The Maternal Instinct

“Instinct,” per, is: “an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.”

 “Maternal” from my son’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, with the red burlap cover, because I still love the heft of a real dictionary, is: “characteristic of a mother, motherly.” Okay, but let’s dig deeper. Back online to, “maternal” Scroll down to related words: “…feminine, womanish, womanlike, womanly; matriarchal, matronly (ouch,) caring, giving, nurturing.”

Put it together. Maternal Instinct:  “feminine, caring, giving, nurturing pattern of activity common to a given species.”

True. Motherhood, when you fold back the cozy, pilled blanket of unconditional love, is defined by patterns of repeated, life-affirming activities common to all moms: shaking Cheerios into breakfast bowls, clipping tiny toenails, washing scalps and wasting Band-Aides on imagined boo-boos to stop the tears.

But what happens when the uncommon happens?  When nurture gives way to darker nature? When the maternal instinct is usurped by self -interest?

When my mother plants a goodbye kiss full-on my son’s mouth after Thanksgiving excess, she uses the same closer she’s always used with me: “Theodore, what does Nana always say?”  No reply.  The first cousin, standing by, pipes up: “I know, I know Nana: you would kill for us and you would die for us.” Way to go Nana.  Melding love and violence in a new generation of young minds. “That’s right!” she triumphs, “Nana would kill for you and she would die for you.”

My torso tingles with distant memory:  Mom, driving Sandy, our beige Volkswagen, stops short at an intersection and shoots her right arm across my chest so I don’t go through the windshield.  Never mind seat belts to do this job.  Or that head cold, so bad all food tastes like stale sugar cones, mom rubs my chest with Vicks Mentholated, covers it with a flannel rag and tucks the bedspread up under my chin.

Yes, put to the test, no doubt Nana would turn the dagger outward to pedophiles and peeping Toms, or inward, towards her apron-covered heart, but I can’t ever imagine Nana letting me win at Scrabble.  Maternal instinct has no place at the game table. My mom is an ace who makes words like “BEVEL” while I grasp at straws with “PINDER,” “WOOLIE” and “FUNGU.”  Thanksgiving night she is cunning as she sips Red Zinger and picks the first tile to see who goes first: “D.”  “All herbal tea taste the same,” she sighs.  I pick “L.” My eighteen-year-old nephew picks “R.”  Nana goes first.  “Nana is old, and tired, and didn’t sleep well last night.” Her strategy, referring to herself in the 3rd person, is to inspire pity, to disarm me, but I don’t fall for it. I play my hardest and refer to cheat sheets which offer “J” and “X” words, and solutions for what to do with the letter “Q” when you have no “U” to follow it. I pray for a spate of senior moments for Nana. Not tonight. Not ever. Her tiles click into place: “ADZE.” “S--,“ I think, “she’s played her Z.” I remember she did once give into a cheat sheet for a troublesome “Z” and came up with “ORZO,” 33 points. “What the hell is that?” I ask. “A kind of tool,” she replies. “My father taught me that one. He was a tool and die maker.”  ADZE, 34 points. Occasionally I hold my own, but not tonight, two hours later, drinking coffee that has sat too long on the warming coil. My nephew dropped out long ago. I make “HAIR,” only 7 points, but I’m hoping I’ve foiled her plans for the triple word square, 2 spaces beyond where hair ends. “Well, you just f—me up, “ she says, “but that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Indeed. But I didn’t. She tacks a “C” on the front end, which also happens to be a triple word square: “CHAIR,” 21 points. I stare at a rack of 1-point letters. I push myself: “NASAL,” 12 points, but I’ve made a fatal miscalculation and opened another path to a triple word. She draws the last tile from the velvet sack and capitalizes on my error, “PAGAN,” and pulls ahead to victory with this 24-point finale.  Final score: 267 to 158. “I’ve slaughtered you,” she says, rubbing her arthritic thumb, “and I don’t like to do that to my child.” Bullshit.  “I got some good letters towards the end.” She throws me this bone, trying to rekindle her correct maternal instinct. She’s prancing inside, no arthritis there. I watch her, animated, not-at-all tired, as she cleans up the board. “Just be thankful I’m functioning this well at 76.” I’m not. In our family, the winner cleans up. At least I’ve got that. It’s our best rule. The winner lingers and relives the mauling as she scoops up tiles, or slips playing cards back in their sleeve, while the losers skulk off to lick their lacerations…

But I am really no different playing Monopoly with my own boys.  I turn down opportunities to buy utilities or railroads. I hold out for Boardwalk. The blue-bannered card in hand, my son soon lands on Park Place. I flash a gold $500 bill, plus two hundreds and a blue fifty. $750. Double the asking price. He accepts my offer and by my next move I’ve put hotels up on both properties.  My nephew, in this game too, is pissed. Hey, I admit it. I’m no different from mothers around the animal kingdom— a mama rat or polar bear, a hamster or wattled jacana – just another mom, who devours her young.

Face It. I fantasize about filial infanticide in the bright morning hours. In that briefest of weekday windows between breakfast’s end and out the door, my immovable six-year-old wears me down with “Mommy, you are so mean, so mean, sooooo mean!!!”  I’m getting absolutely nowhere cooing “Use your words honey, would you like mommy to put on your socks, or would you like to do that yourself?”  “GO AWAY MOMMY! YOU ARE SOOOO MEAN!!!!”  Forgetting to breathe, I surrender decorum and throw self-esteem out that same window: “THAT’S RIGHT, MOMMY’S MEAN, SHE’S SOOOO MEAN, IN FACT, SHE’S A BITCH, MOMMY’S A REAL BITCH! BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO GET DRESSED!!”   Hitting is never an option. Cursing is not really an option either (but it is better than hitting.) My revenge? Gaming.

“Snowball fight, Brooklyn style! Moms against kids!” Three moms hurl ice balls over dumpsters. Three kids return fire from behind wet mattresses, sitting curbside for days.  I take full advantage of my superior height. I know it won’t last.  The heat of the day approaches and the snow is packing well now. Show no mercy. In the end, moms rule and kids retreat, red, raw and squealing for mercy.

In my daily patterns of activity—of sharpening pencils, squeezing Sparkle Fun toothpaste, and soothing nightmares where spiders descend from ceilings along invisible threads—it’s freeing to break with habit, to refrain from putting my children’s needs before mine, to do something, some little thing, counter-instinctual, non-nurturing, and yes, even violent.

Try it.  Allow yourself to forget their feelings for an hour and play to win.  Your pleasure in winning will come at a cost. You will have to wipe a few tears and pick up pieces of formative ego along with the knights and pawns. But you will notch up your own self-esteem enough to face another day boldly.  You will wake reenergized to dress your six-year-old for school. Isn’t that worth it?

“I would kill for you and I would die for you.”  Yes, Nana, you would. I would too, but let’s hope it never comes to that. 

Game on!