“Nobody knows,” she replies. “But for millions of years, women needed to have children, not only to become an adult and a functioning member of society but to produce individuals who could help them as they aged. Today we don’t need that. There were women like you and me a million years ago, but they probably didn’t have the opportunity to live their lives the way they would have liked to. Our feelings are not new. What’s new is the environment, which enables us to choose a different way.”
In the late ’90s, a flutter of publicity surrounded the discovery that, absent a particular version of certain genes (mainly the Mest and Peg3), female mice were much less nurturing of their pups. Even virgin mice of that type were less solicitous of their peers’ newborns. Could my lack of reproductive drive be the result of some genetic hiccup? An empty-Mest syndrome?
On this topic, the experts are dodgy. The Kinsey Institute said they “don’t track birth demographics and wouldn’t know who to refer you to.” The American Medical Association sent me to the American Psychiatric Association, which never responded. A nice lady at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said, “I find your subject matter intriguing, as I also fit into the same category,” and hooked me up with a woman who hooked me up with Janet Takefman, director of research and psychological services at the McGill Reproductive Centre in Montreal. She was nice, too, but lightly scolded me for the implications of my question. “I’d be surprised to hear of any physiological studies done on women who choose not to have children,” she said in an e-mail message. “To not have children is a choice, not a disease or a deficit.”
“Of course women have maternal genes—genes that give them breasts and ovaries and enable them to be mothers,” Steve Jones, a genetics professor at University College London, told writer Nicki Defago for her 2005 book, Childfree and Loving It! “But we don’t know if some have genes that make them want motherhood more or will make them better at it.” The scientists are still not sure. When I e-mailed Jones recently, he replied, “Well, I do not know of any gene that would persuade humans not to reproduce . . . There are plenty of cases in animals where particular castes do not reproduce—bees, wasps, termites are the famous ones; naked mole rats and meerkats also fall into that category.”
Interesting. Is there some common thread among these nonreproductive creatures?
“One of the strange regularities is that animals that live in burrows and hives tend to do this,” Jones responded. “There is a bizarre scientific paper [on this subject] with the wonderful title ‘Sex in Rotting Wood.’ ”
Elinor Burkett encountered somewhat less bonhomie 12 years ago when she began the research that ultimately grew into her book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. Hoping to include some insights from Betty Friedan, she phoned the feminist icon, who, Burkett reports in her book, “listened silently for the first 45 seconds,” then berated her about the importance of supporting “the great majority of women [who] have children.” And then she hung up.