Evolutionary perspectives of mothering create a dilemma. One side suggests that women invest so heavily in their children that there may be an ‘instinct’ that drives their maternal behavior. The other side supports viewing women as strategists who constantly must maximize opportunities to find quality mates and have healthy children, even at the cost of current children. Mothers behave in ways that clearly discount the notion of a maternal instinct, including their harmful (even deadly) behaviors toward their children, and the amount of practice needed to nurse an infant. In contrast, maternal love is more accurate, and shows variation among mothers according to many situational factors, such as whether she has resources and social networks to support herself and children. However, despite advances in our understanding of parenting, the overwhelming majority of students continue to believe in a maternal instinct. Mothers, via a “maternal instinct” are presumed to automatically know how to meet their infants’ needs, be able to protect their infant at any cost, and be able to show others how to provide care effectively. The continued belief of a maternal instinct is harmful; it devalues parents and undervalues requests for help. We discuss these ramifications and emphasize the need to explore variation in maternal love, rather than thinking there is a default “maternal instinct.”
Dr. Maryanne Fisher is an evolutionary psychologist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, and an Affiliate Faculty member at the Kinsey Institute. She has studied mating and dating for years, and especially the competition between women for access to those they desire. After more than two decades of research, writing a few books, and many, many late nights analysing data, she has arrived at the conclusion that women are very strategic. More recently, she has been studying mothering, which she gains insight into while chasing her toddlers.