What do we mean by paternal instinct? In what way is it like maternal instinct, in what way is it different? How could something masculine be anything like maternal instinct?
We choose this phrase to jump right into the issue of biological “destiny” – whereby women were “made” to nurture, and men to provide. This may have been true for our remote ancestors millions of years ago. But one of the key characteristics of the human race is our capacity to make ourselves into an ever-evolving species.
Were human beings meant to live in concrete jungles, to drive cars and fly planes, to work on computers? We keep adapting to the world we keep refashioning.
Were women meant to compete in the Olympics and in business, or to wage war? Who knows, and what’s the point?
To our knowledge, no man has ever breast-fed a baby. If this is the acid test of what a parental instinct is, then men fail it.
Yet, there has always been at least some nurturing from fathers. And, in our day and age, more and more men are nurturing their children. When we talk about paternal instinct, it is to call attention to this dimension in the male psyche and behavior.
We can speculate endlessly about how this instinct came about. Whatever the reason… does it make it any less true that fathers are devoted to their children? Does it making any less true that nurturing children is an important and fulfilling aspect of being a man?
Is paternal instinct any less authentic, deep and powerful than maternal instinct?
This is a rhetorical question that aims at resonating with our conscious or unconscious biases. It asks of us: deep down, when it comes down to it, who do you believe makes a better parent, a mother or a father?
This is actually a trick question. To answer it, we have to buy into its premise – that there is a better parent. Instead of recognizing that children need both parents.
But… isn’t there something special about the mother?
Yes, and there is something special about the father, too.
Culturally, the emphasis on finding the better, more real parent is very much a relic of our competitive, patriarchal heritage.
Patriarchy is an all-or-nothing proposition: either you’re right (i.e. you’re on top), or you’re not (you’re one-down). It used to be Father Knows Best. If you affirm the primacy of maternal instinct, you’re saying: Mom Knows Best. You still essentially affirm the power of one authority, one patriarch.
The emerging post-patriarchal culture is one that values cooperation. It’s about finding ways to get complementary skills to work together. It’s about allowing multiple viewpoints to coexist, instead of having one truth, one leader-of-the-pack.
The question of whether paternal instinct is any less powerful than maternal instinct is one that only makes sense within a patriarchal, all-or-nothing worldview.
What does this mean for fathers, at an individual level? It is a reminder that we are losing something very real and very powerful when we feel intimidated by maternal instinct – and the implication that Mother Knows Best.
While we can learn from mothers about parenting, we also have a lot to learn from listening to our own nurturing side. We have a lot to gain from letting ourselves trust more and more our own instinctive and intuitive reactions as parents.