Can Non-Maternal Women Succeed at Motherhood?

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“I’ve never felt that clock ticking,” one woman might say. Another holds up her hands when a friend tries to hand over her own newborn. “Oh no, I’ll drop him. I’ve got no maternal instinct.” Yet another woman may worry in secret if her eagerness to get away from the boredom at home with her baby and back to work is a sign she’s made a mistake.

This is for the non-maternal women out there who are considering whether motherhood has a place for them.

What Is the Maternal Instinct, Anyway?

Let’s get one thing straight: There’s no such thing as a universal, hardwired “instinct” that every woman has but you. Some women have a stronger sense of drive to have children than others, but not every mother gets—or needs—to feel a powerful urge to have a baby. Lots of women find that the desire to be a mother is something that increases over time, as their pregnancy develops or even as they get to know their baby.

If you think of maternal instinct as an intuitive sense of how to hold a baby or soothe a crying infant, that’s not an innate feature, either! In most cases, the women you know who have the baby knack probably have younger siblings or cousins, or worked often with young children. In other words, they learned what to do, and you can, too.

How Can I Tell If I’ll Be a Good Mom?

It’s easy for someone to say your ability to succeed as a mom will naturally kick in. It’s harder to take a leap of faith and actually, you know, give birth to a tiny, helpless human being without that sense of certainty that you can handle it.

Some non-maternal qualities are easier to roll with. Here are some signs that you’ve probably got this, even if you’re not sure you’re a naturally maternal person:

  1. You want a family, and feel more uncertain than unnerved about babies
  2. You’re mostly concerned about not having enough experience
  3. Or you’re worried about quitting your job (70% of mothers of kids under 18 work, so having a baby doesn’t mean signing on to stay at home)
  4. “Non-maternal” to you means things like hating baby talk (the baby stage is the shortest stage of parenting!)

Even feeling concerned that lack of being maternal will harm your kid can, oddly enough, be a good sign. Bad parents aren’t usually the ones worrying about if they’re doing a good enough job.

On the other hand, some signs that you’d be happiest without kids include:

  1. You’re considering a baby to please someone else or meet expectations
  2. You find pregnancy frightening or disgusting
  3. You find babies and children completely unappealing
  4. You feel strong dread or resentment about the work involved in caring for a child
  5. You “just know” that kids aren’t the right choice for you to have your most fulfilling life.

What If I Never Feel Maternal?

This is the hardest situation, but it does happen. Many cultures put such a strong emphasis on motherhood that it can feel impossible to avoid the pressure to have kids. It’s possible to love your kids fiercely, but also feel a powerful sense of loss for the life you could have had.

If your baby is born and you don’t feel any rush of maternal love, you’re not doomed to a ruined relationship. Some mothers struggle in the early weeks and fall in love with their babies over time.

If time is creeping on and you’re still not bonding, talk to your doctor or a therapist about postpartum depression. Dealing with a mood disorder can interfere with various relationships, including your ability to connect with the baby.

Being a parent inevitably involves sacrifice. Your childless friends may have more time to pour into their careers and hobbies. You might long for someone else’s freedom (and money!) to travel to a locale you can’t imagine dragging kids to see. You might even feel a pang of jealousy over someone else’s body, free of the stretch marks and scars many women carry after pregnancy.

The thing is, you’re going to sacrifice something either way. Having kids or not, pursuing an all-star career or work-life balance, or deciding between any other opportunities means choosing one path and letting another go. Only you can choose what means the most for you to take a chance on and pursue in your life.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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