Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct
By Abigail Tucker
As a journalist and young mother, Abigail Tucker wanted scientific proof that the female of our species possesses a maternal instinct. Yet after she spoke with dozens of scientists around the world, the hope of a clear biochemical explanation for mothering crumbled like graham crackers in Tucker’s hands. The researchers admitted that “variation in a woman’s genes can — albeit to a very, very slight degree — help explain her real-world behavior toward her child,” and that to study maternal genetics is to be “at the base of this humongous mountain” they “are not sure how to climb,” one researcher admitted. Not exactly the groundbreaking insight you’d expect from a book titled “Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct.” Yet arguably, the book reveals something more valuable.
But first the science. While taking the reader on a traipse through various laboratories, Tucker tosses off quips like a class clown on a science field trip. She’s cutesy about her subject: “I thought that unlocking the secrets of the maternal brain would mean looking for something discrete and self-contained, and maybe even helpfully labeled, like the ladies’ lounge in a department store.” Of the brain, she opines it’s “something of a jumble in there, like the contents of a mother’s handbag.”
But her mainstay is self-deprecation, whether it’s her forgetful “mom brain,” her inability to multitask or her body size. (Relating to the ample backside of a four-legged mom, one can almost hear a snide amirite?) This kind of voice has its place in a mom blog or standup show. But a topic inherently prone to gender stereotypes deserves the intellectually engaging reportage of which Tucker is quite capable. One has to ask: What is Tucker doing?
As it turns out, the foil of this book is Tucker herself. Early on she acknowledges that before having kids she feared she might not be great at it. The book’s central question therefore is not “What makes a good mother?” but “Am I a good mother?” When the research fails to deliver and the circumstances of her own life become challenging, she pleads rhetorically: How can the science on maternal instinct speak to a woman’s “complex and shifting social milieu?” It can’t. Tucker is forced to study her lived experience for answers to her existential questions.
She shares that when she was 7 her family lost their financial footing and experienced both an economic and social decline. Her father was never the same and, after many years of struggle, he died. She recalls that her former stay-at-home mother coped by taking on a teaching job and a paper route, a level of stress and sacrifice Tucker couldn’t fathom at the time.
Then Tucker herself is the parent in question, a married working mother of two with one on the way who leaves a bustling, cooperative city neighborhood for a large, old country home. She discovers rotting beams and windows painted shut, and as the fantasy of country life unravels we see the absence of neighbors and a dawning worry. Next her husband, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (her “emotional buttress” and “economic mainstay”), becomes seriously ill, and we see this bewilder her while creating economic instability and fear, all while she cares for preschoolers and is pregnant with their third child.
She is practically fending for herself when the baby arrives, and when depression follows, her new doctor utterly fails her. Tucker is at her finest in retelling this dark struggle. She dips back into the science, this time with a visit to the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, where she observes macaques — our ancient ancestors — and learns that those that fare best have a maternal grandmother present. Her own mother becomes her rock. From this humbled perspective she summons a deep compassion for mothers who have to go without this social support. Whether it comes in the form of family, friends or kind strangers, she now knows this is key. She proposes policy reforms that can better buoy parents of all genders.
Tucker climbed that mountain of inconclusive science about how humans succeed at the terrifying and ancient task of mothering only to find the answers closer to home. And that’s what makes her tale ultimately redeemable and encouraging. If you can set down your expectations of reading about scientific breakthroughs and allow yourself to willingly cross the border from exposition into memoir, you might just see that an intriguing subject — the author herself — awaits you.