You can ignore the ticking if you hear it.
If you are a cis woman who doesn’t want to have kids, you know that those who are confounded by your choice, as well as those who are probably well meaning on some level, love to reference the biological clock. As in, “Oh, just wait until your biological clock starts ticking, then you’ll want one.”
The reality of reproductive time, i.e. fertility, has become the obsessive focus of media targeting women, particularly in the context of balancing family and work, creating much anxiety and prompting the question of how long one can actually wait to have a baby.
“For me, the language around the clock has only been used by people who are of reproductive age,” said Cheska, who’s 38 and doesn’t have children. “You’re running out of time, if you don’t do it now, you’re going to regret it. In that context, that language was effective on me, it made me think about it more than I normally would have.”
Other folks described the biological clock as “condescending,” a “media phenomenon,” and a “cultural construct.”
E, 37, told me she associated it “mostly with movies about women in their late thirties who are single and should have babies.”
There’s no denying that bodies have a limited amount of time during which they can conceive, carry, and birth children without intervention. How long that actually is seems to be up for debate. A 2013 article in The Atlantic by Jean Twenge dissected the sources of data around fertility and age and revealed that the source of most of the information we’ve been relying upon are French birth records from 1670 to 1830.
“Baby Fever” is the title of a chapter in Belle Bogg’s recently released memoir, The Art of Waiting: Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. Boggs cites the work of Finnish sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who has described “baby fever,” as it’s called in Scandinavia, as “an emotion which may be typical for societies when women have many choices.” But what does “baby fever,” the ache, the urge, the desire to have a baby, feel like?
“There’s a longing in me, but I can’t explain it with words or logic. I want to be pregnant,” said L, 34. “I have a physical urge. I look down at my stomach, and I yearn for the big, beautiful pregnant body.”
It’s not uncommon to hear women describe the experience of wanting children as manifesting physically, i.e. “pulsating ovaries.”
“Physiological changes happen when a woman sees a baby,” said Emily, an OB/GYN. ” Ovaries don’t actually pulsate, but if someone’s gone through a loss, a miscarriage, it’s possible that they might have phantom pains. Wanting something and never having it is different than having it and losing it.”
Boggs writes, “Biology influences, culture cements.” In other words, while one’s biology (hormones, reproductive organs) might produce the urge to have a baby, there are sociological factors at work that contribute to how the urge gets translated. Boggs herself admits that she herself “didn’t recover from baby fever, but I believe I would have, eventually.”
If you suddenly become besotted with the overwhelming urge to have a baby, but you actually know, deeply, that you don’t want to be a parent, can that urge just go away?
M, who’s 44, was in her early 30’s and not in a long term partnership when she found herself drawn to babies and having a physical response to them. “It totally gobsmacked me. How were my brain and my body so out of sync? It wasn’t upsetting, it was more confusing. My body felt like it wanted to produce a baby, and I did want kids, but only if I was in a partnership and it felt right. I wasn’t fantasizing about it then.” M now has a son, 3, who was born when she was 42 via IVF.
Shelley, 50, already had two children when she experienced “baby fever” in her mid 30’s. “I knew I didn’t want any more kids, but I had these weird attractions to babies,” she said. She and her husband did not have a third child.
Kate, 35, told me that she went from never wanting to have children to experiencing an affection for babies in her 30’s when she entered a sturdy and loving partnership. “My body wanted one thing, my brain wanted something else, but I was never unable to override my logic, that it wasn’t the time for kids.”
So the answer in the end seems to be that no, your biology can’t dupe you into having a baby. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s still a decision to address with care and intention, that only you can make, by getting real with yourself.