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Why We Have Children

Labor is the least of it. Bringing the baby home is where the challenge really starts. Prepare. Your household clutter will increase fivefold. Tiny toys for tiny tots will litter your living room: a singing seahorse, bright blocks, chartreuse Barney look-alikes. Gone are the days of feng shui serenity; your house is stacked or trashed. Your sink is full of nipples.

You wake five, six, seven times a night, until your loved and little one makes it through -- she made it through! Now you have to get up only once, at the unholy hour children seem to wake, especially on weekends: 5:30 a.m., the sky a bruised purple, the sun just starting to seep in windows, you with your crawler in the kitchen, your head heavy with fatigue, time ticking, ticking, ticking, and yet it never seems to move. My good friend Audrey once said, holding her huge, gravid belly, "Why am I doing this again? Being a mother is basically agreeing to become someone's indentured servant for at least six years, with no pay." It's true. Good question, Audrey. Why are you doing this. And you? And you? And you? Why do we choose to have children?

Could it be genetic? Though genes may be the most mysteriously powerful elements on earth, no one really knows what they look like. Picture them as tiny teardrop lights wrapped around the cone of a chromosome, 46 in each and every cell of your body. Our genes determine the color of our eyes, the shape of our toes -- even, some say, our propensity for wine, or chocolate. In 1865 a monk named Gregor Mendel discovered genes -- what he called hereditary traits -- by studying pea plants in his cloistered garden. Mendel noticed that parent pea plants transmitted their size, shape, and coloring to their offspring, and he hypothesized that there was some physiological property -- what later came to be known as genes -- responsible for this. Around the same time, Charles Darwin (a man with seven children of his own and a tireless wife named Emma, who bore her last at 47 years of age) put forth the theory that species exist primarily to reproduce; having babies, he said, is the driving force that engines every organism from yeast to yam to yak to you. Whether you know it or not, what your body really wants out of life is to xerox itself, propelling its own faint image into the future, thereby ensuring that you and your clan, and the whole of the human race, will not become extinct.

The passion and the pull

Darwin's theory of why we have children -- a rage against mortality, a will to survive time -- seems strangely abstract, almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives, where decisions get made. Who, after all, sits down with their spouse and says, "I'm really afraid of going the way of the dinosaurs, sweetie. Let's get pregnant."

"I'm sure there's some genetic component to the love we feel for our children," says psychologist Daphne DeMarneffe, author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life. "We want to be mothers; we are built to love our children, even when the going gets rough."

"I'm always surprised by the passion that motherhood has brought into my life," says Lisa Schiffman, the Oakland, California, mother of 5-year-old Lily. "The real primeval pull, though, happened for me once my daughter was born. Love took over, and I never, ever knew I could love so deeply or consistently."

Few mothers would refute that: "When my daughter was born, a huge space opened up in me just for her, and it was humbling to let her move into that space when I didn't even know that it existed, or how big it was," says Trisha Gura of Brookline, Massachusetts, of her now 9-year-old.

What are the forces that propel even ambivalent women over the edge into maternity? For some it may be a sense of time running out. Science writer and anthropologist Meredith Small suggests, "We may become aware of the strong genetic drive to reproduce only when something threatens our ability to do so." I'd agree with that. I, for one, have always been on the fence about having children, about the exchange of freedom for, for, for what? It was only after I'd had a miscarriage -- the pregnancy was accidental; I already had one daughter and was not planning on another -- that I became aware of the powerful primitive urges that are operating in me, and probably in the rest of the species as well. Here's what I wrote in my journal three days after the bleeding stopped:

April 23, 2003 After a miscarriage A second child, a second expression of self. I would like to leave that, here on earth, before I die, see what I express, see who else might be in me. I would like to go on and on in a linked chain of fingernails and faces, straight up to the stars. I would like to know who the beings are inside me. The narcissism of it, horrid. The sense of incompleteness, painful. I would like my daughter Clara to have a person indisputably her own for when we're gone. Even if she hates it. Even if they never speak. She should know there's someone here, on earth, who holds her history and her genes. And yet, isn't this sentimental? Don't we all hold each other's history, share the same genetic code, the variations so slight they manifest as freckles, or certain circumscribed desires? That should comfort, but deep inside me I can feel it, a primary, Eolithic drive to make my kin, to keep them close, to push against disappearing.

Clearly, our need to force ourselves forward, a rail against time and death, underlies much of the reason anyone would sell herself into servitude. However, to chalk it all up to that would be dangerously reductive. Studies have shown that we seem to have a biological drive to connect with babies, to, in fact, love babies -- our voices rise, our pupils dilate when we are peering over the lip of a crib or a bassinet. Our bodies are saying connect, connect, connect. This is true even if the child is not ours. Scores of infertile couples go on to adopt children; clearly they are motivated by something other than genetic narcissism. The very phenomenon of adoption makes it clear that there are other forces at work. We seem to need children in our lives for multifaceted, nuanced reasons that have as much to do with soul as with flesh.

Does parenthood give us purpose?

Joshua and Emily Pressman of Cincinnati have been married since 1998. Several years ago, Emily suffered from cancer that only scalding doses of chemotherapy could cure. The chemo left her alive but ruined her chances at reproduction. Now Emily and Joshua have set upon the journey of adopting a child, which has -- make no mistake about it -- its own very difficult labor pains.

"We want children in our lives," says Emily, "because that's a big part of what we feel it means to be an adult. Being an adult is about rearing the generation that will survive you. It's about being able to take care of someone other than yourself. It's about realizing that you're not the most important person in the world. Being an adult means finally being able to love someone else more than you love yourself. That's how I define maturity."

Emily's eloquent statements reflect the thinking of famed psychologist Erik Erikson. According to Erikson, we human beings proceed through a series of well-defined stages, and each stage has embodied within it a certain set of tasks required of us. Adulthood, he wrote, is the stage of the care and maintenance of the next generation.

We have children, according to Erikson, because it is a developmental need. It goes beyond genetic duplication -- children allow us to enter adulthood with grace and purpose; we are finished shaping ourselves in the world, and set out to help shape those smaller than us.

Couples who adopt children instead of choosing childlessness often do so because they feel the calling of "care and maintenance." "Parenting is as developmental a task in adulthood as the learning of motor skills is in infancy. Parenting brings meaning to our lives and expands us beyond ourselves," says Lexington, Massachusetts, psychologist Jennifer Coon-Wallman.

If this is the case, does it mean that those who don't have children are somehow missing out on a crucial developmental stage? Not necessarily. Childless people often figure out other ways of parenting -- whether with others' children, their own pets, or their choice of career -- which only goes to show how strong the drive to parent is.

Nadine Boughton of Medford, Massachusetts, has never had children but has still fulfilled Erikson's care-and-maintenance life stage. Nadine was a doula; she's worked with women in birthing rooms and directly after birth, supporting both mother and baby through the difficult transitions. "I feel that in many ways I'm a mother," says Boughton. "I mothered mothers and their babies, too. This work has been essential to who I am as an adult." Psychologist and author Daphne De-Marneffe echoes these sentiments when she says, "Children are a part of our psyches and our spirits. They allow us to fully participate in what it means to be human."

What about our need to conform?

In 1968 psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané devised an experiment that showed the power of social cuing. The two psychologists had an actor stage an epileptic seizure to a group of naive bystanders. Their question: Who would come forward to help? What they found: no one. They hypothesized, and later proved, that we take our cues from other people. That's why when you pass a homeless person, you often don't stop to offer a hand; after all, no one else is, and we humans hate to break social codes.

Darley and Latané's findings can also be applied to why we have children. If we are creatures of social cuing, then it makes sense that part of our urge to reproduce is simply to keep up with the Joneses. The very fact that a woman without children is a woman in a minority provides strong impetus for most females to choose children, and the more women continue to follow the trend, the more difficult it becomes to resist. "We are impelled to have children not only by genes, but by the social pressures to fit in," says Susan Maushart, whose book, The Mask of Motherhood, examines the complexities that underlie maternal love.

My sister, a mother of three, sees that part of her complex motivation for becoming a mom had to do with social pressure. "While there were all sorts of reasons that compelled me to have three kids," she says, "like how much I loved my babies, loved having them, loved caring for them in their infancies, I would also have to admit that a part of my desire came from being around many moms and families and wanting that."

It makes sense that as biologically, psychologically, and socially complex an act as bearing and rearing young kids would have at least several skeins running through the forces that motivate it. To say we have children in part for social reasons, or in part because our genes are driving us to do so, in no way diminishes the power of reproduction.

In the end, why we have children may not matter as much as the fact that we do. Here they are. Towheaded, dark-haired, screamers, and smilers, they fill up our lives, for better or for worse. As I write this, my daughter tugs at my shirt; the unborn one does flips and swishes in my belly. I think about him; we plan to call him Lucas, and if he ever asks me why I, at the ripe old age of 40, went ahead and pushed him into the world, I may show him this article, or I may simply shrug and say that in the end, it's more mysterious than what any woman can explain with words.

Names and locations in this article have been changed.

Lauren Slater is a psychologist and award-winning writer. Her most recent book is Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century.

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