Meh about moth­er­hood

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS - WH

If you’re un­sure about ever be­ing a par­ent, you’re not alone. In­side the world of maybe baby, maybe not


What does it make you feel? A womb-deep ache of long­ing. A ‘Not for me, thanks.’ B Noth­ing at all. C Here, con­fused writer Nikki Os­man ex­plores ma­ter­nal in­stinct to dis­cover why she feels zero de­sire to be­come a par­ent – but strug­gles to give up on the fu­ture she al­ways as­sumed she’d one day want


– that’s the age the av­er­age woman in Aus­tralia 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 Nigella 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 to­day will be­come moth­ers, the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics es­ti­mates that one in four won’t. And some­where be­tween these two tribes is a fence with a group of us 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.

W“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 ’til you hit 30’. Well, I’m 33 now and I still don’t want them. Will I ever?” So says Claire*, an HR man­ager, who ad­mits she’s 70 per cent sure she doesn’t want chil­dren. Her list of rea­sons reads like mine: never again ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the joy of a week­end spent en­tirely alone; child­birth hor­ror sto­ries; be­ing broke; fear of 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 over-think­ing [it]?”

They’re the same ques­tions I ask when­ever I watch a woman, for­merly known as my 3am tequila buddy, march down the path of moth­er­hood with barely a cur­sory glance 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 child-free 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 em­bar­rassed to ad­mit that I just can’t re­late. Why is mine MIA?


I need to know if there is any bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis for ma­ter­nal in­stinct. Turns out, there could be. It’s more likely to kick in when you smell a baby, rather than see one. A 2013 study pub­lished in Fron­tiers

in Psy­chol­ogy first in­ves­ti­gated the ex­is­tence of chemosen­sory sig­nals be­tween non-moth­ers and new­borns. Both new mums and women with­out chil­dren were asked to smell py­ja­mas worn by new­borns. Re­searchers found that the brain’s re­ward cen­tre (the area trig­gered by M&MS and the like) was ac­ti­vated, re­gard­less of parental sta­tus.

“We don’t know if this baby smell is a sin­gle sub­stance or a com­bi­na­tion of odours,” ex­plains Dr Jo­hannes Fras­nelli, pro­fes­sor of neu­ropsy­chol­ogy at Québec 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 ac­tu­ally cre­ate one of them your­self.

Bi­ol­o­gist Dr Ana Ribeiro be­lieves ma­ter­nal in­stinct is down to 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,” 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, says Ribeiro, 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 fam­ily sta­tus (youngest child) to the 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 among the first to ex­plore the deep 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), neg­a­tive ex­po­sure (a child scream­ing) and trade-offs (loss of free­dom, spi­ralling costs, yadda yadda). “It was in­ter­est­ing that these pos­i­tive fac­tors and neg­a­tive fac­tors were or­thog­o­nal [mean­ing in­de­pen­dent], which means some peo­ple can feel [both fac­tors] about hav­ing chil­dren at the same time,” ex­plains Gary Brase, the study’s coau­thor. It means that a cry­ing baby on the bus does noth­ing to di­lute the sight of my sleep­ing new­born nephew (who this aunty adores).

And these are just the in­flu­ences I’m con­scious of; oth­ers have been seep­ing into my psy­che while I’ve been oth­er­wise oc­cu­pied, says 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 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 clas­sic fairy­tale de­pic­tion of par­ent­hood on screen to the ‘poor, child­less

Jen Anis­ton’ 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 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, with the emer­gence of child-free role mod­els from

Julie Bishop to Kylie Minogue, and the im­pact of over­pop­u­la­tion be­ing recog­nised. Car­roll ar­gues, how­ever, that the ex­pan­sion of the dig­i­tal world has meant preg­nancy and moth­er­hood are now be­ing glam­or­ised more than ever (hello, #mum­life In­sta­gram posts).


It feels like a penny has dropped. I grew up as­sum­ing I’d have kids ‘one day’. I used ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, in the ab­sence of any de­sire to pro­cre­ate. “The word ‘in­stinct’ is mud­dy­ing the wa­ters,” ex­plains Dr Gil­lian Rags­dale, a bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist. “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 thinks her ducks are in a row. This is the case for Cat, a spe­cial needs teacher.

Like me, she’s age 30.3. “I al­ways thought I prob­a­bly wanted kids, but [re­cently], that changed from ‘maybe at some point’ to ‘I could do this now’,” she says. “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 20s, 30s and, yes, 40s, can make the de­ci­sion easy, they can also make it a headf*ck. 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 ... 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

I’m sud­denly floored by a des­per­ate de­sire to have kids in two years, 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 google the word and stum­ble upon Ann David­man. A clar­ity coach, she helps po­ten­tial par­ents un­pick the myr­iad bi­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and so­cial in­flu­ences that have shrouded them.

“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,” she 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 be­lief that women long for moth­er­hood has be­come deeply in­grained in our so­cial and cul­tural life hard­ware”

the line; guilt over fail­ing to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers. That con­flict can ac­tu­ally feel quite tor­tur­ous.”

Her first ques­tion catches me off guard. “An­swer quickly,” 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,” David­man ac­knowl­edges. “When I asked you that ques­tion, you teared up a lit­tle; there was a gut re­ac­tion there. But [that] could be based on deeper stuff you may not be aware of.”

Sur­pris­ingly, we talk about my his­tory of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and my worry that moth­er­hood would cause those to resur­face. We talk about my per­fec­tion­ism, and my deep-seated fear that I’m sim­ply

not cut out for it. We talk about my boyfriend – the best hu­man I know – who wants to be a fa­ther one day, and what a de­ci­sion oth­er­wise means. “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 says. I cry, but I hang up feel­ing lighter – and make a men­tal note to give Claire her num­ber.

I also call Sara Milne Rowe, au­thor of The SHED Method: Mak­ing Bet­ter

Choices When It Mat­ters. Her book the­o­rises that in or­der to make a good de­ci­sion you first need to fix the essentials of well­ness: sleep, hy­dra­tion, ex­er­cise and diet. Once you’ve nailed the healthy habits, build in time for quiet re­flec­tion. “Start with just five min­utes [daily] and ded­i­cate that time to let­ting what­ever thoughts are there come to the sur­face,” she says. “Build this into your rou­tine and you’ll be­come much bet­ter at ac­cess­ing your true feel­ings on a de­ci­sion.”

With her words in my ear, it hits me that while I’m no closer to de­cid­ing, some­thing has shifted.

I’m giv­ing my­self the time, space and per­mis­sion to be un­sure, un­til the day I’m not. Clar­ity might still be a fair way off, but I know I’m def­i­nitely get­ting closer.

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