Magazine article Natural History

Rethinking Mothers' Nature

Magazine article Natural History

Rethinking Mothers' Nature

Article excerpt

Motherhood was once assumed to be a safe topic. But no longer. The belief that mothers instinctively nurture their offspring--one of the West's most cherished ideals and a view widely accepted even in scientific circles--has been receiving bad press of late.

Social philosophers argue that mother love is a socially constructed attitude. They point to the high proportion of eighteenth-century European mothers who sent their babies away to be nursed by strangers. Some anthropologists reflect on whether mother love is a bourgeois luxury. They cite desperately poor women in third-world shantytowns who distance themselves from their doomed young. A rash of poetry and psychoanalytic commentary has also emerged, registering objections to what poet Adrienne Rich terms "the institutional violence of patriarchal motherhood," with its impossible ideal of mothers who not just willingly but "naturally" punch in for twenty-four-hour, lifelong shifts of unconditional love.

The debate between social constructionists (who view a mother's attachment to her infant as a learned, even indoctrinated emotion) and essentialists (who assume females are genetically programmed to be nurturing) has become so muddled that no one in either camp has paused to remark that in the real-life animal kingdom, not only is the essentialists' Empress of Maternal Instinct wearing no clothes, but she was never absolute ruler of the kingdom to begin with.

Some have glimpsed a silver lining in challenges to conventional wisdom. If, they argue, women are not programmed to nurture their young, then the parent with the XX chromosomes is no more innately equipped for childrearing than the father is. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.