Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Mom Gene’?
Why do some little girls dream of having children while others don’t think about it at all? We investigate whether it could be genetic and talk to both types of moms…
One of my childhood friends desperately wanted to be a mom from a very young age. She played house with her dolls for hours on end. When her mother had another baby girl, she was over the moon. “MY baby!” she exclaimed as she coddled her little sister.
I remember feeling vaguely bored by these domestic pursuits. I went along with it to please my friend, but I would’ve much preferred to color or play outside. It just wasn’t my thing.
By the time my friend was 27, she had two kids. I was studying a graduate degree at university and going clubbing every weekend. Having children was the furthest thought from my mind. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them – it just felt like something I might do in the distant future.
I moved to Australia when I was 29 and met a guy the following year. We’d only been dating for two weeks when he asked me if I wanted children. I spluttered and stuttered before answering, “Um, yeah, someday? I guess so?” He told me it was a dealbreaker for him if I didn’t want kids. So, I said I was all in.
Fast-forward a decade and we have three children – a six-year-old and three-and-a-half-year-old twins. Despite my previous ambivalence, I’m about as maternal as they get. I’ve given my heart and soul to raising my kids and being a mom is such an integral part of my identity that I almost can’t remember who I was before.
I’ve been wondering for a long time whether there’s a genetic component to maternal instinct. My childhood friend would certainly be a shiny case study for that theory. But if there is a “mom gene”, how do you explain someone like me who went from ‘meh’ to ‘Mom’ in a heartbeat?
What the Science Says
Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York discovered a single gene in mice that could be responsible for maternal behavior. When they suppressed the gene, the mama mice spent less time licking, nurturing and caring for their young.
Does this also apply to humans? The researchers think it could. “Mice and women express different versions of these receptors, and it is hypothesized that different versions are associated with different maternal capacities,” said lead researcher Ana Ribeiro. “There is also evidence from mice that there are modifications that occur in young pups that determine what type of mother a female pup will become.”
But until research is conducted on humans, the mom gene remains the domain of rodents.
When You’ve Always Wanted to Be a Mom
Taryn and Melissa have wanted children for as long as they can remember.
“I’ve always dreamed of getting married to my Prince Charming, having a big house and having lots of tiny feet running around the house,” says mother-of-four Taryn. “I think I was around six when I knew I wanted to be a mother. I’m so blessed that all of my dreams have come true.”
While Taryn feels that she’s “built to be a mother”, she credits her hands-on husband for helping her make it all happen. “He’s home every night and he helps me bathe and feed the kids as well as clean the house. I couldn’t survive without him by my side.”
Melissa also grew up knowing that she wanted to be a mama. “It was always a part of the way I imagined myself as an adult,” she says. “I played ‘teachers’ a lot as a young child, and when I was 10, I saved all my money and bought myself a Cabbage Patch Kid because it came with a birth certificate!”
After Melissa finished university, she caught the traveling bug and put her plans to have a child on hold. “I guess you could say I got distracted for a while, so I was 34 when my first and only child was born,” she says. “Birthing my son was the most empowering experience of my life. I never expected that! Being a mother came so naturally to me and I threw myself into it. I did want more children, but we lost our second little one at 11 weeks. Now I trust that the universe must have other plans for me.”
When Being a Mom is an Acquired Taste
Lisa and Marie-Christine never thought they’d be the maternal type until they held their babies in their arms.
“I never had any interest in marriage or children,” says Lisa. “I wanted to focus on my career and be successful. But I met my future husband when I was 23 and we moved to Australia. I think being away from my family made me want to create one for myself. I was married at 27 and pregnant by 28. Becoming a mom was super hard for me because I’d never been around children. Cue the PND and ‘How did I ever think I could do this?!’. Then, just before my son turned two, I found out I was pregnant with twins. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I understand why some people choose not to have children.”
As for Marie-Christine, the idea of having children terrified her. “Coming from a dysfunctional family, I was convinced that raising a child was the most important thing in the world and that I would be utterly incapable of doing it well. To be honest, I also thought children were boring! But when I was 34, I fell madly in love. Two years day for day after we first met, our daughter was born. She’s six now and she’s so wonderful. I’m convinced that she’s the eighth wonder of the world and I couldn’t breathe a minute without her being safe and happy. She got me!”
Nature or Nurture?
As with most questions involving human behavior, the answer doesn’t seem to be black and white. Some women might be genetically predisposed to be mothers while others discover their maternal side when they first gaze into their babies’ eyes or even later in some cases once they get to know their new baby. I fall into the second category, but my Mama Bear instincts are razor-sharp. I am Mother, hear me roar!
- When birth plans turn upside down, feelings of disappointment can emerge. For many women, these emotions linger and impact their experience of early motherhood. See our article on what to do when your birth doesn’t go as planned.
- Some of us were raised by parents who never showed their vulnerability because they equated it with weakness, but the latest research shows that it can strengthen parent-child relationships. Read more about the power of being vulnerable as a parent.