Look at that face. What does it make you feel? (a) A womb-deep ache of long­ing. (b) ‘Not for me, thanks.’ Or (c) noth­ing at all. Here, one con­fused writer ex­plores ma­ter­nal in­stinct in an at­tempt to dis­cover why she feels zero desire to be­come a par­ent, b

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words NIKKI OS­MAN

The women on the fence about start­ing a fam­ily


I’m 30.3 years old – the age the aver­age woman in Eng­land and Wales will have her first child – and I’m tick­ing boxes. I’m in a happy re­la­tion­ship with a man who knows his way around a Nigel Slater cook­book. We live to­gether. There is talk of get­ting a cat. But the next box is the one marked ‘par­ent’ – and fill­ing it presents a prob­lem. While most mil­len­nial women in the UK to­day will be­come moth­ers, one in five will reach the age of 45 without pro­cre­at­ing. And some­where be­tween these two tribes is a fence with a group of women sit­ting on it. We have a fond­ness for par­tic­u­lar baby names even though we might never need them; we could win awards for our abil­ity to sub­ject-swerve when rel­a­tives bring up the ‘b’ word, and if you see one of us coo­ing over a tiny hu­man, sorry, but there’s a chance we’re fak­ing it.

‘When I said at 18 that I didn’t see my­self hav­ing chil­dren, peo­ple in­sisted, “You’ll want them by 25.” At 25 when my feel­ings hadn’t changed, they smirked and said, “Just wait till you hit 30.” Well, I’m 33 now and I still don’t want kids. Will I ever?’ This is Claire*, an HR man­ager from Leeds, who says she’s 70% sure she doesn’t want chil­dren. Her list of rea­sons reads like the note on my iphone: never again ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the joy of a week­end spent en­tirely alone; child­birth hor­ror sto­ries; be­ing broke for the next 18 years; fear of end­ing up

rais­ing a child alone if her re­la­tion­ship crum­bles under the strain. ‘Do other peo­ple have these fears but choose to have chil­dren any­way?’ Claire asks. ‘Or does the fact that I’m hav­ing these thoughts mean I shouldn’t be a par­ent? Is this nor­mal? Or am I over­think­ing ev­ery­thing?’ They’re the same ques­tions

I ask when­ever I watch a woman for­merly known as my 3am tequila buddy march down the path marked moth­er­hood with barely a cur­sory glance back over her shoul­der. It’s ma­ter­nal in­stinct, not the deep con­nec­tion that’s said to kick in the moment you hold the hu­man you’ve cre­ated (health will­ing) but the stuff that comes be­fore the birth, be­fore the preg­nancy, be­fore the point of con­cep­tion. When I ask my child­less friends how they feel when they look at a baby, I get a rush of re­sponses: ‘a sucker punch to the stom­ach’; ‘but­ter­flies in my womb’; ‘a pos­i­tive pe­riod pain’. I’m met with so much en­thu­si­asm I’m em­bar­rassed to ad­mit I can’t re­late. Why is mine MIA?


I need to know if there is any bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis for ma­ter­nal in­stinct. There could be. But it’s more likely to kick in when you smell a baby, rather than see one. A 2013 study pub­lished in Fron­tiers In Psy­chol­ogy was the first to in­ves­ti­gate the ex­is­tence of chemosen­sory sig­nals be­tween non-moth­ers and new­borns. New moth­ers and non-moth­ers were asked to smell py­ja­mas worn by two-day-old ba­bies and re­searchers found the brain’s re­ward cen­tre (the same area trig­gered by cheesy

chips and the like) was ac­ti­vated re­gard­less of their parental sta­tus. ‘We don’t know if this baby smell is a sin­gle sub­stance or a com­bi­na­tion of odours,’ ex­plains Dr Jo­hannes Fras­nelli, pro­fes­sor at Que­bec Univer­sity who worked on the study. ‘Cur­rently we can only spec­u­late as to why this ubiq­ui­tous reaction ex­ists, but his­tor­i­cally, women rou­tinely died in child­birth, leav­ing their child to be cared for by an­other, so from an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive it makes sense that this at­tach­ment ex­ists in non-moth­ers, too.’ Maybe this ac­counts for the cosy feel­ing you can ex­pe­ri­ence while cradling a sleep­ing baby without the vis­ceral urge to pro­cre­ate your­self.

Bi­ol­o­gist Dr Ana Ribeiro be­lieves ma­ter­nal in­stinct is down to your DNA, rather than be­ing hard­wired into ev­ery woman. Her re­search into the mother­ing be­hav­iour of mice has led to the dis­cov­ery of a ‘ma­ter­nal gene’. ‘We found that the presence or ab­sence of a re­cep­tor in a cer­tain area of the brain was crit­i­cal for the ex­pres­sion of ma­ter­nal be­hav­iour,’ Dr Ribeiro ex­plains. ‘In other words, without this gene, the skills to be “a good mother” were lost in fe­male mice.’ And, she says, the same is true of fe­male hu­mans. Could I just be miss­ing a chro­mo­some? Well, no. ‘Ev­ery woman will have this gene, but you’ll have a dif­fer­ent “ex­pres­sion” of it to other women your age,’ she adds. ‘This is partly based on epi­ge­netic changes – or im­print­ing – where the gene’s ex­pres­sion is in­flu­enced

by the mother. But it’s also in­flu­enced by your en­vi­ron­ment.’ It means my up­bring­ing has in­flu­enced the de­gree to which my moth­er­hood gene is ‘switched on’. And, ac­cord­ing to Dr Ribeiro – moth­er­hood prow­ess aside – when it comes to the fac­tors driv­ing my ma­ter­nal desire, many more non-ge­netic fac­tors will come into play.


Na­ture ver­sus nur­ture; genes ver­sus memes. Stud­ies sug­gest that ev­ery­thing from my place in the fam­ily (youngest child) to the amount of time I’ve spent around ba­bies to date (lit­tle to none) could in­flu­ence my ma­ter­nal in­stinct – or lack of it. Re­searchers from Kansas State Univer­sity were the first to ex­plore the vis­ceral desire to have a baby from a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, ac­count­ing for evo­lu­tion­ary, neu­ro­log­i­cal and hor­monal fac­tors. They iden­ti­fied three fac­tors that strongly and con­sis­tently in­flu­enced whether par­tic­i­pants wanted to be­come par­ents: pos­i­tive ex­po­sure (cud­dling a baby or the sight of cute baby clothes), neg­a­tive ex­po­sure (a baby scream­ing or a child hav­ing a tantrum) and trade-offs

(loss of free­dom, spi­ralling costs, bi­o­log­i­cal trauma, yada yada). ‘It was in­ter­est­ing that these pos­i­tive fac­tors and neg­a­tive fac­tors were or­thog­o­nal,’ – that is, con­sid­ered to be sep­a­rate issues – ‘which means some peo­ple can feel pos­i­tively and neg­a­tively about hav­ing chil­dren at the same time,’ ex­plains Gary Brase, the study’s co-au­thor. It means that the cry­ing baby on the bus does noth­ing to di­lute the sight of my sleep­ing nephew.

And these are just the in­flu­ences I’m con­scious of; others have been seep­ing into my psy­che while I’ve been oth­er­wise oc­cu­pied, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Laura Car­roll. A de­ter­mi­na­tion to dis­cover why so­ci­ety finds the child-free choice so hard to ac­cept led her to write The Baby Ma­trix (I was so en­grossed, I missed my bus stop). ‘I looked for solid, indis­putable ev­i­dence that could point to­wards bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses that cre­ate the desire to want a child,’ she says. ‘When I couldn’t find any, I turned the fo­cus of my re­search to cul­tural and so­cial in­flu­ences.’ From the sac­cha­rine all-work­sout-in-the-end de­pic­tion of par­ent­hood on screen to the ‘poor sin­gle, child­less Jen-an’ nar­ra­tive, this stuff is ev­ery­where. And there’s a word for it: pro-na­tal­ism. ‘As far back as Ro­man times, women were ac­tively en­cour­aged to have more chil­dren so that the pop­u­la­tion would grow and so­ci­ety flour­ish,’

Car­roll ex­plains. ‘Over the cen­turies, the be­lief that women long for moth­er­hood has be­come so deeply in­grained in our so­cial and cul­tural hard­ware that we’ve reached the point where we think it’s part of who we are; that par­ent­hood re­flects a “nor­mal” life.’

It does feel like the sta­tus quo is shift­ing – we have child-free role mod­els from Theresa May to Kylie Minogue, and the im­pact of surg­ing pop­u­la­tions on the planet is real.

But Car­roll ar­gues that the ex­pan­sion of the dig­i­tal world has meant preg­nancy and moth­er­hood are be­ing glam­or­ised more than ever be­fore. Ah yes, the full-scale pro­duc­tion that is the Face­book baby an­nounce­ment and the sub­se­quent com­posed In­sta­gram shots (#mum­life).


It feels like a penny might have dropped. I grew up as­sum­ing I’d have kids ‘one day’. I used ‘when’ rather than ‘if ’. And all in the ab­sence of any desire to pro­cre­ate. ‘The word “in­stinct” is mud­dy­ing the wa­ters,’ ex­plains Dr Gil­lian Rags­dale, a bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist who teaches psy­chol­ogy with the Open Univer­sity. ‘An in­stinct is hard­wired. What we’re ac­tu­ally talk­ing about here is a drive, which is a force mo­ti­vated by your en­vi­ron­ment. Hu­mans aren’t an­i­mals – even if you do feel a drive to re­pro­duce, you can over­ride it. You can make a de­ci­sion based on your cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.’

The the­ory fits. Show me a woman who feels her ma­ter­nal in­stinct ‘kick­ing in’ and I’ll show you a woman who per­ceives her ducks to be in a row. This is the case for Cat, a spe­cial needs teacher from South Lon­don. Like me, she’s 30.3. ‘I al­ways thought I prob­a­bly wanted kids, but in the past few months, that changed from “maybe at some point” to “I could do this now”,’ she ex­plains. ‘I’m no more soppy about ba­bies than the next per­son. The strength of feel­ing I have is based on the big­ger pic­ture – I feel ready to move to the next stage of my re­la­tion­ship with my boyfriend; I fin­ished my master’s last year; I’m in the job I want. I feel very aware of the shift in my mind­set.’

But if the ‘ready on paper’ cir­cum­stances of your twen­ties, thir­ties and, yes, for­ties, can make the de­ci­sion easy, they can also make it a head­fuck. For Claire, there’s more to it than a solid list of cons. ‘I’m in a re­la­tion­ship with the most in­cred­i­ble man I’ve ever met. I want to be with him for­ever and he feels the same way. But he wants chil­dren; it’s a deal-breaker for him,’ she says. ‘There were mo­ments when I won­dered if we should get in­volved at all. But I knew he was spe­cial and I didn’t want to throw it away in case my bi­o­log­i­cal clock kicks in like ev­ery­one says it will. Maybe it’s fool­ish to keep sweep­ing it under the car­pet. But equally I feel like there’s no point ag­o­nis­ing over it now be­cause if in two years I’m sud­denly floored by a des­per­ate desire to have kids, all this stress and worry will have been for noth­ing. Deep down, I’m pray­ing that will hap­pen – be­cause oth­er­wise I’ll have to face up to los­ing the love of my life.’


I should be able to de­cide. I’m lucky enough to be in cir­cum­stances that en­able moth­er­hood; to live in a time and place where I have the priv­i­lege of ag­o­nis­ing over the de­ci­sion; I might even be lucky enough to be fer­tile. I feel guilty, con­fused and stuck. I need some clar­ity. I need it so much I ac­tu­ally google the word – and I stum­ble upon Ann David­man. A clar­ity coach, she helps po­ten­tial par­ents un­pick the myr­iad bi­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and so­cial in­flu­ences that have brought them to this point.

‘When you’re try­ing to fig­ure out what you want and what you’re go­ing to do, you find your­self in a kind of grid­lock,’ David­man ex­plains over Skype from her Cal­i­for­nia home. ‘You’re prob­a­bly feel­ing shame over feel­ing un­sure; fear over mak­ing the wrong choice and re­gret­ting it down the line; guilt over fail­ing to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of others. That con­flict can feel tor­tur­ous.’

Her first ques­tion catches me off guard. ‘An­swer quickly; the first thing that comes into your head,’ she says. ‘Do you want to be a mother?’ ‘Yes,’ I blurt out. Oh. But I’m wiser than I was last week. Isn’t this just my pro-na­tal­ist up­bring­ing talk­ing? ‘It could be. When I asked you that ques­tion you teared up a lit­tle; there was a gut reaction there. But that reaction could be based on deeper stuff you may not be aware of.’ We talk – and I’m sur­prised by what I say. We talk about my his­tory of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and my worry that moth­er­hood would cause those con­di­tions to resur­face. We talk about my per­fec­tion­ism, and my deep-seated fear that I’m sim­ply not cut out for a child. We talk about my boyfriend – the best hu­man I know – who wants to be a fa­ther one day, and what a de­ci­sion not to have chil­dren would mean for our re­la­tion­ship. ‘In or­der to ac­cess your true feel­ings, you need to iso­late this de­ci­sion and pick it apart in a way that ac­counts for your core val­ues,’ David­man ex­plains. I cry, but I hang up feel­ing a lit­tle lighter – and make a mental note to give her num­ber to Claire.

I have my home­work. But I sus­pect that the 97 bus isn’t the ideal setting for ac­cess­ing my core val­ues. In search of more so­phis­ti­cated method­ol­ogy, I call de­ci­sion-mak­ing ex­pert and au­thor of The SHED Method: Mak­ing Bet­ter Choices When It Mat­ters, Sara Milne Rowe. I tell her about the note on my phone. She isn’t im­pressed. ‘By all means weigh up the pros and cons, but when you’re in a hurry, dis­tracted by other things and in that to-do list mind­set, you’re miss­ing out on the deep re­flec­tion a de­ci­sion of this mag­ni­tude re­quires,’ she says. Her book is based on the the­ory that in or­der to make a good de­ci­sion

‘I grew up as­sum­ing I’d have kids one day – in the ab­sence of any ac­tual desire to pro­cre­ate’

you first need to fix the fun­da­men­tals of well­ness – sleep, hy­dra­tion, ex­er­cise and diet. Once you’ve nailed healthy habits, build in time for quiet re­flec­tion. ‘Start with just five min­utes ev­ery day and ded­i­cate that time to let­ting what­ever thoughts are there come to the sur­face,’ adds Milne Rowe. ‘Build this into your rou­tine and you’ll be­come much bet­ter at ac­cess­ing your true feel­ings on a de­ci­sion.’

I have her words in my ear as I pull up the note marked ‘moth­er­hood’ for the fi­nal time. I’m no closer to pick­ing a side. But some­thing has shifted. I’m giv­ing my­self the time, space and per­mis­sion to be un­sure un­til the day that I’m not – whichever side of the fence I fall on. I hit delete, I get off the bus and I walk the rest of the way home. Clar­ity might still be a way off, but I’m get­ting closer.

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