My Not-So-Maternal Instinct

(This story was originally published on Women For One.)

I am one of those women you sometimes hear about in urban legends: the kind that doesn’t want children. I’m 37 years old, and ever since I started to express my nascent opinion that changing diapers and dealing with the tantrums of a diminutive tyrant was not my idea of a life well-lived, I got the stock response from the adults around me: “Well…you’re still young. You’ll change your mind.” This always struck me as mysterious. After all, why would I change my mind about something I felt so passionately about?

Fast-forward about three decades. I still haven’t changed my mind, and although my declarations have been softened by tact and a teeny bit of guilt (after all, who doesn’t love babies, right?), I am set in my opinion that raising children is a perfectly noble enterprise—and one I was NOT born to do.

If I have a maternal instinct at all, it’s buried under a mountain of sarcasm and the kind of clearly-not-childproofed lifestyle that comes from an intentionally unstructured schedule.

My earliest visions of my life included lots of adventure, friends and lovers galore, and the kind of leisure time most harried moms would give their firstborn in exchange for. Sure, I’ve been pegged as irresponsible for admitting to my desire to live a life free from (what I perceive to be) the hellacious burden of childrearing. I’ve been viewed as incapable of caring for others in a meaningful way (as if being a mom were the only method of expressing one’s love and goodwill). I’ve been told that I will regret this decision years from now (because, apparently, to replicate my DNA or spend copious amounts of time discussing my child’s eating and potty-training habits is the alpha and omega of a purpose-driven life).

And yes, obviously I know that there is more to motherhood than the aforementioned, but honestly, the great stuff—such as steering a living being through his or her unique hurdles and standing back to admire the results—still doesn’t sway me. I’ve made plenty of decisions that have prompted the great “What if…” and have even led me to regret the path I inevitably took. Not choosing motherhood has never been one of them.

All joking aside, a woman who openly expresses aversion to all things maternal will probably not score many points, even among the most liberal-minded. And if she is openly sexual, she will be seen as especially monstrous. In general, when women express their sexuality in a way that stands outside and beyond their “obvious” procreative functions, they are demonized. Sex as recreation rather than procreation is fine and all, but there is still the implicit notion that it must ultimately be channeled into motherhood.

We can’t lay the onus of the blame on men. As women, we still place higher value on those who are mothers. We still strip ourselves of any significant value when we are not mothers. We still see ourselves as defective, less than, and unfeminine when we do not fulfill this most prescriptive of socially imposed functions. We still reduce ourselves to the utility of our uterus.

While I have no intention of becoming a mother, I recognize that motherhood is shrouded in ambivalence, which makes it a role I can certainly sympathize with—at least in part. In our culture, the role of mother has either been upheld as the utmost standard of femininity, or it has been devalued to the point of being laughable—another feminine caricature that brings to mind emasculated mama’s boys and the cutting remarks of the cool-as-a-cucumber maternal monster who so often arises in therapists’ offices.

So, as you can see, all of this complicates the archetype of the Mother with a capital M, which I’d like to discuss. Typically, the feminine archetypes I’ve been drawn to seem to exist as counterpoints to maternity. They are warriors, rebels, witches—women who exist on the outskirts of social norms. But this is only true at first glance. Even the fierce Hindu goddess Kali, in one memorable myth, ceases her action on the battlefield to suckle a crying infant at her breast.

All of this makes me curious about the possibility of reclaiming the Mother archetype in such a way that enables me to make peace with my decision to not be a mother. This is an important step, because archetypes are symbolic rather than literal representations. Even if I’m not a mother in the traditional sense, this doesn’t mean that the Mother archetype cannot be relevant to me. Although we live in a culture that is in danger of either neglecting or inflating the Mother archetype, a more balanced, nuanced perspective could offer alternatives that are otherwise difficult to see, much less acknowledge.

Like an individual, an archetype always encompasses a spectrum of attitudes and behaviors. In looking at the Mother archetype, we can see the existence of the Nurturing Mother (characterized by fertility goddesses such as Isis or Astarte, or beacons of devoted maternity like the “Virgin” Mary) and the Ferocious Mother (innate in deities such as Kali, who may be as likely to suckle you at her breast as she is to bite off your head). Often, the Nurturing Mother is perfectly capable of changing on a dime and becoming the Ferocious Mother. Perhaps the ability of the Mother to encompass contradiction so elegantly is what makes her such a controversial figure in the human psyche. In one moment, she’s “too stifling” and in another, she’s “too cold and distant.”

Unlike the Father, whose presence tends to be less bogged down in polarities and more in our attitudes toward authority in general, the Mother dredges up all sorts of inconvenient feelings within us. Our frustration and inability to see ourselves as complex beings with hard-to-figure-out emotions can often cause us to project this messiness onto our real-life mothers and the concept of maternity in general. When we cannot accept our seeming contradictions as two sides of the same coin, our inability to integrate these varied parts of ourselves can leave us feeling like victims of the Great Universal Mother—not to mention our own mothers, who may be the most significant accomplices to our trauma.

I believe that reclaiming the Mother archetype (especially among those of us who don’t identify as literal mothers) means coming to terms with our own perceptions of femininity and motherhood, as well as the personal disappointments and prickly burrs in our side that have informed how we perceive and value motherhood. I also believe that until we view motherhood not merely as a function of the body but as a function of the soul—which continuously births itself into a universe that is both benevolent and hostile—we will always harbor an uneasy attitude toward motherhood.

To reclaim the Mother is to acknowledge her complexity—it is to accord her the power of full expression, whether this be through her desire and sexuality, through her unconditional love of her offspring, through her shadow qualities of manipulation and power plays, through her activities and passions that exist independent of her children, and through the many ways in which she fails and surprises us.

To reclaim the Mother is to see ourselves in this vision simultaneously. It is to recognize the “good” and “bad” aspects of the devoted stay-at-home mom, as well as the fairy-tale crone at the edge of town—who devours small children and sets enterprising young boys and girls out on a path to discover a world that is much larger, much more formidable than their own parents might have taught them.

For me, the true maternal instinct is that upwelling of deep love that exists at the crossroads between life and death. To be a mother is to be the gateway of creation, but it is also to bring our children into a world that includes death and sorrow. To mother is to rush into the blind optimism of our creativity, even though the efforts and the outcome may be full of struggles and uncertainty. It is to forego comfort and sacrifice what we’ve always known for a vision that is much larger than who we think we are. It is to make room for something else to exist. And it is to take ultimate responsibility for that “something else” to exist.

In viewing the maternal instinct in this larger context of creation, I have a larger playing field for my own expression of this instinct. Motherhood doesn’t have to be a one-dimensional ideal that only speaks to those women who are drawn to birthing babies and kissing the boo-boos away.

While I’ve chosen to say no to the cultural baggage that weighs motherhood down, I am an aunt. And we desperately need aunts—especially since so many mothers are overburdened by responsibilities, some that are par for the course and some that are simply unreasonable. To take on the responsibility of aunthood is to offer the kind of love that once freed mothers from their daunting obligations and connected them to a larger support system of friends and family. It is to acknowledge the full and complex spectrum of femininity (and even of maternity), which also encompasses fierce love, sisterhood, and self-care.

Granted, I’m never going to be a matriarch or a caretaker; these aspects of the Mother archetype are just not in my nature. But I can be a loyal aunt, a loving sister, and a creatrix. One of my favorite archetypes, the Witch—who exists on the cusp between the known and the unknown worlds—is not simply a creator but also a steward. The ones who literally mother us may bring us into life, but perhaps we also need the ones who ruthlessly birth us into who we truly are and who we are capable of becoming. And maybe we need the latter to remind us that, while the maternal instinct is more multifaceted than we often acknowledge, many of us won’t be returning to the village to fulfill our “duty” anytime soon. And that, too, is perfectly acceptable.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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