Whatever happened to maternal instinct?

The choice not to pass on our genes seems against nature, writes Barbara Amiel

Whatever happened to maternal instinct?

Suzi Eszterhas/Corbis

This past year, for the very first time, more white Americans died than were born. The reasons seem pretty obvious. Children cost oodles, abortion and contraception are freely available without social approbation. Modern women have many choices apart from motherhood. This is all splendidly rational, only one aspect eludes me. What’s happening to the universal maternal instinct? Babies are being born of course and Hollywood celebs wear baby bumps like a new It handbag, waiting for the scheduled C-section on a convenient day when motherly love kicks in. Still, most of the women I know of child-bearing age aren’t bearing much except a vague notion of harvesting their eggs. Was it only in 19th-century novels—written by men—that all women longed to be mothers, often risking their lives for newborns?

We Homo sapiens are a curious bunch. I suppose the sapiens part is the problem. Alone among the millions of species on Earth, we have this burden of free will that allows us to make the most ghastly mistakes as well as great advances. Still, the choice not to pass on our genes seems against nature. In the BBC’s Earth documentaries, David Attenborough intones in the voice of a becalmed saint teaching cherubim: “Life’s final challenge is to pass on genes. Ultimately in nature that is what life is all about.” And Attenborough’s not just talking about mammals or invertebrates. He’s talking grasses, for heaven’s sake—the fight of struggling little shoots in Antarctica.

I didn’t know that the thumbnail-sized strawberry poison-dart frog climbs a tree equivalent in difficulty to a human being climbing the Empire State Building to find a safe home in a bromeliad flower for her offspring. Watching that little frog, tadpole on her back, purposefully edging up the bark six times for her six tadpoles is to see an accomplishment of mythic proportions. For other heroines, one can’t do better than the Pacific octopus, which produces 100,000 eggs, searches the ocean floor for a safe nest where she stays for six months, cleaning her eggs of algae, caressing them with her tentacles while she slowly starves. As eggs hatch, she blows water over them to aid birthing—her final act before she dies and newborns swim free. Wagner couldn’t do better.

Nature is programmed to survive and reproduce and whatever changes in the environment occur, species adapt in ever more creative ways. Subspecies of goby fish can change from female to male, climb up thundering waterfalls to reach quiet shallow breeding grounds, live on land when stranded in mud and jump high in the air to attract a mate for their breeding. Humans don’t have to do any of these things. We choose to mate but not to breed. Or on breeding, we can chose abortion.

At 24 years of age in 1965, I was scared stiff on discovering I was over four months pregnant. The older women at the CBC where I worked all seemed to know I was with child but chose to say nothing—out of courtesy, I suppose. My world had ended. But I was a tenacious idiot and unearthed an abortionist (who went into practice later on with Henry Morgentaler). The cost was a sky-scraping $400. The abortion was done in a boarded-up storeroom on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, complete with the mandatory naked light bulb and dentist’s chair as an operating table. No anaesthetic. The abortionist was careful and loaded me up with antibiotics before Emergency claimed me.

A few months later he was arrested. It would be many decades until the act that jailed him would get an Order of Canada for Dr. Morgentaler. And until I looked at fetal development charts for this column, I never understood what was inside me: a tiny being with limbs and fingernails that might have felt discomfort as the doctor’s instruments murdered it. I couldn’t wait another four months and have the child adopted, let alone climb up a tall tree to find a safe home for it. Though I fully support legal abortion (as a dark necessity not as some precious human right) I rue our need for it.

If the octopus had free choice, would she choose not to breed rather than hang around waiting to die? Some thinkers say the maternal instinct in humans is just “learned” behaviour. Women have been programmed by a patriarchal society aided in modern times by television, church and advertising. I think we only have to look at our primate relatives who don’t go to Mass or read feminist books to see this is nonsense. Although there are cases in nature where mothers reject or destroy a child, whether it’s birds, bees or primates, the females nurture and the father protects. Great herds migrate thousands of miles, facing exhaustion and famine to give their young the best breeding grounds. Birds fly over the Himalayas and butterflies over continents to rest on nourishing milkweed for their eggs. Though it’s the male emperor penguins who band together in lonely vigil through two months of night in -70° C to protect their eggs while the females go off to gather food, in general there are few things as evident across the spectrum of existence as the maternal urge.

Perhaps it is rank sentimentality, that cheapest of thrills, that brings tears to my eyes when I watch the graceful mating ritual of weedy sea dragons mirroring each other’s movements as they dance into the underwater night to mate and transfer eggs onto the male for safekeeping. Perhaps it is the shadow of errors my free will made. Meanwhile, having your daughter view the BBC’s Planet Earth or Life series would be a cool move. Even better, it’s in most public libraries—taxpayer dollars paying for material extolling the propagation of life—even while we pay Dr. Morgentaler’s followers for its extinction.

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