Meh about motherhood
If you’re unsure about ever being a parent, you’re not alone. Inside the world of maybe baby, maybe not
LOOK AT THAT FACE.
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
I’M 30.3 YEARS OLD
– 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.