In the long opening sequence of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, Hi, a petty criminal moderately reformed by the stern love of a policewoman named Ed, explains the unselfish origins of his wife’s desire for a baby: “Her point was that there was too much love and beauty for just the two of us,” he narrates over a shot of the two of them enjoying a magnificent desert sunset. “Every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret having missed.” They work at it, and work at it, as Ed posts aspirational photos of babies—round faced, adorable, grinning, crying—around their trailer. Sometime later a doctor confirms what they’d begun to fear—Ed’s womb was “a rocky place” where Hi’s “seed could find no purchase.” After looking into Hi’s past, an adoption agency rejects them—go figure—and they fall into depression. Ed loses her job and can barely dress herself, the trailer is a shambles—the “pizazz” goes out of their lives, as Hi puts it—until they kidnap Nathan Junior, one of the Arizona quints born to wealthy owners of an unpainted furniture empire, to raise as their own.
Before Richard and I got married, we agreed that Raising Arizona was our favorite movie—funny, tender, slapstick. Between us we could recite most of it from memory, and one year while we were living in Los Angeles, we dressed up as Hi and Ed for Halloween. There’s a photograph of us in a shoe box somewhere, Richard wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a stocking pulled over his head and a package of Huggies under his arm. I’m in a police uniform with a baby doll on my hip. Hardly any- one recognized our costumes on Santa Monica Boulevard, a Halloween thoroughfare crowded with superheroes and strippers, but we didn’t mind. We saw something of ourselves in those characters—not in their situation, but in their personas, the way they interact with the rest of the world and the pure devotion they have to each other. Richard, like Hi, was articulate and deadpan and love struck. I was more like Ed, a high-minded stickler for the rules.
It took years for us to try for a critter of our own, so many that by the time we first suspected trouble we didn’t remember the costumes we wore, or the conflict at the heart of our favorite film. There were too many other things to think about: how we would pay for expensive fertility treatments, when we would say “enough,” whether to adopt or foster a child and how we would pay for that, too. When we finally remembered what more we had in common with Hi and Ed—it was Richard who pointed it out—the realization felt less bitter and more inevitable, fated. This is what it means to be people who want something very much but can’t have it. Why shouldn’t we be those people?
My desire had manifested itself differently from Ed’s—I can remember wiping away spots of blood a few months after stopping the Pill and thinking, I must be pregnant. (I’d read that late-cycle spotting was a sign of an embryo’s implantation.) In the same moment I had a panicked sense of all I hadn’t done: publish a book, establish my career, travel. I wasn’t pregnant; the spotting was actually a symptom of my infertility, masked for so many cycles by birth control. After another year we sought medical help. By then, instead of posting baby pictures, I bookmarked websites about assisted reproduction, about adoption, about foster care. I agonized over my basal body temperature, took pills that made me weepy, paid for medical treatments with a slim chance of success. If someone had told me, “In five years you will have a baby,” I would have been fine to wait those five years; I would have been grateful to have them, in fact, and would have gotten busy with some of my other goals.
But no one could tell me that—the problem with infertility is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting, not a simple delay in your plans; it happens for many of us in the context of consuming struggle, staggering expense, devastating loss. It’s five (or eight, or ten) years of trying and failing, which erodes any feelings of confidence or anticipation of a positive outcome.
Richard and I stopped our first rounds of treatment after two years, the most difficult time I’d ever experienced. But stronger than my sadness over our failed cycles was the feeling of relief to be done with medication and monthly disappointment. For a while I consoled myself with the benefits of childlessness. I won a fellowship and cut back my teaching hours. I wrote half of one novel, then all of another one. I sat in on a class in evolutionary biology at Duke University, feverishly taking notes on extraordinary examples of self-sacrificing mating displays and behavior in birds and other animals:
The blue-backed manakin practices his mating dance for eight or nine years before debuting it in front of females. Male barn swallows with long tail feathers are more vulnerable to predators, but also more attractive to females. Australian redback spiders are so intent their offspring survive that males catapult themselves into the jaws of their mates immediately after copulation, providing extra nutritional resources for the female and her young.
I wanted to feel lucky—to be human, free, unencumbered by blind instinct. I had no children, but look what I could do: drive thirty miles on a Monday morning to sit in a lecture hall and take notes studded with exclamation points and question marks, to feel the pleasurable jolts of new information landing in my brain.
Still, some days I felt like Ed in the days before she kidnapped Nathan Junior: bereft and lonely, consumed by longing. “I don’t feel like myself,” I remember telling Richard. More accurately, I felt split in two. The person I had hoped to become was torn away, leaving only the person I had always been.
The first evolutionary psychologist, Edward Westermarck, suggested in his 1891 book, The History of Human Marriage, that humans share a universal “child-bearing instinct.” Sexologist Havelock Ellis scoffed at this, claiming that instinct obviously manifests itself through the sexual impulse—nature doesn’t need two drivers of reproduction. That would be redundant, and redundancy is rare in evolution. Westermarck removed his claim from future editions of his book.
The existence of an innate human desire to reproduce is still debated among scientists. “We are genetically predisposed to seek sexual relations,” observed eminent obstetrician and reproductive scientist Malcolm Potts, more recently. “It is possible to find many people who want sex but who do not want to have children, but there is no significant group of heterosexuals who want children but do not wish to have sex.” (I can think of some: infertile couples exhausted by the romance-killing phenomenon of timed intercourse, but they probably don’t count.) Humans are unquestionably driven by sex: we have it even when women are not fertile, and frequent sex, unrelated to estrus, tends to bond us in relatively stable pairings, which may make raising our children easier but is not the reason we have it. Given our relatively brief period of fertility each month, our long stretches of infertility during pregnancy and lactation, and the low implantation rate of human embryos, conception with- out birth control is merely “a probabilistic event” and not the result of conscious trying, according to Potts.
Further argument for a low conscious desire to reproduce: since the advent of reliable contraceptives and safe abortions, we’ve used them. In America, 62 percent of reproductive-age women use some form of birth control; at current rates, 30 percent of American women will have had abortions by their forty-fifth birthdays. Before we had birth control, women controlled their birth rate using various forms of folk medicine meant to induce abortion. Humans are an extraordinarily successful species, yet we have few children—an average of 2.5 children per woman worldwide, fewer in developed countries. Studies of preliterate societies reveal a higher fertility rate, but not extraordinarily so—4 to 6 children born to each woman, with about half of the children dying before the advent of sexual maturity.
Our relatively low fertility rate works out well for our big-brained yet helpless infants. From birth they take an unparalleled amount of care, and we continue to care for them—feeding them, tending them, keeping them safe, and teaching them survival and social skills—well into (and sometimes beyond) their second decade of life. But this is not necessarily a sign that we are less driven than our mammalian forebears to pass along our genes. Instead, reproductive ecologists insist, it’s evidence that we are programmed to prioritize quality over quantity, investing a great deal of nurturing and resources on each child.
Perhaps a more compelling argument for the reproductive drive (not just the sex drive) is the behavior of both sexes around the time of ovulation. Though they’ll have sex anytime, men find women nearing estrus more attractive than at other times during their cycle—they smell better, have a more appealing hip-to-waist ratio, have softer, more symmetrical features, and are perceived to be wittier and more creative. Women, for their part, dress more provocatively and more fashionably at estrus; maybe we work harder at witty conversation, too. Reflecting both male preference and female effort, a study found that women employed as lap dancers in Albuquerque make twice as much in tips during their most fertile time.
Mate selection is also influenced by expressions of child longing or, at least, child friendliness. By playing enthusiastically with children or desirously grabbing babies’ toes, knitting layette blankets or tiny sweaters, or otherwise appearing sympathetic to children, men and women alike demonstrate that they are good potential partners, capable of putting in the long years of care required by human offspring. Though Richard and I were a long time from trying when we wore our Hi and Ed costumes, it’s likely that we each read positive caretaking traits into our joint choice of costume. I remember an us-against-the-world connectedness as we strolled down Santa Monica Boulevard; I enjoyed the spectacle of Richard with the ridiculous panty on his head, the heft of plastic Nathan Junior against my hip. Two months later, we were engaged.
Child-longing—this is what I had during the height of my experience with assisted reproduction and what I am trying to account for, explain, trace back to its beginnings. More than anything, this is what I wanted: to hold a child of my own, be clung to in that way that primate infants have—legs wrapped around my middle, a hand in my hair and another on my arm. In the same way that it’s difficult to imagine the manakin practicing eight years solely to have sex, the theories of mate selection we learned about in evolutionary biology class seemed to trivialize my desire for a child, which felt like my own, independent pursuit. Not an impulse in the service of another impulse, but something pure.
Human child-longing goes by different names, depending where you live. The English call women afflicted by this condition broody, a term borrowed from the henhouse. (Broody hens are the ones who won’t rest or roost but sit constantly on a clutch of eggs, sometimes plucking out their breast feathers to keep the eggs warm.) Americans, perpetual taskmasters, say that the biological clock is ticking. In Scandinavia they call it baby fever, a widely observed condition that manifests itself as everything from a generalized wishing for a child to a delirious, aching sickness. Finnish family sociologist Anna Rotkirch studied the phenomenon and its implications for her field—do we have an evolved desire to have babies?—by asking readers of a major Finnish newspaper to write to her about their experiences with baby fever. She received 106 responses from women and 7 from men. The male responses were too few, general, or impersonal to be used in her study (two of their responses complained of suffering caused by the “baby feverish” women in their lives), but the women’s letters were intimate and detailed, with many describing the fever as an inescapable, unbidden, and often in- convenient fact of life.
I was infected when I took a six-week-old baby in my arms . . . It was an all-encompassing desire for a child, without any trace of common sense and ignoring the consequences. Actually a very agonising experience.
Many of the respondents recalled dreams as the first sign of baby fever:
About ten years ago strange things started happening. As I turned 28, I started having dreams about children almost every night. I had a restless feeling all the time, just as if my womb was demanding something I did not agree with. I started thinking about having a child, although I knew that I did not want it under any circumstances.
In the same way that illness can rack the body, baby fever is painful and all encompassing:
I was 25 years old when it hit. And it really HIT me, the feeling caused by baby fever was unlike anything I had experienced earlier in life. It was something totally biological, because I did not experience any outer pressure, on the contrary, my parents for instance stressed that I should have a good job before starting a family. I had been dating my boyfriend for six years, we were both studying and the idea was to graduate quickly and start making a career, and children were not part of that constellation yet for a long time to come.
For those who cannot act on the impulse to have children—Finnish people place a high value on education and becoming settled in a career first—the longing grows even stronger:
My baby fever has become uncontrollable. I have dreams about babies all the time. I have to touch baby clothes in stores. I ponder the alternative of ecological nappies. On the streets I smile at children I do not know. In every single long-term plan, I take into account our future children. Sometimes I [lie] awake at night and feel a huge longing, which starts from my womb and radiates to all parts of my body. A physical, compelling, painful need to be pregnant. If somebody had earlier tried to describe such a feeling to me, I would probably have rolled my eyes, encouraged her to climb out of the swamp of motherhood myth and get a life. We have agreed to try to have children in a year or two. I count the days.
When prolonged, either by infertility or other circumstances, baby fever can cause the opposite effect—instead of feeling drawn to babies and young children and the baby aisles of stores, sufferers begin avoiding places where they’ll encounter reminders of what they cannot have. They grow alienated from pregnant friends or friends with children, sometimes ending relationships that become too painful.
Rotkirch describes baby fever as “an emotion which may be typical for societies where women have many choices.” It appears to be heightened, she says, by proximity to children and especially babies, as well as—unfortunately, for some of us—the presence of obstacles. What makes Rotkirch’s study notable is not that it describes women longing for children but that it includes women who have always wanted children (the natural nurturers) as well as those who have not; women from both categories confess to the experience of baby fever and report it as an unbidden, surprising phenomenon that often works against their other goals. Finland is a low-fertility country that promotes individualism and education; more than half of Rotkirch’s subjects were born between 1960 and 1980, when these values were firmly established. Yet the respondents wrote candidly, passionately, about baby clothes and diapers and the particular smell of babies’ heads, all the traditional material and physical trappings of infancy and motherhood.
The idea to study child-longing evolved out of Rotkirch’s own experience. In her late thirties, already a mother of two and at a productive time in her career, she felt an intense desire to have a third child. Even though she and her husband agreed for a variety of reasons that they would stop at two, her baby fever only increased, and she eventually became pregnant. While on maternity leave, she decided to look into baby fever and was surprised to find nothing in the scientific literature supporting her suspicions, only reports of babies with fevers.
“It was funny to me, [someone] who tries to combine women’s/ gender studies and feminism with evolutionary psychology, that both these disciplines vehemently DENIED there could even be such a thing,” Rotkirch told me over email. “Feminists said patriarchy lures women to want babies, and evolutionary psychologists said it is a mistake to think people want babies (since they want sex).”
But she thought there was something to her idea that baby fever is an emotion in its own right, even though she admits that for some, this line of research appears less serious than her other work, which investigates family and fertility decisions in a more quantitative way. Rotkirch suspected that an intense desire for a child was not merely a social construction but something deeper, biological, that could answer important questions about why people want to have children at all and whether low-fertility countries would continue to see birthrates decline (her study of baby fever suggests the current birthrate is somewhat stable).
That doesn’t mean that all women will experience this phe- nomenon or that women who don’t should take it as a sign that they shouldn’t plan to have a family. But it does illuminate the experiences of people like me, who have been overcome by a desire for a baby but have obstacles in our path. For us, baby fever could have the function of pushing us to make a decision, or the practical use of explaining our irrational pursuit of an elusive goal.
It had come over me quite suddenly, in my mid-twenties, when I was working for Vogue, a tidal surge. Once this surge hit I saw babies wherever I went. I followed their carriages on the street. I cut their pictures from magazines and tacked them to the wall next to my bed. I put myself to sleep by imagining them: imagining holding them, imagining the down on their heads, imagining the soft spots at their temples, imagining the way their eyes dilated when you looked at them.
That’s not a response to Rotkirch’s study but an excerpt from Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, her memoir of adoptive motherhood and grief. It’s interesting to me how Didion’s exacting, often detached writing style here mirrors the perplexed confessions elicited by Rotkirch’s questionnaire, and also how the Finnish respondents, in describing something both private and deeply felt, write almost as eloquently as Didion. I sent Rotkirch the passage, and she wrote back that it was “unsettling,” so close to some of her subjects’ written memories that she wondered at first if they’d read Blue Nights (in fact it was published after she collected their responses).
I cut their pictures from magazines and tacked them to the wall: that’s also exactly what Ed does.
My mother had it, bad, at a time when baby fever, or the maternal instinct, or the need to nurture—whatever you want to call it—was unpopular, and she was poor and young, making her living painting murals and signs and doing odd artist jobs: teaching embroidery to prison inmates, painting dancers’ bodies at discotheques. None of her girlfriends had kids. They had exquisitely long hair and willowy limbs, freewheeling boy- friends and trips to California; they had tattoos and abortions, but no kids, and they weren’t alone. Individualism, feminism, and free love sounded better to many people in the 1970s—more glamorous, more fun, more free, even more responsible—than the previous generation’s ideal of a big, suburb-dwelling family.
My mother was a hippie, but she didn’t want free love and freedom—she wanted to marry my father, who looked to her like Jesus (my dad was a hippie too), and have kids with him (falling in love, Rotkirch found, is one of the primary triggers for baby fever). That was always a calculation for her—do I want this person to father my kids? My dad was smart and strong and independent and kind; she valued all those things and wanted them for her children. Plus, he was handsome. That helped too.
They were married in my grandparents’ backyard in April 1973, when the azaleas were blooming. The blossoms are pink and white, blurry and exuberant, in the backgrounds of their wedding photos; my mother, twenty-three years old, wears a lacy blue dress and a white veil; my dad, twenty-two, wears a brown tuxedo with a ruffled shirt. A few months after they were married, my mom rode her bike with a friend across the Lee Bridge in Richmond to a secondhand store that sold bags full of clothes for a dollar a piece. Amid the heaps of prairie dresses and blue jeans she found a tiny pair of overalls, bright blue with red buttons and lined in soft, red flannel. She tucked them into her dollar bag, took them home, and embroidered them with a mouse, a smiling moon, and stars.
Nigel, my cousin, was the first to wear the overalls, which have been passed around among family and close friends for years. “They were for you,” my mother told me when I asked if she’d embroidered them for him. She was jealous of her flighty younger brother, who’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant by accident, and it pained her to wait even the thirteen months it took her to conceive me. By the time I was born, Nigel had grown out of them. My brother wore them a few years later, then my mother’s friend Donna’s children and my two younger cousins. Another friend of my mother’s, a woman who became pregnant by happy surprise in her forties, borrowed them for a year for her daughter. Then my mother took them back, wrapped them in tissue, and stored them in her cedar chest for me.
Though I had neither designs on becoming pregnant nor any inclination to browse baby clothes at age twenty-three—no baby fever yet—I knew that I wanted those overalls, and all they represented, someday. By now they are so faded they’re almost white, as soft as a pillowcase. I remember my mother getting them out and showing them to me anytime we sorted through her most precious things—Someday these will be my grandbaby’s—and feeling attracted to the idea that I would be part of my family’s legacy through child rearing. No matter how far away I moved, or how different my life might be from my parents’, I would do the same things my mother had: sing the same songs, read the same books, play the same games. I would grow closer to my mother but also to my childhood self. As Jennifer Senior points out in All Joy and No Fun, children “create wormholes in time,” offering us a chance to experience our own childhoods, which so many of us idealize through memory, all over again.
Like a manakin, I had practiced for years. Not long after I grew out of those overalls, I was buttoning them onto baby dolls that I fed from bottles, bathed, and pushed around the yard in a stroller. My first job was babysitting for three brothers; we played indoor hide-and-seek and slid around their sparsely furnished McMansion in our socks. I adopted a dog a year after moving out of my parents’ house, when I was a sophomore in college, and used him as an excuse to spend long weekend afternoons at the river, a childhood pastime. My first job out of graduate school was teaching at an elementary school in Brooklyn, where I read stories, taught math and writing, painted pictures, wiped noses. We weren’t allowed to hug the children, but they could hug or lean against us. I stood still as a tree (the recommended stance) when I remembered, but I hugged them back just as often.
By practiced, I don’t mean to say that those experiences were meant only to prepare me for the more important task of raising my own child. I loved my terrier, despite his predilection for in- sane barking and occasional biting, and I loved my students too. Those activities—caretaking, nurturing—are valuable in their own right and a contribution to my life and (I hope) the lives of those I cared for. But my attraction to being a caretaker felt even then like it was in service of something else—a longer, more profound relationship than the borrowed time I spent with first graders. It also felt like something I couldn’t help very much.
If biology and genetics influenced my mother’s—and my own—susceptibility to baby fever, culture may have cemented it. Aside from possibly imparting a genetic proceptive tendency, my grandmother almost certainly raised my mother with the expectation that she would one day have her own family; my mother raised my brother and me with the same idea. Pronatalism is the idea that parenting is a normalizing rite of passage, something we must each go through to achieve full status as productive, responsible adults; it gets expressed in political propaganda, in the media and popular culture, in art and literature, and—perhaps most powerfully—in the attitudes of our own families. It works on us whether we realize it or not, validating our choices or making us feel like outsiders.
The desirability of biological children is coded into most of the world’s major religions and into humanity’s first lasting artistic expressions. The god of the Hebrew Bible commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply; Islam encourages procreation as one of the purposes of marriage and even frowns upon monasticism and celibacy. Hindus believe that children are gifts and a reflection of karma. The earliest known works of figurative art, created some thirty-five thousand years ago, are sculptures of women with absent or masked faces and exaggerated sexual characteristics: wide hips, large breasts, prominent vulvas. They are thought to be fertility goddesses.
American expressions of pronatalism date back to colonial times, when preachers used their sermons to praise mothers with large families and nudge the slackers to get busy—the average female colonist had about eight children, though only four would live to adulthood. Pronatalism has been a means of control, of encouraging the right people to have children for the benefit of the powerful. Until they were seen as profitable breeding factories, enslaved African women were discouraged from having children in America. But white, middle-class or prosperous Americans were frequently told it was their duty to have as many children as possible—during the nineteenth century, to drive out Native Americans and populate the western territories; and in the early twentieth century, to avoid “race suicide.” The idea that some people should have children while others should not inspired and popularized the American eugenics movement.
Pronatalism peaked during the post–World War II years of prosperity and conformism—that’s one reason there are so many baby boomers—and declined as Generation Xers were being born (which is one reason there are so few of us, relatively speaking). From 1941 to 1960, 0 percent of Americans considered no children the ideal family size; childless people were seen as selfish deviants or pitiable losers, while family men and women were patriotic heroes. By the time my mother was rummaging through thrift bins for baby clothes, American culture—thanks largely to feminism and environmentalism—had finally made room for child-free lifestyles. Child-free women and couples were given voice in traditional media, and organizations such as the Childfree Network provided support for the voluntarily childless. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, founded in 1974, offered support for infertile women and men and a replacement for the narrative of the pitiable outsider.
Though the fertility rate has remained relatively stable since the less-prolific 1970s, cultural expressions of pronatalism have made a comeback. Television programs once again exalt the procreative, from reality shows such as TLC’s A Baby Story, which follows couples through their final weeks of pregnancy and first days with a newborn, to sitcoms and dramas such as Modern Family and Parenthood, ensemble narratives portraying family life as inevitable, the source of all the driving emotional arcs for the characters. The social-consumerist site Pinterest offers countless decorating suggestions for parties celebrating procreation: not only baby showers but also gender-reveal gatherings and a kind of elaborate, meet-the-baby party called a Sip and See. Celebrity culture has been particularly fixated on pregnancy, with paparazzi following female stars through their reproductive years, watching for signs of pregnancy like dogged field scientists.
Despite my years of practice and longing, I have always been repelled by pronatal pressure and messaging, which appears to negate the importance of the individual and what she might accomplish aside from breeding. A friend once told me that she didn’t like driving a mutual friend, who was pregnant at the time—she didn’t want to be responsible, she explained, in case there was an accident. I was in my friend’s passenger seat when she admitted this. “But what about me?” I asked, offended that I was less valuable somehow than our other friend’s fetus.
I once told this same friend, childless and a decade older than me, that I wanted to have both of my children by the time I was thirty. I was twenty-two, twenty-three. I didn’t know anything. The things that I knew were built-in things: models of how to live absorbed and inherited from my mother and from her mother; biologically driven emotions that surfaced when I fell in love, when I held an infant or read to a child. I don’t know if this makes them more or less real.
I didn’t recover from my baby fever, but I believe that I would have, eventually. I would have fulfilled my longings by caring for the children of others; I would have enjoyed independence, freedom, and time. Instead Richard and I returned to fertility treatment and took what to us were extraordinary measures, finally conceiving our daughter through in vitro fertilization. It is the best decision we’ve ever made, though of course this appraisal is filtered through the experience of success.
Five years before we started IVF, when Richard and I de- cided we were ready to start a family, I thought it would be a good time to mention our plans to my gynecologist. I went in for my annual exam and thought about how I should say it, if at all, and whether there was some question I should ask about my health.
I didn’t want to say that we were ready to start “trying,” which sounded exhibitionist to me. I was always on my best behavior with doctors, proudly (sometimes inaccurately) checking “Never” for smoking and “Less than one alcoholic beverage per day” for drinking and “3–5 times per week” for exercising, and I remember awkwardly waiting, all through the exam, for a good time to bring it up. Finally she asked if I had any questions, and I blurted that I didn’t want to take birth control pills anymore, that I planned to get pregnant. It sounded formal and false, like a statement about the future in a job interview. She said something reassuring and positive, but I remember feeling embarrassed and already afraid that things would not go easily.
And they didn’t. They don’t, for many of us, and we’re left with choices: to treat infertility, to have a child alone or with a partner, to adopt domestically or from overseas, to live a child-less or child-free life. I became interested in the stories of other people who faced and made these choices, and in the stories that looked different from the ones I’d always been told.
I became interested in the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear. I became interested in trying.