In college, I recall a disturbing lesson in Developmental Psychology: the death of human instinct. Essentially, experts believe that as humans have become more and more intellectually developed as a species, we have shed all but a few of our innate instincts. In fact, it was the conjecture of the particular scholars we were studying that only one true instinct remains. Which instinct? The physiological response to what psychologists refer to as "baby cuteness". Even individuals who dislike or are uncomfortable around babies and children, when placed under the microscopic, physically respond to features that we associate with babies. Rose bud lips. Big eyes. Proportionally larger heads. Relative smallness. Something in us senses young. Perhaps their defenselessness. Perhaps our need to protect them in order to further our species. All environmental factors aside, our biology recognizes babies.
So what of maternal instinct? These scholars purport that like so many other instincts, maternal instinct died out long ago. Any mothering abilities attributed to today's moms are chalked up to that thing called "nurture". We learn to be mothers. This would certainly explain the young mothers who dump their babies in garbage cans at the prom....or leave their babies in a smoldering hot car in the middle of summer....or leave their children with an alcoholic relative.
But can it truly be said with all the biological responses that new mother's bodies go through during pregnancy and after birth that nothing that can be called instinct exists?
Speaking as a person who just gave birth a mere six weeks ago, I can point to all the biological miracles that have occurred between my daughter and myself. I knew when I went into the hospital 6 weeks before my due date for severe kidney pain and inexplicable abdominal pain that I was not going to come out without a baby in tow. Sure enough, my little one came out five weeks early in perfect shape. She was ready...and I just...knew. And that is just an anecdotal example. How about skin to skin contact stabilizing babies blood sugar or the rather disgusting process of lactating? If I hear a baby cry on television nothing happens, but when my little one lets out a squeal the flood gates open. Not to mention that I am a self regulating dairy farm.
So where is the instinct in this? Is it really gone?
Or are we just killing it?
We live in a time where information is light speed accessible. Even Dr. Spock has become archaic...unless of course you are reading his famous book on your kindle. Any symptom your child may have can be plugged into WebMD and a list of horrifying ailments will pour out before you. BabyCenter.com will let you sign up for weekly updates, presenting you with a neatly organized page of milestones to measure your baby against. Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging allow you to update all your friends and loved ones about the color of your baby's poop and immediately receive dozens of responses letting you know if this is normal, abnormal, and what steps you must take to [fill in the blank] before it's too late and you ruin your child forever. Every inch of your baby can be examined, every behavior analyzed, and every possible illness diagnosed before your poor pediatrician even has a chance to see the little booger.
As an obsessive thinker, my baby has given me a veritable playground of things to obsess about. A strawberry hemangioma on her face. 5 weeks prematurity. Acid reflux. Constipation. I have found myself in tears, combing through webpage after webpage trying to understand, trying to measure, trying to fix, trying to diagnose, trying to prepare, and mostly just trying to control my child's wellbeing with the help of Google and well meaning friends and family.
But what if....I put the laptop away. And the iPhone. And the parenting books.
What if I just sat with my baby...took a deep breath...and listened. Listened to her screaming. Listened to her breathing. Looked into her eyes. Felt her skin against my skin. Would something buried deep inside me start to speak? Would it reassure me? Would it answer all my questions? Or tell me what questions needed to be asked in the first place?
Would instinct bubble up and take the reins?
Maybe with all of our good intentions of being prepared, informed, ready, intellectual in our child rearing...mommies are killing our instincts. Then we are simply left with an empty useless physiological response to those rose bud lips. And big eyes. And large heads. An increased heartrate. A degree or two rise in body temperature. A few more neurons firing here and there. When did we stop making the biological leap of faith and trusting those instincts that followed? And can we ever hope to regain them?