Rhoads opens Chapter 8 with several questions about motherhood: What happened when women have few or no children? And for those who do have children, is motherhood the burden it is perceived to be?
This is a tender issue. Women on both sides can be fiercely possessive of their opinions. However, Rhoads makes much of his case by citing women who found themselves unexpectedly changing positions – namely, feminists who found themselves unaccountably yearning for children, and/or loving motherhood, in spite of their own contrary expectations and plans.
The language used in this chapter was strong, even guttural. One such woman referred to
her failure to have children of her own “the most intolerable regret” of her life (190)
Other women, who wanted children, described their desire as
… “frightening, this yearning for a child – it’s hard to fathom the desperate urgency” (192)
… “a gnawing hunger in the very cells of [her] body” (192)
Even those who had only one child referred to their decision as
“a source of deep regret” (192)
“an aching loss” (192)
And one woman openly
Wondered how “an imagined child [could] provoke such deep grief” (192)
Rhoads examines the theory that children may be central to female happiness, citing several supporting studies. Many women’s morale seems directly tied to having children, and being able to care for their children sufficiently.
However, an exception seems to be that married couples with children experience some decrease in happiness, midway into their parenting. Rhoads speculates that this is due to the inevitable increase in stress that comes with children, even if they also bring happiness.
He also notes that many women think they can get pregnant after age 40 – but few actually can. Furthermore, women who undergo infertility treatments
… are often “whiplashed by a treatment regime” that jerks them from “hope to despair” (192)
Also, these women have
levels of depression comparable to patients with AIDS and cancer (192)
50% of women (but 15% of men) say this is the most upsetting experience of their lives (192)
Rhoads attributes this desperate desire for children to biology, not culture.
Studies regularly find that women are more empathetic, tender-minded and nurturing than men (193)
Specific genes [have been] identified with maternal behavior (197)
As explained in earlier chapters, men don’t experience the same compulsion to have children, or to care for them. Sweden and Israel even tried offering incentives, to coax fathers to care for children in equal amounts as mothers – and multiple approaches haven’t worked. Women, even when they don’t have to, seem inclined to care for children – and men, even when they do have to, appear disinclined and reluctant.
Rhoads explains that specific chemicals, specifically prolactin and oxytocin, are known to increase massively during pregnancy and breastfeeding; Rhoads explains that these hormones
… make routine more tolerable… (198)
And cause women to feel
… more prone to please and obey [their children’s needs] (198)
Also as a result of these chemicals and the deep bonding that occurs because of them,
Mothers can find it excruciating to be away from their children… (201)
… [mothers are] more affected if their child is aberrant or performs poorly (201)
Contrariwise, men are less distressed by absence from their children. They simply shift their thinking to their new setting or task, and don’t worry about the kids at home. Admittedly,
Testosterone drops when fathers have a child, and this facilitates nurturing (199)
But, just the same,
A father does not get a “neurochemical high” from cuddling a baby in the way a mother does (199)
Rhoads spends considerable time comparing female and male behavior, across diverse cultures and settings, and decisively concludes:
Human males around the world do very little caregiving during infancy (203)
He summarizes his argument thus:
Women are more apt to have the qualities needed to establish intimate and mutually supportive relationships than men are (204)
This is a clear-cut chapter, with a similar flavor as previous ones. But, this one especially resonated with me, because it validated my own experience. Several months into marriage, I had started desperately yearning to have a baby.
Except I didn’t want a baby. (Not yet!) I mean, I hadn’t meant to want one. Desire simply occurred. In spite of poor timing, a fragile new marriage, innumerable insecurities, worries, and a very-practical timeline. I couldn’t explain why, and I would have never predicted it, and the ensuing conflict between mind and body was searingly painful – but, suddenly, everything in me wanted a child. Or several. Quickly, please.
I’ve always wondered if I was reacting to expectations, or if I was just “ready” much sooner than I’d planned/expected to be. Rhoads would argue that I’m simply imbued with a natural, ineluctable drive to have children.
Having now had my baby, and lived out the bonding that also-seemingly-inevitably occurs afterwards, I can say that I think Rhoads’ research is right. My brain and philosophy said I should wait. But, my body and psyche knew it was the right time.
Of course, women shouldn’t feel pressure to have children. As explained in Chapter 2, women are all different. But, Rhoads’ argument makes me wonder if perhaps, in reaction to generations of “hurrying to reproduce,” we’ve now swung to the extreme of “resisting the urge” – even if/when the urge is coming from ourselves.
Many of Rhoads’ points lean on anecdotal evidence, for sure. But, I’m one more anecdote in favor.
Next week, Elizabeth will take us through the rest of this chapter!