Maternal instinct: nature or nurture?

The other day, one of Luke’s therapists told me about a story about a couple who gave up their child with Down syndrome after he/she was born. I think she expected me to be shocked, but I wasn’t. I believe that some people are not meant to be parents (and all children deserved to be loved), and some women act like they lack the maternal instinct. One of those women is my own mother. 

My own mother is one of those people who doesn’t know how to care about anything that doesn’t affect her directly, in a very self-absorbed way, at least with me. It has taken me decades to get over my parent’s neglect and abuse (physical and emotional), and I know I am still not over it. Perhaps it may be due to the fact that my parents left me as a baby in Korea to start a new life here in the states, so I was left behind to be raised by my grandmother and aunts. But my two siblings were born and raised here by my parents. 

Regardless, she still acts like a stranger at times. She didn’t acknowledge Luke’s second birthday and can be very stingy and greedy in how she thinks. I know I should feel sorry for her, but I don’t. When I told her I was upset about her not acknowledging Luke, she just focused on my sister and still hasn’t acknowledged forgetting about his birthday. You see, my sister moved here a month ago on a whim after visiting us for a week. Being the older sister, I felt an obligation to get her set up with finding a place for her and setting her up with furniture and household items we didn’t need or weren’t using much. It was stressful at an already stressful time, but that is how I operate under stress, through actions like staying up until 2am looking for places for her and getting her settled in with things she will need.  I don’t know how not to get involved, although my husband thought that would be the best course of action- to just let my sister figure everything out on her own. But I just don’t know how to sit on the sidelines, although I know this something I’m going to have to work on for my children’s sake.  But my parents are the complete opposite, which isn’t healthy either. 

My parents have always put my siblings and their business ahead of my own welfare.  When I was suspected of type 1 diabetes (my mom used to be a nurse and she was even the one to bring it to the doctor), they didn’t want to pull me out of school so I only was hospitalized after I lost consciousness at school. (As a sidenote, there is a TrialNet study that will monitor children or siblings of people with type 1 diabetes for antibodies that cause type 1 diabetes, and fortunately both my children have tested negative so far.).  I would go on insulin boycotts just crying out for attention but nothing I could do back then or even now can get her attention or to care. I didn’t really take care of my diabetes until years after college when I showed early signs of kidney disease, compounded worse through stress at work. Many times even today I struggle making my health a priority. 

The abuse and neglect was bad enough that my best friend’s parents wanted to adopt me.  Several times, my mother’s neglect and direct actions put my safety in jeopardy with consequences that most parents hope never happen to their child. In the end, she just really didn’t care what happened to me, whether it was emotionally, physically or with my health. In retrospect, I can’t say that my living conditions were unbearably horrible as I’ve heard of other horror stories of what people have endured unfortunately as innocent children.  But I always just knew that my parents, especially my mom, just didn’t really care about my well being.  

So it pains me to say that she and her callous actions still hurt me. Her blatant disregard for my feelings, my health and our children makes me wonder why she had me in the first place. Even when I was pregnant 2 miscarriages before Luke, she didn’t acknowledge the news at all. No words of congrats, of concerns, nothing. She didn’t say anything except for “Really?”, and then she just went back to wanting me to help her with a lawsuit when she refused to pay her lawyers when a business deal went bad and didn’t go her way. When I lost the baby and told her I had Hashimoto’s, she just told me I can take thyroid medicine and nothing more.  We didn’t tell her about the second pregnancy and miscarriage. My parents didn’t even know about Luke’s birth until after he was born. We did this for a number of reasons, but we didn’t want to jeopardize the pregnancy ultimately, and dealing with my mother always makes my sugars rocket sky high. To me, keeping my baby healthy was a huge priority, and I am so very grateful that both my children are relatively happy and healthy. That means the world to me. 

Because to me, a mother is a person who takes an active role of raising her child. By doing so, that is what solidifies the maternal bond and instinct. She cares about the welfare of her children, sometimes even more so than her own welfare. Some people exhibit the maternal instinct naturally even before having children, some people don’t. Some people who don’t think they have it and are scared of it, end up surprising themselves after having kids. I was one of those people. I was afraid of having children for so many reasons. I was afraid of being a bad mother (still am) and messing them up like my parents did to me. So anyone who has had any similar experiences like mine may feel inadequate for parenthood. 

So that is why I can’t judge that couple for giving away their child with Down syndrome or countless others who are scared to death of raising a child with special needs – they too may feel inadequate. But they will miss knowing the joy of having that child in their lives, and may also suffer from distress and depression of giving up that child. That is one major reason why I couldn’t do it- there was the love, the bonding I had already gone through with all the ultrasounds I did of course- but it was the thought of having to live with the alternative which I couldn’t even consider or bear to think of- and that was the knowledge that I gave up on my child. 

So even if you find yourself in this place, take comfort in knowing that countless others have been there and many have lived on to celebrate their children with Down syndrome. Even for someone like me, who has had her share of emotional baggage, can tell you that you do have the strength to do it, that you will overcome any obstacle once you acknowledge the love you have for your child. Trust your parental instinct, it’s in there somewhere, that despite what the doctors may tell you, the future can be bright.  

So yes, I do think that the instinct is innate if we cultivate it by embracing parenthood, as it is the only way we can successfully propagate our species, right?  Even though some choose not to walk that path or embrace that instinct, which is their own right with their own reasons, I do think we all have the ability to be great parents if we just open our hearts up to our children and let them in. 


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