Fertility Kings and Mom Genes

A new book (from my wife) deepens the debate about fertility and family policy.

Last month Rebecca Skabelund wrote an essay for Front Porch Republic about what she amusingly described as the “fertility kings” — a collection of male pundits, myself included, who fret about demographic decadence and evangelize on behalf of larger families and higher birthrates. (It’s worth noting that most of the men she listed don’t actually have that many kids; the real fertility kings are way too busy chasing toddlers or shearing sheep on rural compounds to write about pro-natalism.) Her critique was not a complaint about the possible creepiness of a male fertility obsession; instead, she argued, the problem with existing pro-natalist punditry is that it doesn’t go far enough: “These fertility kings are not nearly obsessed enough with fertility.”

Or rather, we aren’t obsessed enough with the medical-chemical-environmental-physiological reasons why women are having fewer kids. We’re fiddling around with child tax credits and reading papers about the fertility-dampening effects of car seat laws, but the deeper problems lie elsewhere: In America’s sky-high rates of C-sections and hysterectomies, in the inhuman way women are “poked, prodded, monitored, starved, strapped down, drugged up … as the medical staff deem necessary to extract a baby,” in our far-too-high rates of maternal mortality, in the collapse of the social support networks that used to protect and care for mothers in their vulnerable weeks after giving birth, in the high rates of post-partum depression that result, and more. Overall the failure of modern fertility, Skabelund argues, is a failure of rootedness, a failure to take nature and biology and the soil of existence seriously, a failure to organize society so that women can become mothers naturally, from conception to birth and beyond, without feeling like “an immobilized object in a baby-extracting factory.”

Coincidentally, my wife — the mother of four children, all born by C-section — has written a new book, out next week, early reviews here and here, pre-order now, etc., that takes up just these issues. It’s not primarily about them, I should stress: Mom Genes is first and foremost a book about the science of the maternal transformation, what we know and what we’re learning about how bearing tiny human beings reshapes not just the female body but also the way that mothers think and feel and hear and see. It’s a portrait of moms as “molten creatures” who experience a “cellular revolution,” a rewiring and chemical remix unlike anything that the rest of us homo sapiens go through. And the early parts of the book emphasize the absolute, switch-flipping nature of this transformation: Motherhood as a one-way ticket to an uncertain destination, a different kind of humanity, a new you.

But then Mom Genes also talks a lot about all the ways in which this transformation can be influenced, directed, reshaped — and also dangerously re-routed or derailed. It’s not, emphatically not, my-wife-will-kill-me-unless-I-stress-that-it’s-not a policy book, and certainly not a pro-natalist tract; I handle that nonsense in our household. At the same time the book’s discussion of all the different ways that social and environment conditions can make things go wrong for mothers, the external forces driving post-partum depression and neglectful parenting and familial unhappiness, is suggestive for some of the questions that pro-natalists like to argue about, and also for Skabelund’s critique.

First, the generally negative way that stress and material uncertainty affects maternal instincts and maternal behavior — my wife calls the research on this subject “freakomomics” — makes a straightforward case for the kind of tax credits and child allowances that family-policy wonks (male or otherwise) tend to obsess about. It really is the case that giving families a firmer financial foundation, a certain kind of stability and certainty, has consequences for the biological experience of motherhood (including the ability to conceive a child in the first place), and not just for a family’s position on the income ladder or some sort of can-women-have-it-all balancing act.

But then there’s also a tangle of issues where money only matters indirectly, and all kinds of other forces — technological and chemical, medical and institutional — can have the kind of damaging effects that Skabelund describes. These are ecological problems, in all the meanings of the term: The same plastics and pollutants that are driving down male sperm counts can also disrupt the hormones that shape the maternal brain, and our social and medical ecologies condition the way that American women enter motherhood, often for the worse.

For instance, to take up one of the personal strands in Mom Genes, my wife didn’t end up having a C-section at her first birth, setting in motion three more C-sections, because we were short on financial resources. She had a C-section because we followed the normal way of doing things in a normal obstetrics practice and a normal D.C. hospital, didn’t get a midwife or a doula … and all that normalcy, as currently constituted, makes caesareans way more likely than they should be. The same goes for many other features of contemporary maternity, some of which are better than in the recent past (the maternity wards of the Baby Boom era were closer to baby-extracting factories than our own), but others of which are worsening (so-called “technoference,” the endless pull of phones and screens, can scramble the mother-child relationship), and few of which are organized around the complexity and importance and vulnerability of the maternal transformation.

I should say that I’m doubtful, relative to Skabelund and other critics of the hospital-industrial complex, about just how fully crunchy and holistic and communal maternity in a high-tech mass society is ever likely to become. (In its more personal passages, Mom Genes doesn’t just recount grim experiences with hospital technocracy; it also recounts how our family’s attempt at getting closer to the soil, the terroir of rural Connecticut, led to terrible maternal isolation and post-partum depression; among other things the book is a tacit brief for walkable urbanism as a boon to motherhood.) But the institutions of mass society could certainly be friendlier to the realities of maternal biology than they are right now.

And American conservatism, as it struggles to define itself, has a particular obligation to match its notional defense of the goods of family life with a clearer sense of what those goods can cost and what it takes to earn them. I have sympathy, for instance, for the conservative anxiety about how a child benefit of the sort proposed by Mitt Romney could just become a permanent dole. But Mom Genes is a pretty good between-two-covers complement to the life experiences that have moved me somewhat leftward on this question lately. Should we want a single mother of a four-year-old to be attached to the labor force? I think there’s a case that we should. Should we want that for a single mother of a three-month-old, at a time when she and the baby are supposed to be a “dyad” whose rhythms are difficult for scientists to separate, a time when post-partum depression and other mental illnesses are most likely to take root, a time when (if it’s her first baby, especially) the contours of her new mind and identity are still being established? No, I think not: Give her time off and give her money, and let the workforce wait.

But if this is a possibly “left-wing” conclusion from mom science let me also draw out a more conservative one. (Like all good science books Mom Genes is bipartisan.) As an account of the maternal transformation the book inevitably emphasizes the differences between men and women, but one of the forces shaping that transformation is, inevitably, the presence or absence of a dad. (Though, extended-family partisans take note, the presence or absence of a maternal grandmother is also extremely important.) Mom Genes moves back and forth between the human realm and the animal kingdom, and one of its most evocative illustrations of paternal importance comes from the mammalian species whose pair-bonding and paternal role arguably most resembles our own — the humble prairie vole:

For decades scientists — it must be said, often males ones — have been much more intent on the outlier chemistry of these unusually devoted vole daddies. But the vole moms intrigued [the neuroscientist Oliver] Bosch as well. How would they mother without their life partners?

His team made all the necessary introductions, putting virgin female voles in cages with males, and then leaving the fuzzy soul mates to canoodle for eighteen days — from here to eternity in rodent time.

Then, just as the first crop of babies was about to be born, a researcher plucked the male from each cage, like the Kevlar-clad hand of God himself.

To Bosch’s amazement, the moms gave birth and carried on with business as usual, tending to their babies more or less as they normally would. Everyone stayed fed and warm and, for the most part, alive.

But there were obvious differences in the moms themselves as the team put the voles through the standard array of stress tests. They cowered in the exposed arms of the maze they ought to have eagerly explored. Bosch also carefully slid each vole mom in a beaker of water — not at all a mean thing to do, since healthy voles are excellent swimmers. But the abandoned females hardly swam … they just floated there, barely trying.

… Two experimental epiphanies have stayed with Bosch. On the one hand, he remains stunned by how tough the single vole moms were.

“It was fascinating to see with my own eyes how robust the maternal brain is, this one drive to take care of the offspring no matter what, and I think this is mostly the same with humans,” he says. “The mother is still fully a mother even though she has to cope with this situation alone.”

But the second epiphany was glimpsing the extreme fragility that existed beneath the moms’ fighting spirit. The lab animals exhibited, he believes, “altered emotionality” — something akin to human depression.

These two epiphanies together seem like a reasonable way to think about single parenthood in the human world: That the single mother is doing something incredibly impressive and that in a good society fewer mothers would be asked to bear that load alone.

But if it confirms a soft, dads-are-good sort of conservatism, the parable of the voles also suggests a reframing of the way that conservatives talk about the virtues of paternal involvement. For understandable reasons we tend to say that we want fathers around for the good of the children. But for humans as for our tiny prairie cousins, the good of the mother is the place where good fathers matter first.

And if you’re interested in that good, as considered by someone with more direct experience of the whole maternal shebang than any pro-natalist male pundit, then — cue advertisement music — I highly recommend adding Mom Genes to your shelf.