anne and it does seem easier as you get the hang of it -this mothering role!! You, in the mean time seem to be doing a fabulous job figuring this stuff out, which is what we all have to do anyway! But Im glad you are breaking the mould and encouraging the other ‘in the closet struggling mothers’ that its ok to be honest about the difficulty and ignorance of new motherhood and to not pretend or project a la flashy face book style- that aall is well, all the time. Keep up the great humorous writing style and the refreshing honesty!!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Sonia! Delighted to know that you enjoyed reading my article 🙂 “Waking mother” – so true! I’ve always wondered why my mother almost always jerks awake at the slightest sound. Now I know the answer! I’ve forgotten how to sleep soundly after becoming a mother!

      Motherhood is such a mixed bag of contradictions isn’t it? On one hand I can’t wait for her to grow up and become more independent and on the other I want her to remain my baby forever; on one hand I can’t wait for her bedtime to come by and on the other other I get worried if she sleeps longer than usual! Before becoming a mom I was always rather cynical about all the motherhood cliches – only to realize that all of them are true!

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