Can women lead a successful life sans maternal instincts?
“I’d rather not be a mother than be a bad one,” claims 28-year-old Zainab Imam, highlighting a rather common tilt among the affluent and educated women of Pakistan. In a time where ‘making informed decisions’ is a definite requirement for every crossroad in life, an increasing number of Pakistani women like Imam are redefining gender roles and questioning whether they are ready for marriage, let alone a family. “I don’t want children because I will not have the time to be a good mother,” adds Imam.
This change is not just specific to Pakistan. Across the border, India shares a somewhat similar social landscape. Twenty-six-year-old journalist Indrani Basu echoes Imam’s concerns. Even though Basu is fond of babies, she is reluctant to undergo the physical experience of producing one. “I don’t mind doing everything else, whether it is staying up, changing diapers, potty training, massaging and bathing, etc,” says Basu. “I guess I don’t mind being the dad!”
Keeping women like Imam and Basu in consideration, a pertinent question comes to mind: is intellectual stimulus and empowerment stifling the maternal instinct in today’s women? Or is it that they are simply unwilling to take on the responsibility that comes with motherhood because they are more aware of it? Women like 21-years-old student Samia Ansari, it is clearly a case of not wanting to take on more than one can handle. “I fear having children. I do love children of others but the idea of having my own is very scary. Taking care of babies and playing with them looks good for a while. But being responsible for another being is a very scary thing. I don’t think I can [do it],” says Ansari.
Are women born to be mothers?
We often hear people say that women are born to be mothers but whether the maternal instinct is something we are born with or acquire still remains debatable. Renowned psychologist Nasim Mughal feels that women are indeed born with the instinct to nurture. “It’s a biological and genetic template; like an inbuilt disposition within women that interacts with the environment,” she explains. Mughal further adds that nurturing is largely the outcome of socialisation an individual goes through which ultimately determines their characteristics. “Healthy, grounded socialisation helps actualise innate human abilities while dysfunctional experiences tear down the basic fabric of who we are.”
In the case of Sameena Bibi*, dysfunctional conditioning appears to have made her dislike motherhood. Hailing from a rural village in Multan, Bibi’s family believes that a woman’s worth comes from producing children although Bibi herself feels differently. “I am currently expecting my first child but feel no love towards it as I never wanted to be a mother,” she admits. Bibi’s predicament can be attributed to her experience of witnessing her mother being abused during pregnancy and after delivering a daughter. The lack of love received from her father has caused Bibi to believe she will fail as a parent as well. Despite this, Mughal reiterates that the need to have children is present in all humans. “It is the glue that bonds two people together, providing them with a common purpose.”
At the other end of the spectrum is psychotherapist Asma Pal who feels that the reasoning behind maternal instincts is not a simple one. “It is more a learnt behaviour than an instinct. Others may disagree but I think bonding begins once the baby is born,” says Pal. She also shares the story of her gynecologist telling her that the reason women feel nauseous in the early stages of pregnancy is because the embryo attaches itself to the uterus but the body rejects it. “It is the natural reaction of the human body to fight outside influences. While the validity of this statement needs to be checked, it makes sense to me,” says Pal.
Interestingly, some women find it difficult to bond with their baby even after birth. “I was expecting to fall in love immediately with them at birth but I just didn’t feel much,” says 34-year-old Ayesha Zubair. “I breastfed both of them as my mother pressured me to. But I hated doing it and sort of felt trapped with the kids,” confesses Zubair, adding that it took close to four to six months for the maternal instinct to kick in. Therapist Shazia Khan says that this could have been a case of perinatal or postnatal depression, something most mothers don’t recognise. “My interest as a psychotherapist is more towards what are we doing for women who are expecting but are simply not aware of these disorders,” states Khan.
The intelligence quotient
According to Satoshi Kanazawa, a researcher from the London School of Economics, the smarter the woman, the less likely she is to want children. In his book The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smarter One, Kanazawa suggests that for every 15 IQ points a woman earns, her maternal urges drop by 25%. Similarly, a study titled Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degree, conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2008, confirmed that most educated women are still among the least likely to reproduce in the United States of America. Although, statistically some prefer motherhood, the study states “there has been a general trend toward delayed marriage and childbearing, especially among highly educated women.”
Based on the findings, women who have dedicated their lives towards achieving a degree or career feel an inner pressure upon having to take a long hiatus like a maternity leave. However, according to Kanazawa, the more worrisome aspect is that if the upper tier of intelligent women reproduces fewer females, the genetic intelligence which is supposed to trickle down to future generations will be hindered. Thus, there is a high probability that the world will miss out on smarter humans.
Moreover, women like Mumbai-based writer and media trainer Shai Venkatraman believe that there is more than just a woman’s intellectual status at play here: the practicalities of being a professional need to be considered too. “I never had doubts that I wanted to be a mom. But I delayed it because at that stage in my life, work was taking off. Also the organisation I was working for wasn’t welcoming towards pregnant employees, despite being women-friendly,” explains Venkatraman. She also adds that even though her company offered six months of maternity leave, female employees were made to work like slaves once they returned.
In Venkatraman’s experience, some professions are more unfriendly to the idea of working mothers who aspire to make it to the top. “If you look at women who have made it big in the news and television industry here in India, most are unmarried or childless by choice.” In situations like these, a family support system helps immensely. “I always tell younger women that they must ensure a support system for themselves, such as staying close to their children’s grandparents, if they want to reach the top,” she adds.
Societal pressure towards childrearing
Cultural experts feel that in many progressive setups, the social pressure on women to bear children has decreased considerably and what was once considered necessary for a woman’s social survival is now seen as an individual choice.
However, such a mindset is rare, especially in our part of the world where a woman’s are primary role is as a vessel for childbirth. Many young women like Imam are still subjected to intense coercion to reproduce. “Not a single day passes by without someone reminding me that the proverbial biological clock is ticking away,” says Imam. Yet, the pressure isn’t enough to make her jump into motherhood without careful deliberation. “It still doesn’t change the fact that I continue to be undecided about whether I want to have children or not,” she says. For Imam, it isn’t about being too career-oriented or intelligent but instead, being a responsible parent. Imam, in fact, likes the idea of being a mother and would be perfectly happy to take a break from work to give her child full attention. She is simply unsure about when to take a break.
One can’t deny the fact that today’s progressive women are under a lot of economic pressure. “It’s becoming more and more obvious that the women of the current generation – often called millennials – are reluctant to have children because of the financial restraints placed on us, thanks to the political decisions the boomers made before us,” says Mehreen Kasana, writer and academic. Kasana says that today’s woman knows what poverty or being on the brink of poverty is like and they are, as a result, unwilling to put a young life in the same precarity. “It’s a class-based choice. Many of us women are keener on acting on our autonomy and economic issues rather than just producing for the sake of producing.”
Today’s women have to acquire sound education, have a thriving career, build a good life with a compatible partner, raise children, socialise and also maintain themselves, physically and emotionally. As a result, motherhood in this list of priorities may be sliding down a rung or two. Mother of two, Zaib Kamran, still feels unsure. “It’s too complicated for me, I am still figuring it out,” she says. Raising two girls, just 11 months apart, and trying to balance that with everything else makes Kamran feel like her life is too mechanical to be classified as the love of a mother. “Perhaps this is love? Maybe. I don’t know.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 21st, 2015.