Parenting isn’t an Instinct; it’s a Muscle You Develop Over Tiny Moments in Time


Colicky Beginnings

As a new parent, I often worried that I didn’t “click” effortlessly into the role of mother. I didn’t feel an instinct or a parenting intuition awaken within me moments after birth. There was no switch that flipped or times when, especially in the early months, I “just knew” what my daughters wanted. Instead, I remember leaving the hospital with trepidation, a newborn in my arms, wholly astonished that anyone would actually trust me to take care of them. It didn’t help that both of my daughters were colicky as babies, so no matter what I did — rocking, feeding, burping, bouncing, singing — sometimes nothing soothed them, which added weight to my fear that I wasn’t a “natural” mother.

As the years passed, I’ve also wrestled with guilt about my numerous parenting mistakes. I remember these mistakes with such shocking clarity — the times I lost my temper, felt I punished them too harshly, was too busy to play with them, or didn’t stand up for them the way I should’ve.

Even now, with my daughters (mostly) out of the house, and even though they are successful and happy in their independent lives, I occasionally get snagged by old fears that have lodged deep in my visceral body: What if I didn’t do parenting well enough? What if they needed more? Less? What if I wasn’t the right parent for them? What if I was never meant to be a mother in the first place?

But all of this changed as, thanks to some old videotapes, I went back to the beginning and saw everything in a new, more compassionate light.

Old Memories Become New Again

You know that collection of dusty old tapes, DVDs, and video cassettes sitting somewhere in your basement or closet? I recently stuffed a paper bag with these relics and brought them to one of those tape-to-digital conversion places. After I drove away, I realized I forgot to ask how much it would cost — probably because it didn’t matter; I knew that I would go ahead no matter what. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to revisit these memories, I will say this: get your tapes converted. It is worth every penny.

The timing of this project was perfect, as my oldest daughter, now 21, is home with my husband and me, recovering from knee surgery, and therefore has nothing else to do but lie around and watch videos of herself cooing and crawling and taking her first steps — which is what we’ve been doing. I honestly can’t imagine more enjoyable Friday nights. I also can’t recall ever receiving so much healing for my parenting heart, the kind of healing I didn’t even know I longed for and needed.

We watched as I fed our infant daughters their first soft food meals. We cheered all over again for first steps, first words, and their in-house singing and dancing performances. We rolled our eyes as my husband took timeouts from videotaping our daughters to give tours of our different houses, narrating to whoever might someday be watching. I watched with fascinated interest how my husband and I interacted with each other just a few years into our marriage. We called each other “honey” a lot back then. Sometimes we still do, but it was definitely more often then. We also called our daughter “pumpkin”, which we’d both forgotten about but found so endearing now.

As the videos moved on, time passed more quickly. In one video, I saw myself pregnant with our second child, and in the next, she was already singing her ABCs for the camera. Most parents will probably agree that this is how it goes: the first child gets moment-to-moment documentation, the second gets far less, and for those parents who have three or more children, they’re lucky if they have any video documentation at all of the younger children.

It’s true that I never felt an instinct kick in, and that it took a long time to feel the kind of bond with my children that some mothers say they feel the moment they emerge from the womb. But for me, something different — maybe even more magical — occurred over the years. With each tiny moment that passed, I became more adept and comfortable in my role as a mother. I shifted them from my hip to my lap or from the car seat to the stroller as if I were born knowing how. But I wasn’t born with this knowledge. Instead, watching myself grow as a young mother, I saw someone who was diligently practicing the skills of nurturing and protection. I saw a woman who was learning to catch subtle signs of distress and who, despite thinking she had no instinct for parenting, noticed and addressed the slightest shifts in their body language that told me what they needed — be it food, or a nap, or stimulation.

Building the Parenting Muscle

What I saw in these videos does not support my fears from back then or the guilt that accumulated later. Instead, I built a parenting muscle and settled comfortably, over time, into the role of a mother.

So, I have released the guilt for the times I didn’t feel I was patient enough, because it taught them self-reliance. I’ve let go of the shame for the times I lost my temper, because it taught them about limits, and that I was not an object to use but a human being they would have to learn to relate to. And the times I didn’t stand up for them? Those were times they learned to tap into their power, voice, and strength. Instead of focusing on my shortcomings, trepidation, and feelings of unworthiness, I now feel only the love, the connection, the patience, and the joy I both offered and received.

Watching these videos has healed a piece of my heart. I’m no longer going to spend time or energy worrying about whether I have, or had, a natural instinct for parenting. The guilt is gone, as are the regrets. To be a good mother for my daughters, I didn’t need to come equipped with a parenting instinct. I just needed time, practice, and devotion. Measured that way, I was plenty worthy.

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