Outgrowing the Parenting Instinct

One of human life’s greatest joys is to become a parent. The sheer happiness of holding your child first time in your hand is magical and indescribable. Anyone who has experienced this will vouch for me on this. Even the mere sight of watching a parent with a child brings so many emotions. A parent holds the child to her bosom, nurses it, and cuddles with it. A parent also closely watches over it, protects it, and keeps it comfortable and warm. As the child grows older the parents try to educate the child, discipline the child and provide for the child through its physical, emotional and mental ups and downs. Any behaviour on the part of either or both parents that help their offspring survive can be grouped under parental care.

However, parenting behaviour or Parental care is not unique to humans, of course. In many birds, parental care includes building a nest and feeding the young. Parental care takes the longest time and is the most complex in mammals, in which it always involves the mother feeding milk to the young besides holding the child close, warm and away from danger. Parental care in mammals may also involve teaching the young important skills that they will need when they are older and no longer cared for by their parents. For example, meerkat adults instruct their pups how to eat scorpions. They show the pups how to safely handle the poisonous insects and how to remove the stingers. On the other extreme, most fish species simply release the sperms and the eggs in the water and forget about them. In multiple ape species, you will also find parental care is provided not just by parents but also by social groups that they live in. The drive to mate and have offspring is not unique to humans and neither is the drive to provide parental care- it is purely out of instinct.

The drive is not chosen by independent free will or what we more popularly call love. We carry the instinct for it. An instinct is defined as an innate, typically fixed pattern of behaviour in animals in response to certain stimuli. So let us pause for a question: Is parental care behaviour in humans driven by love or by instinct? Does it really make a difference whether we see it as love or as instinct? It does. Most of the psychological problems that arise from parenting in adults can be attributed to a lack of understanding or clarity in this regard. First and foremost, let us acknowledge that there is nothing wrong or embarrassing to acknowledge that childrearing behaviour is an instinct which is hard-wired in humans. It serves a certain larger evolutionary purpose – of ensuring that our genes are passed on successfully further in time.

What makes human parenting behaviour different from animal parenting behaviour is that humans have high expectations from the recipient of the parenting behaviour. We set expectations from our children not just during their childhood, adolescence and teens but also right through their adulthood. We identify with their successes and disappointments. If they do well in life our hearts swell in pride, if they don’t then we shrink in embarrassment. Many parents in India expect their children to care for them in their old age while children expect their parents to support them in their projects. There is so much anxiety and despair that humans suffer in the name of love. We don’t say that this parenting behaviour is an instinct and rather believe that it is a higher form of human pursuit, of pure love. What is called love is nothing but binding attachment – attachment to the returns one expects from investment in parenting. It is instinct taken to its extremes. This brings unease or distress, jealousy, anger, depression, fear, anxiety and regret too often resulting in inappropriate behaviour and sorrow. All such unfortunate responses leave a residue of unfinished business that perpetuates the cycle of emotionally driven problems known as saṃsāraḥ, a cycle that is never-ending until broken by correct knowledge of oneself and the world.

Irrespective of whether we acknowledge it, we are all driven by instinct – for survival, for seeking safety and nourishment, for seeking a mate and to birth and care for offspring. There is nothing wrong with it. What makes humans unique is we can outgrow our instincts. Unlike animals who are chained to their instincts, we can surf on our waves to find peace, harmony and freedom. This is the path shown to us by Vedanta. We can use our instincts and channel them with the help of Karmayoga into the pursuit of the ultimate freedom, Moksha. In Karmayoga behaviour is aligned with reason, long-term larger interest, and ethical laws. Karmayoga brings self-regulation, moderation, balance and purpose to our instinctual behaviours. The path of Vedanta is not a path of fighting our instincts, but using them as material to build a raft that can take us across the sea of Samsara. This way of life purifies the mind in preparation for jñānam since it entails mastering one’s emotions and ways of thinking, including foregoing personal bias in the form of rāga-dveṣas, attachments and aversions, when putting dharmaḥ first. It teaches us what love is not- that it is not an instinct, it is not an attachment, it is not fear of loss, it is not a passion, it is not a conditional transaction, it is not binding.

Taking to this path, parenting becomes a responsibility, duty and a preparatory stage that one undertakes for one’s spiritual growth and finding one’s peace and freedom without binding oneself with expectations, while at the same time setting an example to the child of how it’s accomplished.

When it is needed, step in and do your job but also understand when your duties are fulfilled and it is time to move forward. That’s one instinct we do not easily get from our animal nature. There is a time to roll up your sleeves and get into the thick of parenting and then there is the time to take a bow. Families follow a lifecycle and there is always something more appropriate than another thing at each of these stages. We need to learn to let go when it’s time and continue our voyage towards self-understanding, emotional independence and enlightenment.

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