Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Maternal Instinct

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2015_Ona Gritz_CHI was 11 when I first recognized what I've thought of, until recently, as maternal instinct. My mom and I were sitting together in a park when a crying toddler came running to the teenager beside us on the bench. The child held her arm out for her young babysitter to see, unable to speak through her sobs.

"I don't understand what you're trying to tell me," the sitter said, seeing no scrapes or cuts.

My mom looked over at the little girl's wrist. "I think her wet sleeve is making her uncomfortable."

"You'll have to wait until we get home," the sitter told her tearful charge. "I didn't bring a change of clothes."

"Here," my mom said, taking the little girl's dimpled hand. She folded the offending cuff just enough that the wet place no longer touched the child's skin. "Better?"

As I watched the toddler nod and run off, I marveled at what I'd just witnessed. It seemed to me that my mom had somehow managed to become that tiny girl just long enough to feel what was wrong, and then stepped back into her adult skin knowing exactly what to do. Would I develop that mystical blend of empathy and know-how when I grew up and had a child? I glanced at my mom, who'd returned to the book she was reading as though nothing particularly noteworthy had happened, and felt something akin to awe.

As it turned out, I was clumsy and insecure as a new mother. One evening, while dressing Ethan for bed, I managed to fasten a snap with a bit of his skin pinched between the halves. Another time, I laid him on my bed, promptly forgot he was there, and nearly sat on him. If I had any maternal instinct at all, it was unharnessed and ill-timed. Once, I sensed from another room that Ethan was about to take a tumble off the couch and arrived at his side at just the right moment to witness his fall.

But ever so slowly, this began to shift. Though I never learned to decipher the subtle differences between a hungry cry and a tired one, I recognized a distressed cry when I heard it and knew just how to give my boy comfort. I learned to interpret his requests while he was still preverbal, and could notice a swollen lymph node on his neck from the other side of a room. As he grew into adolescence, I intuited when it was best to make myself available and when what he most needed was space. These days, I can gauge my son's mood by the tone of his Hi Mom as soon as I answer the phone.

These days. Ethan is in college 200 miles away. We speak on the phone an average of twice a week. In the absence of my one child from my day-to-day life, I've been rethinking my ideas about maternal instinct. What I've come to realize is that the term is, in fact, a misnomer. True, it was the daily practice of parenting that allowed me to develop and hone those caregiving skills and intuition. But I've spent time with a number of people recently—including women who've never been mothers, as well as men—who have that mystical blend of empathy and know-how in spades.

My brother-in-law, a man with a wicked sense of humor and one of the most agile and inquisitive minds I've ever encountered, recently died of ALS. It is a disease that takes and takes, ruthlessly and rapidly. Just a year and a half ago, Dave could manage stairs and walk short distances. He could pick up a sandwich, bite into it, and chew without choking. Piece by piece, those capabilities left him. ALS is also a wasting disease. Dave went from burly to skeletal at an alarming rate.

"Ya hungry?" he'd tease when I walked in the door for my weekly visit, both because it had become the first question I'd always ask him, and because the stress of watching him diminish left me ravenous. I'd bring him soups, blend them, and serve them in what was essentially a sippy cup. So many of the accoutrements of serious illness—ointments, pull-ups, medicines in liquid form—are the same as those of early childhood. But what the two situations really have in common is that empathic givingness, to coin a word, which they bring out in us.

"It takes a village to raise a child," Hillary Clinton told us in a book that came out the year my son was born. I wasn't lucky enough to raise Ethan with collective support. I became a single mother when he was three; my parents both died when he was five. I had good friends I could certainly call on, but we weren't in each other's lives in that daily sharing-of-minutiae kind of way. Fortunately, I was part of a village-like community when it came to helping Dave through to the end of his life. Dan recently described those last months with his brother as excruciatingly beautiful, which is precisely how it felt to me each time I watched my husband lift Dave off the commode and position him back on his bed; when I saw their 90-year-old mother feed her son a homemade stew she'd blended to the texture of pudding; each time I witnessed Dave's wife Emily calmly helping him clear passage-blocking mucus from his throat with something called a cough-assist, a contraption that resembles a cross between a 1960s bubble dryer and a torture device.

Friends rallied to assist Dave and Emily when they had to move to a house on one floor. Phil would come to Dave's at a moment's notice to help him from bed to wheelchair and out the door for medical appointments. Ellen organized monthly meetings for those of us in Dave's circle so that we could check in with him and Emily on how we could best be of use. Mimi directed and produced a play Dave finished writing around the time of his diagnosis and managed to get it performed while he was still well enough to attend. Aita drove Dan to a hospital an hour and half away so that he and his brother could spend the day together, then brought both of us back to that faraway hospital the same night when we learned Dave had taken a turn for the worse.

"If any good came out of having ALS," Dave told us, "it's that I really get how loved I've been in this life."

Loved indeed. What I've learned from the excruciatingly beautiful time I spent as part of Team Dave is that the ineffable quality I first admired in my mother, all those years ago, is love taking the form of action and attention. An afternoon at someone's bedside. Blended soup in a sippy cup. A much-needed car ride. The folding of a damp sleeve.


Ona Gritz is the author of two children’s books, two collections of poetry, and a memoir. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals including The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, the Bellingham Review, and, most recently, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity by Kerry Cohen. Ona lives in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Her son Ethan is a college freshman.


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I don't know that those who have children end up being any better care givers than those who haven't but I think it is definitely true that those years of parenting and developing a maternal instinct definitely prepare you to help others no matter what their status in life.
As usual, your piece gives me not only a story and visual imagery, but a sensory experience, too. I can feel that wet cuff, imagine the smell of the soup, the smell the ointment. I have a great imagination, Ona, but not all writing lets me into the sensory world of the writer. PS: You're lucky you get 2 phone calls a week. :)
Thank you for reading and for these generous and thoughtful responses! (I do feel lucky for, and delighted by, those bi-weekly calls.)
I just read all the comments from the previous piece and now this. You get all this love, Ona, because you're so able to express things and draw the reader in. The mark of a wonderfully astute observer! Brava, brava, brava! xoxo Hettie
What an intriguing look at the maternal instinct as a function of nurture rather than nature. This touched me in so many ways. First, because I feel like I'm learning every day how to be a better Mom. Second, because I cared for a parent dying from early onset Alzheimer's ten years ago and it changed me. Lastly, because it's beautifully written in an honest, human way. My one added thought is that my six-year-old seems to have been born an empathizer while her nine-year-old brother was not.
I feel so honored by your words, Hettie, and so grateful to be your student and friend! Kristin, thank you for sharing your story with me in your response. I'm glad my column struck such a personal and meaningful chord with you. Thank you for letting me know.
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