Maternal instinct a 'myth'?: NYT essay claims Eve, Mary are examples of 'perpetual servitude'

Unsplash/Bethany Beck
Unsplash/Bethany Beck

Is maternal instinct merely a religious and social construct from a bygone era?

That's the inference in an opinion essay by journalist and author Chelsea Conaboy, whose headline in The New York Times, "Maternal Instinct Is a Myth That Men Created," plainly spells out her thesis.

In the essay adapted from her forthcoming book, Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood, Conaboy writes that the notion of mothers being uniquely and biologically equipped to provide the "selflessness and tenderness babies require" is not only unscientific but a "relatively modern and pernicious" idea.

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"It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science," Conaboy writes.

Calling maternal instinct a "myth" that "places a primacy on biological mothers," Conaboy warns using such terminology "sustains outdated ideas about masculinity that teaches fathers that they are secondary" and "undermines the rights and recognition of same-sex couples and transgender and nonbinary parents, whose ability to care for their children is often questioned."

She asks: "Where did the idea that motherhood is hard-wired for women come from?"

Conaboy first points readers to the Bible and two of its most renowned women, Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Calling both figures the source of "modern Christian archetypes of motherhood," Conaboy deconstructs the stories of Eve and Mary — whom Conaboy refers to as the "Virgin Mary" —  as embodying the virtues of "unattainable goodness" and "perpetual servitude" to establish "a moral model for motherhood that has proved, for many, stifling and unforgiving."

"There was Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and in doing so caused the suffering of every human to come. And there was the Virgin Mary, the vessel for a great miracle, who became the most virtue-laden symbol of motherhood there is, her identity entirely eclipsed by the glory of her maternal love" she writes. 

"Mary's story, combined with Eve's — unattainable goodness, perpetual servitude — created a moral model for motherhood that has proved, for many, stifling and unforgiving."

Tracing the history of motherhood from home through the Industrial Revolution, Conaboy points to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the 19th century, which she believes "codified biblical notions of the inferiority of women and reaffirmed the idea that their primary function is to bear and care for children."

In response to Darwin's observations of the mother bird in 1871's The Descent of Man, Conaboy takes exception to what she described as the evolutionist's male-centric views.

"Observant as he was, Darwin apparently ignored the hunger of the mother bird and the angst of having mouths to feed and predators to fend off. He didn't notice her wasting where wing meets body, from her own unending stillness," wrote Conaboy.

Conaboy then points to the widely-held "belief in maternal instinct and the deterministic value of mother love" as the primary factor behind the "pro-family conservative" movement over the last three decades.

Using phrases like the "sacredness of home" in quotation marks to refer to traditional notions of motherhood, the editorial called out messaging from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

She describes the ERLC as a "Christian anti-abortion policy group" and cited a 2019 ERLC article stating a mom's maternal instinct "will often overpower any other instinct to terminate her pregnancy" upon having an ultrasound done. She called the prenatal procedure "the pro-life movement's strongest asset in recent years."

"Why, then, should the law consider the impact of pregnancy on the life of a person who has the full force of an instinct stronger than 'even fear itself' to gird her in the task?" Conaboy asks.

Conaboy declined The Christian Post's request for comment, referring to her book for any additional context.

The essay has drawn criticism from some scientists and Christian scholars, including author and researcher John Horvat II.

Horvat told CP that the opinion essay was anti-Christian and "an insult to all Christians because the author reduces the two figures to myths and archetypes and not to human beings."

"It is not by coincidence that she attacks motherhood by attacking the best of all mothers — the mother of Jesus Christ," added Horvat. "By attacking the best mother, she attacks all."

Horvat said despite the rise in feminist ideology beyond academia into fields of science and medicine, many psychiatrists and child development experts emphasize the link between mother and child as crucial.

Horvat said there remains an abundance of research into bonding and nurture between mother and child.

The most egregious part of the essay, Harvat said, is the "Marxist dialectics of pitting one class against the other."

"By attacking the maternal instinct and using it as a tool against the patriarchy, the author shows that nothing is sacred," he added. "Everything can be distorted and manipulated to further this forlorn cause."

Jenet Jacob Erickson, a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, wrote an op-ed in Deseret News responding to Conaboy's assertion that "maternal instinct is not a myth."

"Conaboy reduces the profound biological, psychological and moral capacities of mothers to little more than a cultural construct designed to diminish them," Erickson wrote. "Women deserve more than that. And we can acknowledge and celebrate the unique capacity that women have in motherhood, while spurning the cultural distortions that limit and warp that power and influence."

"But if our efforts to increase shared responsibility for the work of home means we eliminate the reality of the unique and profound capacities of women and men, we have diminished the strength of both," she added. "The biological, psychological and moral capacities of mothers — as well as fathers – cannot be easily dismissed." 

Erickson says researchers have explored maternal influence on children's development for over a century, and "unparalleled developments in the field of neuroscience have confirmed what we could only theorize about before."

"From the moment an infant leaves the womb, she has one primary task — to establish a bond of emotional communication with a caregiver she experiences as consistently responsive," she wrote. "Infants across the whole animal world look for a particular caregiver: their mother, whose heartbeat and smell, tone of voice and touch they know and for whom they immediately show a preference."

Jerry A. Coyne, the emeritus professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, called Conaboy's essay a "dismissal of biological facts" and said that across the animal kingdom, females tend to be the ones tending to the young.

"It bespeaks a lack of judgment on the part of the author — who ignores biology because of her ideology — as well as on the part of the newspaper, which failed to hold the author's feet to the scientific fire," he wrote in a rebuttal. 

"It is the female lion who takes care of the cubs (and hunts for them) while the males are indolent; most often it is the female bird who not only incubates the eggs but feeds the offspring; it is the mother elephant who tends to her young; it is the female primate who holds, cares for, and nurtures her offspring. This difference alone, caused by the constraints of different reproductive roles, will, over time, select for mothers to be more attentive to offspring than are the fathers, more worried about them, and more attached to them."

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