Why Women (and Men) Get "Baby Fever"
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It started with a TV commercial. I can’t remember what was being advertised. All I know is that it showed a father holding a newborn baby, and I started to cry — not out of sadness, but awe. A baby, a beautiful baby!
Look, I’m human, and as such, I’ve always found babies cute — but, suddenly, right around my 28th birthday earlier this year, crossing paths with them caused me to grab the arm of my acquaintance as though I’d seen a celebrity. Reactions formerly reserved for baby animals began to apply to human infants. Noticing this shift, a friend who hadn’t seen me for a while remarked, “Since when are you baby crazy?” The real question is: Since when did I become such a cliché?
It’s not that I’m ready to reproduce — good God, no — but I do want to have a baby eventually, though the possibility seems many years off. Will I be ready — emotionally, professionally, financially, romantically — before my fertility nose-dives? This longing feels physically acute — a twitching in my ovaries, an itching in my arms to cradle. In the past, I’d always written off the cliché of the woman in her late 20s or early 30s with a “ticking biological clock” as a sexist trope. Now I find myself reconsidering and wondering how real it is, and why it is.
While common wisdom has it that this desire grows throughout a woman’s 30s, Anna Rotkirch, the director of the Population Research Institute in Finland, says studies have shown “the urge appears to be strongest in the late 20s.” (Dude, I know.) Some women, however, “say they have felt ‘baby fever’ more or less intensely since their early teenage years,” she says. “Other women feel it for the first time in their late 20s.” (You heard it here first: Not all women are the same.)
Rotkirch reported in a paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology that her Finnish interview subjects described the phenomenon in terms of “a painful longing in my whole being” or an “unbelievable aching,” sometimes accompanied by the sensation of having “empty arms” or breasts that “became sensitive and hard.” In a related survey, she found that 58 percent of male respondents and 78 percent of female respondents reported having “experienced a strong desire to have a child of [their] own” — although this seems less a measure of sudden, acute longing than of a general desire to reproduce at some time.
As for why this alleged phenomenon might exist, Rotkirch says we know very little.
“All existing studies use written texts or questionnaires,” she says, which tell us more about how women perceive their “baby lust” rather than the actual origins. Still, Rotkirch has found evidence of a “hormonal underpinning,” she says, with “little influence” of social factors like education or income.
In her paper, she pointed out that, in terms of evolutionary biology, “the ‘default mode’ of the female body is to have experienced both nurturing and pregnancies by the early 20s.” Rotkirch suggested that “longing for a baby can develop as a by-product of hormonal changes that evolved to prepare the woman for motherhood,” she wrote. “Such changes could be induced by falling in love; the ‘nesting behavior’ related to settling down and starting to live with a partner; exposure to infants; and/or by the processes of aging.”
If evolutionary theories are too caveman-y for your taste, there is the undeniable fact that women’s fertility begins to decline in their late 20s, right around the average time that baby panic sets in. She says, “My informed guess is that baby fever is one mechanism for reproductive timing” — or, in other words, a way to urge that “now is a good time to have a baby.” It seems to make intuitive sense, but the science on exactly how this mechanism might work is just not there.