Huffpost Women
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Laura Carroll Headshot

The 'Biological Urge': What's the Truth?

Posted: Updated:

Birth rates may be plummeting in these economic times, but it's not stopping a phenomenon that happens to women in particular -- the time that comes in every woman's life when an uncontrollable "urge" comes over her and she feels a calling from deep within to become a mother.

This phenomenon has commonly been called the "biological urge," and it's seen as part of women's biological instinct to have children. We're taught that it's something that's supposed to happen to women at some point in their lives, but what do we really know about the biology at work that creates this "urge"?

We know that biology is at play when women are pregnant. Estrogen and progesterone kick in at conception and continue through pregnancy, along with the neurohormone oxytocin, which fires at the time of delivery. Research also tells us that biology is at work once the baby is born, including how the mother's brain responds differently to different baby behaviors.

While we typically don't talk about men having the same kind of "urge," there are biological factors at work for them as well. According to Dr. Ethylin Jabs at Johns Hopkins, we do know that "the bottom line is as men age, the percentage of damaged sperm they carry in their testes tend to increase," and the greater the risk of having a baby with a birth defect.

But for both sexes, what are the hard-wired biological processes that create the desire for a child?

Here's the truth that's not talked about -- For women, there is no real evidence to support the notion that there is a biological process that creates that deep longing for a child. And the same for men; there's no real evidence linking biology to the creation of parental desire.

So what's behind the "urge" if it's not biological?

Similar to the origins of what I call "Fulfillment Assumption" in The Baby Matrix , the answer first goes back to pronatalist notions that were created about parenthood generations ago, when society needed to encourage people to have lots of children. In addition to pushing the idea that parenthood was "the" path to fulfillment in life, another had to do with the idea that "normal" women experience an instinctual longing from within to have a child, and if they didn't there was something wrong with them. This belief is part of the larger pronatal "Destiny Assumption" that was created many years ago, that, like the Fulfillment Assumption, has stuck long after its usefulness.

The deep feelings of wanting to have a child have their roots in a learned desire from strong, long-standing social and cultural pronatal influences -- not biological ones. And we've been influenced so strongly for so long that it just feels "innate."

Early feminist Lena Hollingsworth gets to the heart of why it isn't: If the "urge" was actually innate or instinctual, we would all feel it, she argues -- and we don't. If it were instinctive, there would have been no need to introduce social messaging to encourage and influence reproduction. If it were instinctive, there would be no need for social and cultural pressures to have children.

When it comes to the "biological urge," it's time to shift our thinking to reflect what is real. Realizing that the "longing" is not something that will automatically descend upon us allows us to better explore its origins within us. Researcher and psychoanalyst Frederick Wyatt puts it this way: "When a woman says with feeling she craved her baby from within, she is putting biological language to what is psychological."

When we can't just chalk up the longing to biological instinct, we can better reflect on the craving from within and ask ourselves questions like, "What is at the essence of this feeling of longing? Is it truly to raise a child, or is it another yearning I think a child will fill for me in my life?"

Realizing that a yearning for parenthood is not a biological imperative allows us to look harder at why we think we want children and ferret out how much of it comes from external conditioning. Seeing the truth about the "biological urge" ultimately helps us make the best parenthood choices for ourselves, our families and our world.

Laura is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.

WATCH: HuffPost Live Discusses The 'Biological Clock'