Women's Initiative

Women's Initiative

The Burden of the Maternal Instinct

The following was submitted by Marisa Peters of Stream and Stone.

Being pregnant at 23 felt like I was following the rules. I got this feeling from the support I was receiving that this was what women were meant to do.

I dove into parenting research like I was preparing for an exam and in the truest sense of the word, I was. Cloth diapers or disposables? Breastfeeding or formula? Co-sleeping or Ferberize? (The last of which I had to google to find out if it was some sort of disease.)

An exam. No?

But, I was determined to get an A. I planned out sleeping schedules, feeding schedules, playtime schedules. I thought I was prepared. And I coped the best I could when my son Jack was born.

My Husband and My Son
My Husband and My Son

I have a great partner and co-parent in my husband. He’s involved, he cares a great deal, and he’s fantastic with Jack, but when it comes to the emotional pressures of being a parent, he doesn’t deal with the same expectations – from himself, or from society – that I deal with as a mother. Now, this isn’t a “poor me” sentiment. It’s a reflection of the pressure and the judgement that we place on mothers, but not on fathers. And it’s a double-edged sword: because those expectations are different, we have different standards for how we empower men as fathers and women as mothers.

Although parenting has come a long way since the days of the uninvolved, emotionally removed father, parenting now is often perceived as a one and a half person job. The mother frequently takes on the brunt of the pressure for being the parenting expert while the father, typically, takes instruction. We now commend fathers for being heavily involved, but imagine a mother being labeled as “involved.” Women don’t just need “babysitting” or “help” from their partners. What we are in need of is the ease in knowing that ultimately we aren’t the only culpable, responsible party. We want to know that someone else is there sharing the reward, the stress, the guilt.

When Jack wasn’t sleeping well, I was the one up on the computer researching how to appease a restless baby. When Jack gets a fever, I’m on the laptop googling whether this is life or death. When Jack is ready for potty training, I’ll be the one handling that quandary. I’ll research the methods and pass on to my partner what I’ve learned.

Now, I understand that in a stay at home parenting situation, the parent at home naturally takes on the research for the duties that they will be handling the most often during the day. In many instances however, the mental and emotional responsibility of parenting isn’t placed on the parent who stays home, it’s placed on the mother.

Women who choose to have both children and a career face the impossible expectation of having it all. Yes, you can work, yes you can be successful, but if you at all show that your children need you, you slowly lose the respect of your colleagues and employers. If you show that your time is favouring your career, you lose the respect of society as a collective. This same level of criticism doesn’t frequently show up around fathers who choose careers.

It’s an expectation for the mother to have an instinct to nurture. This applies to most working arrangements. If both parents work full time, the expectation falls on the mother as if all women somehow carry this instinct. I’ve come across many mothers, who, after finding this not to be the case, fall into complete disarray. Aren’t we supposed to be born with the gift of nurturing? Aren’t we supposed to feel this immediate bond? This desire to constantly be near to our child?

When you take away the myths of maternal instinct, the intuitive nurturer or that immediate bond with our babies, we start to look a lot like men when it comes to parental response.

So, if parents, regardless of gender can have varying reactions to the responsibility of parenting, should the emotional and mental responsibility not fall equally on both parents?

If mothers alone are said to carry the responsibilities based on maternal instinct, how do we properly support single fathers? How do we make them feel that they are capable? How do we support gay fathers and encourage their abilities as parents?

I know many men who are incredible nurturers. They light up around children, and, for as long as I’ve known them, this has been the case. In my experience however, when the going gets tough, they often pass the child off to a woman.

Why is this? Is it truly because men just don’t have the same intuitive abilities to care for children? Or is it because they have been taught that a woman can better handle the situation?

Perhaps if we let little boys push babies around in strollers and play dolls. Perhaps if we offered all children the opportunity to decide if their interests lie in nurturing children or not, and didn’t encourage or discourage their abilities based on gender. Would we still have a society full of working fathers and stay at home mothers? Or overly stressed working mothers who feel alone in balancing career and parenthood?

Now don’t get me wrong, feminism is about choice. When being a stay at home mother is a woman’s choice, I fully support and encourage the situation. The problem comes when women are convinced it’s the only role they can feel fulfilled in because it’s the easiest and most socially rewarding option for them. We also need to address the fact that many women, due to their financial situations, have to work. Staying home with their children could be their choice if the means provided them that opportunity. Many women struggle to find quality childcare that doesn’t add to their financial burden. They don’t have the support needed for working mothers in financial need.

Women who exert their mental and physical energy into making a “perfect” life for their children are able to escape the kind of chiding a mother who chooses to find fulfillment in a career experiences. The expectation is selflessness, but selflessness to a point that can lead to great emotional stress, mental illness and unbearable fatigue. If mental illness takes over and women can no longer offer this level of parenting to the child, the societal chiding is inevitable. Imagine the effect these expectations take on working mothers who don’t have the choice to stay home? Mothers who aren’t being fulfilled outside of the home and don’t have the option to feel fullfillment within the home?

My partner works full time and I stay at home full time with my son. Neither of us look at the other’s responsibility and assume that one does less work than the other. When he comes home, he helps with the housework, he helps with our son. The money my partner pulls in from his job is ours, not his alone. We both work for this money.

When people get wind of this arrangement, the comments range from whether it bothers him that I spend his money, or how tired he must be, working full time and helping to care for our child when he gets home. Sometimes people respond in full blown anger that I dare to ask this much of a man who often works 12 hour days. As if I don’t also work 12 hour days when he works 12 hour days.

When a couple makes the choice to parent a child, men aren’t commonly bombarded with questions about whether they will be staying home while his wife works. When he asserts that he will be working as well as his wife, rarely does someone make snide comments toward him about the problem with letting a daycare raise his child. Rarely does someone question his decision not to stay home. Rarely is he reminded that he mustn’t put his career ahead of his children. It’s uncommon for men to feel guilt over their choice, but the choice for a woman is incredibly loaded.

Last week I called a local preschool in Edmonton, Canada to find out the cost of childcare. $200 CAD a day. For a woman working 3 days a week, that’s about $2400 per month. The average salary of a working mother in Alberta is $37,000. Despite having higher rates of post secondary education, many women earn an average of 25% less than men.

We need to unload this choice for women. Socially and economically. Women who choose to have families, need affordable, quality childcare and better paid maternity. In order to acknowledge that a father’s role is as necessary, that he carries as much emotional and mental responsibility as his partner, men need equal access to paid paternity leave. In the case of gay and queer couples, this is especially important.

Most importantly, women need choice. Choice starting from childhood. They need a childhood without the pressure of gendered toys and behaviors. They need an upbringing without the pressures toward marriage and children. They need an upbringing where competition is saved for sports, education and the workforce. Not one where competition is based on beauty and the ability to snag a boyfriend.

Women need the comfort in knowing that a choice to bear children with a partner will not be a lonely one. We need the security in knowing that the choice not to bear children will be a satisfying one. Women need options.

We’ve always needed options and they’ve rarely been given. Let’s work for more options for both genders, for the sake of the next generation. And this one.

Read more of Marisa’s writing on her blog:

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2 thoughts on “The Burden of the Maternal Instinct”

  1. A good article with regards to women and the need for options. Many women are trapped in abusive relationships which makes it even harder for women of all ages and even harder for the children that come from the union. More awareness for the solutions and this would come from ones who have had the experience.

  2. I agree that societal expectations for both men and women are archaic and detrimental. Baby boomers are largely unwilling or unable to abide changes in gender roles. Younger generarions like mine (born ’85) are being oppressed, slandered, and punished for our unwillingness to live by rules that do not work for us. My partner and I have faced years of abuse and maltreatment from our families, which has negatively affected our ability to parent our 7 year old daughter. She is innately closer to her father in most respects, despite spending much more time with me. He has all the qualities of a loving mother (minus the physicality), yet he is expected to let me do most of the parenting. My family expects me to be able to raise her mostly by myself. When he was the stay at home parent while i went back to work, relatives on both sides, mostly the older ones, insulted him or criticized harshly. A man can be as much or more loving, gentle, and responsible than a woman. Where are the diaper changing tables in men’s restrooms? Where is the paternity or adoption leave? Where are the tv shows with realistic depictions of stay at home dads (hard-working, handsome, masculine)? Until most of the baby boomers are 6 feet under, I don’t expect much gender progress will be made. One day though, I hope our grandchildren might be able to live in peace.

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