In a recent discussion about immunisation, the question was asked: does mum really know best?
I'm going to be upfront here - I don't believe there's any such thing as maternal instinct. I believe that many mums have a special relationship with our kids; but this is because we're often the primary caregivers and socialised to be interested in kids, not because of anything mystical ordained by nature. I've known people (both men and women) who've had affectionless upbringings, and who've had trouble expressing their love for their own kids. This is just one of the reasons I think that parenting is learned, not natural.
Because I spend a lot of time with my kids, I have some expertise. I know how they learn best, I know how to reason with them, and I can almost always tell when they're sick. I have another canny mothering ability, too, and I wonder if this has a biological basis: I can always hear my kids crying (more so when they were babies), when nobody else can.
But my expertise has limits. I was happy to take my midwife's advice to give my kids Vitamin K after birth, because she'd done the research and I hadn't. I don't know the best way to teach a child mathematics or science. I don't mind the so-called nanny state giving me suggestions on how to feed my kids healthily or how to discipline without smacking, so long as I'm being given the best information available. I'd never consider freebirthing, because my ability to bear children doesn't give me the medical expertise to deal with a potential medical problem. There are many limits to my knowledge, and maternal instinct simply doesn't tell you stuff like how to cope with childhood asthma or prepare a balanced meal.
I think it's tempting to buy into ideas about maternal instinct because they seem to recognise the specialness of our mothering work, in a society in which paid work matters more than unglamorous domestic labour. But if we subscribe to the idea that mother inherently knows best, we both downplay the parenting potential of men, while giving them an excuse not to pull their weight around the house. And that, ultimately, is self-defeating for women.