Whatever the roots of broodiness, be they instinctual, cultural or learned, when it hits, it hits hard.
What is it that makes women long for the same thing – a baby – and suffer the same remorseless pangs when thwarted?
Psychologist and broadcaster, John Nicholson, thinks broodiness is not innate. ‘There are hormonal changes which happen, for very sound reasons, both during pregnancy and after giving birth, but there is no hormonal reason for a woman to want babies.’
Nicholson feels uneasy, too, about the term ‘maternal instinct’. The assumption that it exists is often because women have usually been responsible for childcare. But people who use this argument, he says, are guilty of an error of logic, believing that the way things are is the way that they ought to be.
‘What does exist’, Nicholson suggests, ‘is a terrific social pressure to have children and also natural human curiosity, a reluctance not to experience everything there is to experience in life.’
But while denying that our hormones hurl us headlong into motherhood, Nicholson explains that aspects of useful parental behaviour are innate. Among these inborn emotions or skills features the ‘Aaah!’ response to small babies and other young animals.
Scientist Konrad Lorenz was among the first to recognize that the shape of a baby triggers maternal and, to some extent, paternal responses in all kinds of animals. He called the signal a ‘releaser’ because it releases feelings and behaviours which help guarantee survival of the young of the species.
Experts believe that unique baby features are what trigger our adult emotional responses. Babies have heads out of proportion to their bodies, big eyes, plump cheeks, fat stomachs and short chubby limbs. Somehow these features are appealing and, indeed, they need to be if the baby is to survive.
So even if we are not born with the maternal ‘instinct’, we do appear to have an inborn liking for babies.
As many as one in ten couples are believed to be infertile and for those desperately seeking a solution and a longed-for baby, broodiness is not a strong enough term. While no one asks women at antenatal clinics why they want babies, women with fertility problems are often asked that question.
Joining the human race
In The Experience of Infertility, the women interviewed give a wide range of reasons for wanting children. One had ‘always wanted children’, even when a little girl. Another woman imagined having a little girl for ‘something of me and my blood and my family history’.
Some women wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth, while others simply wanted children to bring up. Some discovered a particular relationship sparked off the desire for a baby as tangible proof of the relationship’s importance, while others shunned adult attachment, wanting a child of their own, on their own.
More single women are having babies and keeping them. There is less stigma attached to being an unmarried mother and, with the availability of AID (artificial insemination by donor), a single woman who wants a child can actually have one without a man around at all.
Some women certainly become single mothers by choice rather than by accident, and others who may become pregnant unintentionally decide to have the baby without marrying the father.
Agony aunt and radio broadcaster, Anna Raeburn, says that the urge to make a baby while making love is ‘an absolutely normal feeling, often fortunately overruled by the use of long-term contraceptives. It’s partly to do with your upbringing and personality and very much to do with where you think sex ought to lead’.
Wanting too much
There is evidence that sometimes an acute longing for a child can actually work against you having one. There are many documented cases of women who give up hope of having a baby after years of trying, only to find themselves pregnant as soon as they relax.
Most experts now accept a link between some miscarriages and anxiety. As John Nicholson explains, ‘hormones, including stress hormones, can get into the placenta and affect unborn babies. It is quite plausible that anxiety may be a factor in some infertility too’.
Anna Raeburn puts it more simply. ‘The more you worry about it and want it, the less likely it is to happen’, she says. She spoke of two women who did everything possible to conceive, including giving up high-powered jobs. When both gave up hope of having a baby and went back to pressuring, senior employment, they were pregnant within three or four months.
Beating the clock
Many women today are painfully reminded of the biological clock ticking away through what John Nicholson dubs the ‘deadline decade’. ‘For women who have put off having children to pursue their careers, the mid-thirties can be a time of great internal conflict,’ he says. Sheila Kitzinger in Birth Over Thirty says women see 30 as a birthday crisis. ‘This is the time when they often ask, “Who am I really?”, “What am I doing with my life?”, “Is this what I really want?” and “Where do I go from here?” More and more women in their thirties and forties decide to have either a first or another baby before it’s too late.’
There have been tragic cases where desire for a baby has even extended to women who were dying.
Fighting for life
One cancer patient, determined to have a baby for her new husband, became pregnant and refused treatment in case it affected the foetus. She died a year after her baby was born, having again refused drugs and treatment in order to breastfeed her new daughter.
But while the desire to create life can be a powerful force, it is often what that process creates for a woman that proves so seductive. According to Anna Raeburn, ‘In an increasingly complex world, having a baby is still a very simple, natural, earthy thing to be involved in. For the majority of women it is the only time they feel really elite and it is a very smug-making business.
‘You have opted out. You don’t have to think about another thing. You are out of the housewife/superwoman/working woman syndrome, yet your life is suddenly absolutely complete.’
A two-sided story
For some, this can operate in a negative way – never-ending pregnancy as an escape route and cast-iron excuse.
For others it is the positive side of childbearing, the rosy reminiscence, that makes them want another baby. ‘If you are married and live with someone you love and have successfully produced a number of children, it is a lovely cosy feeling,’ says Anna Raeburn. ‘If it has been good, you want to re-create the good times. But if the birth was bad, you might not want to do it again.’
Not wanting ‘to go through that again’ may be a strong antidote to broodiness, but so too is not wanting to go through it at all. Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born talks of the ambivalence towards, or rejection of, motherhood by many 20th-century women, who feel that the choice is ‘an inescapable either/or motherhood or freedom; motherhood or individuality’.
Many women would, however, be grateful for a good helping of ambivalence. They are the ones for whom pregnancy would be unwise but who are spellbound by friends’ new-born babies.
A cure is sometimes possible. One woman said she had conquered her broodiness by a mixture of positive and negative thinking and by planning a future for herself that did not allow for the inclusion of another baby.
Others, still, long for a baby, building daydreams or subliminal visions in their sleep. For them broodiness is like a hunger, except that, for them, it can never be assuaged.