Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Mother's Instinct

One of the big things I learned from both my kids is that I need to listen to my "mother's instinct". Before I had kids I thought this was kind of a load of crap. Of course mothers want to take care of their kids and of course they are going to protect them - that's their job. I just had no idea how very intense the instinct was, until I had Liam.

It's funny how humans can still have very primitive emotions or reactions, the mother's instinct must be hardwired into our brain just like it is for animals. If someone gets between a bear and her cub - look out. A mama bird will fiercely protect her nest by dive-bombing intruders. Don't even try to get near a swan or goose nest or you will be pecked to death from the knees down. The instinct to protect their young is as real for them as it is for me (although I try not to bite people too often). I'm always checking to see if the kids are ok, answering the question that nags my brain "Are they safe?". They could be covered in dirt, destroying the furniture, hammering the walls, and that won't trigger the same intense reaction in me as if Liam came within 10 feet of a shard of glass on the floor.

But the big thing that really brings out the mama bear is their kid's crying. Crying must trigger some primitive instinct in the brain - it instantly wakes mothers from deep sleep, makes them run faster than they knew they could and immediately causes them to do whatever it is in the world that will make their child stop crying. I discovered this when Liam was just days or weeks old. If he was crying and someone else was holding him, something inside me snapped. I just couldn't control the urge to hold him and rock him immediately. Like not in 3 seconds, like NOW. It was a powerful feeling, that I have never felt before and it shocked me a little. It was as if I had suddenly turned into the mama bear or some cavewoman inside me was screaming "GIVE ME MY BABY NOW!". It was a little freaky. I talked to other new moms about this and they all felt it too and said it's just the mother's instinct. Really? Come on. I really didn't believe it at first. I must just be tired. But it kept happening (even when I wasn't tired) and initially I tried to resist it, because, well, snatching your baby out of someone's arms (even your husband's) is sometimes not very polite. And that was my problem. I was torn between being polite and listening to my instinct. A couple of times I let someone hold him so long and cry so hard that I thought I might burst into tears myself, but that would not be polite, so I just cried when I got home. I didn't listen to it. I stuffed the feelings down to be polite.

When Liam was about 6 months old I went to take him to get his picture taken. I loaded him into the stroller on a snowy day in November, walked to the bus stop, waited for the bus, loaded him onto the bus, unloaded him and walked to the store. It was a 45 minute ordeal. When we got to the store I walked into the photo studio and the woman behind the counter was coughing. I asked if she would be the photographer and she said yes. She proceeded to hack into her hand. I suddenly had visions of this woman and her nasty germy face coming close to my son in the photo room and something inside me said NO WAY. So I began to put on Liam's snowsuit and told the lady to nevermind about the pictures. She looked shocked and said "Is it because I'm sick?" I told her it was. Now for me that was hard to do, because I like to avoid conflict as much as possible and normally would have said something like "Oh, no, I just forgot something", or worse, gone through with the photos just to be polite. But I wasn't rude, I was just honest. There was no way she was getting close to my kid and that's that. So instead of being pissed about it she simply said "Well I don't blame you". I was overjoyed in that moment. I had actually listened to my mommy instinct and protected my kid. I didn't care that I had to trek back home 45 minutes in the snow with no pictures. My Liam was safe from the germy monster.

There are still times when I'm tested in this. Like when Adeleine was in the NICU and my whole body was screaming out "HOLD HER! COMFORT HER! TAKE HER HOME!" but all I could do was watch from the other side of the incubator, since touching her little body seemed to cause more stress than comfort. That was when I wished I didn't have that instinct. So I stuffed it down again.

But for the most part, after almost three years now, I've learned to listen to it, to trust it and to act on it. It's there for a reason, it's part of our evolutionary make-up to ensure the survival of our species, in other words: it protects our kids.

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