Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do Narcissistic Mothers Have a Maternal Instinct?

Narcissistic issues can interfere with one's ability to be a good mother.

Key points

  • Narcissistic women can have a maternal instinct that leads them to want to mother a child.
  • They may not see their children realistically because they lack whole object relations and object constancy.
  • Lack of emotional empathy can interfere with the ability to attune to a child.
Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay
Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

It is quite possible for mothers who are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder to have a maternal instinct, if we define maternal instinct rather loosely as a desire to mother a child. However, as with other temperamental characteristics, this desire to mother seems to be on a spectrum and is not present in every narcissistic woman. The belief that every woman has a natural maternal instinct is not supported by current research (Conaboy, 2022).

We do know that when we look at little girls, some of them want baby dolls as toys and others prefer stuffed animals. And, for many girls who did enjoy baby dolls, this interest in playing a mothering role continues into adulthood and leads them to have their own babies. Other women may not be particularly interested in having a baby but may do so to fulfill cultural or religious expectations.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

James F. Masterson (1926-2010), the well-known personality disorder theorist, taught that narcissistic personality disorder is an acquired adaptation, not inborn. However, some people may have traits that make it easier for them to become narcissists, such as low innate emotional empathy. Masterson and other developmental theorists do not believe that people are born with NPD. They believe that the child develops NPD as the result of a misfit between the child’s authentic emotional needs and what their parents can provide (Masterson, 1981; Chess and Thomas, 1984).

Masterson identified three factors that can interact to play a role in the development of a narcissistic personality disorder:

  1. Nature: the child’s inborn temperament.
  2. Nurture: the way the child is parented.
  3. Fate: unplanned events that negatively affect the child.

Note: In this post, I will be using the terms narcissist and NPD as shorthand for someone who meets the full criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis.

NPD Can Interfere With the Ability to Be a Good Mother

Unfortunately, even if a woman is highly motivated to have children, if she has a narcissistic personality disorder it may be difficult for her to be a good mother. There are three deficits associated with NPD that can interfere with the ability to mother children appropriately.

Lack of Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is the ability to feel something of what the other person feels. For example, if you see someone hit their thumb with a hammer and you wince in sympathy, that is an example of emotional empathy.

Without emotional empathy, the narcissistic mother has to rely on her cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy involves stopping to think about what the other person might be feeling and trying to react appropriately. For example, your friend’s father died, and you never liked the man. However, you are at the funeral, and you try to think of something comforting to say to your friend, such as: “I am so sorry. I know how much you loved him.”

The narcissistic mother who wanted a child will do her best to parent the infant, but because of her lack of emotional empathy, she may have trouble attuning to her baby’s needs. Her parenting efforts may relate more to her needs than to the child’s needs. She may be intrusive or neglectful depending on her mood at the moment.

Lack of Whole Object Relations

Whole object relations (WOR) is the psychology term for the ability to form a stable, realistic, and integrated view of yourself or another person that simultaneously contains both liked and disliked qualities. Without WOR, a person can only see people in a split way as either all-good or all-bad. In the case of a narcissist, all-good equals special, and all-bad equals worthless.

From an object relations theoretical point of view, what distinguishes someone with a narcissistic personality disorder from someone who has narcissistic traits is the lack of whole object relations (Greenberg, 2016).

Without WOR, the narcissistic mother cannot form a stable and realistic view of her child. As a result, when she is happy with her child, she will view the child as special and perfect and treat her or him accordingly. When she feels frustrated or disappointed with her child, she will switch to seeing the child as flawed and bad, and act mean and devaluing.

Lack of Object Constancy

Object constancy (OC) is the ability to remember the positive aspects of people you care about (and your past positive history with them and your desire for a positive future) while you are having negative feelings toward them in the moment.

This means that when a narcissistic mother is feeling frustrated, angry, or disappointed by her child’s responses to her attempts to mother, she may feel rejected by the child. In this situation, the mother switches from loving to hating her child. In this state, she may become emotionally or physically abusive to the child.

Example—Betty and Her Baby

Betty had loved playing with dolls as a child and spent many happy hours pretending to be a mother. She had always envisioned herself having children of her own. She married young and started a family immediately. She was thrilled to be pregnant and imagined how enjoyable it would be to have a newborn to take care of.

Unfortunately, Betty’s idealized picture of a newborn baby was more like an image of a doll than a real person. She was unprepared for the baby to cry. Dolls do not cry.

Betty became frustrated when her attempts to soothe her baby did not always work. This conflicted with her narcissistic self-image of being a perfect mother. She felt narcissistically wounded when her baby did not respond to her mothering attempts.

As a result of the above situation, Betty’s child had unpredictable mothering. When Betty was relaxed and happy, she treated her child well and was full of praise. When Betty was displeased or felt her overtures were rejected, she hated her child and venomously withdrew or attacked.


Narcissistic women can have a maternal instinct, if we define that as a genuine desire to have and mother a child. However, their ability to mother their children appropriately is severely limited by their narcissistic issues, especially their lack of emotional empathy and their inability to maintain a stable and realistic view of their child.

Even the most enthusiastic narcissistic mother will have trouble attuning to her child’s needs and meeting those needs in a loving way. And, if the woman only had children out of a sense of duty, then the situation is likely to be worse. They may have neither the desire nor the ability to fulfill normal mothering functions.

Adapted from a Quora post.


C. Conaboy (2022). Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood. NY: Henry Holt and Co.

Chess, S., & Thomas, A. (1984). Origins and Evolution of Behavior Disorder. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

J. F. Masterson (1981). The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders: An Integrated Developmental Approach. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

E. Greenberg (2016). Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. NY: Greenbrooke Press.

More from Elinor Greenberg Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today