Published on August 9th, 2022 | by Jane C. Marks


Maternal Instincts are Overrated

In May, we went to the UC Berkeley stadium hoping to get tickets for our son’s sold-out graduation. Dylan’s name wasn’t in the program. He didn’t have a cap and gown. We didn’t have tickets because Dylan said he didn’t want to go. 

Dylan changed his mind the week before graduation, and tickets were sold out. We scrounged tickets for my husband Bruce, his parents, and our daughter. We sat on the top bleachers and texted Dylan that we got in. “Thanks for the effort,” he responded. I felt excited as Pomp and Circumstance blasted through the speakers and 3,000 students started the procession. Twenty-two minutes later, the chairs on the field were only half full. Pomp and Circumstance was on an infinite loop. 


Back when Dylan was 16 and should have been getting his driver’s license, he had brain surgery. Dylan has epilepsy. My husband and I lived in the hospital for two weeks. We were eating salads that my in-laws brought, a break from cafeteria food. 

My father-in-law asked what colleges Dylan was interested in. 

“I don’t know if Dylan will be able to go to college,” I replied.


After 54 minutes, the graduates were seated and we rose for the National Anthem. The fog was burning off. We were facing the hot sun. The chancellor welcomed the crowd. We could see her on the jumbotron, but her words were all echoes. Commencement is the beginning ining ining. Proud parents arents arents. My daughter asked if I wanted to get popcorn.


Before Dylan was born, I worried about being a mom. I didn’t trust my maternal instincts, so I read about newborns. I’m a scientist. Research is how I navigate.

Labor took 48 hours. My large child-bearing hips that I had dragged around for 35 years weren’t doing their job. Eventually Dylan emerged and was swept away to the nursery. Bruce accompanied Dylan. The nurses helped me. 

Later, a nurse took me into a room with cribs. One book said that new mothers bond immediately with their baby and recognize them in the hospital nursery. 

I approached a crib and said, “I would recognize my baby anywhere.” I leaned over to pick up the child when Bruce and the pediatrician called from across the room. 

“Jane, over here.” 

I tried breast-feeding, but wasn’t making much milk. The doctor suggested supplementing with formula. My friends were anti-formula. What did I want? Where was my maternal instinct? Even my breasts didn’t know what to do. 

Two baby bottles
Photo by Jaye Haych on Unsplash


At four, Dylan had his first seizure. Doctors said it was caused by a fever, nothing to worry about. Our pediatrician asked if we had a family history of epilepsy. She described epilepsy as a seizure disorder caused by anything from a birth defect to a head injury or virus. Frequently, doctors don’t know the origin. No family history. 

At 12, Dylan had a strange episode in the car. His speech was gibberish for a few seconds and his head hurt. His pediatrician said he had ice pick migraines—short headaches, hormone-induced. I asked if this was related to the febrile seizure and she said no. Afterward, Dylan said his head didn’t really hurt—nothing like an ice pick. 

At 13, Dylan had another full seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy. A neurologist recognized that the ice pick migraines were actually partial seizures, which affect a small part of the brain, last seconds and don’t cause loss of consciousness. Most symptoms are internal, but occasionally include shaking or difficulty speaking. 

Other incidents suddenly made sense. We live in Flagstaff, Arizona, a mountain town. Dylan was on the ski team and, like many pre-teens, frequently lost his pass or gloves. At the car one afternoon, I told him to give me his pass. He couldn’t find it even though it should have been around his neck. I was irritated and slammed our skis into the hatchback. He just stood there not helping. After a few minutes Dylan noticed his pass on the ground. It seemed odd that he was so oblivious. After being diagnosed, he reminded me of that time skiing when I got mad. He was having a partial seizure. I asked why he didn’t tell us. He said that he thought everyone had them —that it was normal. 

Ski tracks in the snow
Image by kinkate from Pixabay

What kind of mom doesn’t notice her kid having partial seizures? Dylan could have one in front of me and I wouldn’t know. Neither did his teachers, coaches, or piano instructors, but I am his mom. I should have known. 


Full seizures are like tornados, quick, disruptive and impossible not to notice. I was in the living room reading. Dylan was playing the piano, rehearsing a Beethoven piece for a high school competition. He stopped mid-phrase and walked toward the bathroom. He looked unsteady. 

“Dylan? You okay?” 

He stumbled, his face was contorted. I guided him to the floor. He shook for at least 20 seconds. 

Keep your shit together, I told myself, recalling advice. Don’t let him hit his head or stand up until he’s conscious.”

Dylan tried to sit up. I was relieved that he was regaining consciousness.

“Lie back down sweetie, you had a seizure.” I put a pillow under his head.

“Do you know where you are?” 




“Where’s here?” 

He shrugs. 

“Rest.” After a few minutes I asked, “Dylan, do you know who I am?” 


“What’s my name?” 

No answer. More minutes passed. 

“You’re Mom. You’re Jane.” 

“Let’s get you to your bed.” 

When Dylan woke an hour later, I asked, “Remember what happened?” 

“I had a seizure. I don’t want to talk. I fucking hate this.” 

I hated it too. I thought the new medicine was working. It had been two months since his last seizure. The next step was surgery. I realized that my maternal instincts or lack thereof didn’t matter as much as meeting the moment. When I focused on being present, maybe my instincts weren’t so bad after all. 


Neurologists mapped his brain, revealing that the seizures originated in the left temporal lobe, which controls language. The goal was to remove the tissue causing seizures without damaging nearby tissue. The good and bad tissue look the same, hence the digital map. Remove too little it wouldn’t stop the seizures, too much and his speech could be destroyed. 

The surgery, combined with medicines, eventually worked. It has been three years, three months, and two weeks since his last seizure.


Young man with light skin, sparse beard, and patterned shirt and tie smiles on the sidewalk

Last December I asked about college graduation. 

“I don’t want to go. Don’t make it a big deal.” 

Graduation coincided with my work trip to Europe. 

“You sure you don’t want us there?” I asked before booking flights. 

“I don’t care, really.” 

Then, a week before commencement, he wanted to go. 

“Are you upset we aren’t coming?” I asked. 

“If you would rather go to Europe than see your kid graduate.”

“You said you didn’t care.”

“I guess I care more than I thought.” 

We rescheduled flights, arriving just in time. 

Dylan was often the smartest in his class. Epilepsy didn’t take that away, but school became more difficult. Sometimes he still has trouble finding words, especially when tired. His medicines make him tired. He needed an extra year, but he graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major in cognitive and data science. 

In the stadium, I spotted Dylan wearing pumpkin-colored jeans and tie-dyed crocks. He was one of the only kids not wearing a robe. This time I had no trouble recognizing my baby.

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About the Author

Jane C. Marks is a professor in the Department of Biology and Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.  She has published extensively in the scientific literature, including articles in Scientific American, Nature Genetics, and Ecology. Her research has been featured in two PBS documentaries (A River Reborn, narrated by Ted Danson, and A Thousand Visible Cords).

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