Are You Feminine Enough? How Your Estrogen Levels Connect to Wanting Children
Earlier in October, there were a spate of blog posts on Scientific American deconstructing a study that was examining estrogen levels and the desire to have children. It also looked at facial features which were commonly thought of as “feminine” (an admittance: I really couldn’t tell the difference between the low maternal and high maternal faces in terms of femininity). Researchers found that “higher levels of estrogen correlated with an expressed desire for more children, and higher ratings of facial femininity correlated with an expressed desire for more children. High levels of biological feminization correlate with an expressed desire for kids.”
One of the blog posts pointed out the social factors that can’t be accounted for with this study — do women who constantly hear that they’d make a great mother want children more? In other words, is the drive I found to do anything in order to reach parenthood more tied to a biological impulse, or was it created because I got messages about motherhood since nursery school?
Or even before that — the dolls, the “house” corner in the classroom, the sex ed classes that presented the assumption that all girls would one day be pregnant, the expectation of babysitting, the praise over my babysitting skills, the constant message I received throughout my young adult life: “you would make a great mother.” And is it reinforced now, is that drive to continue building my family based on my experience with parenting and enjoying it, or is it that external feedback: “you’re a great mother.” If I was constantly told that I was actually doing a crap-ass job, would I still be saying that I want three kids?
So much for free will.
Another SA blogger covered the paper, an IVFer who admits she had no maternal impulse as a child but developed it hardcore as an adult. And I like the fears she points out: “But I worry about two things: how the media will frame the article, and how the study authors defined two of their most important variables.” As well as her end-point: “Not wanting a baby today, or any day, does not make you less feminine. And when the media onslaught begins over these findings, we would do well to remember it.”
Which sort of brings me to my real question: what is the point of these sorts of studies? Is it knowledge for knowledge’s sake? An attempt to understand the world? Can we really use these findings? (And if research isn’t applicable in the day-to-day world, is it worth funding?) How could we use these findings: to determine who really wants kids in an IVF lottery? To help us choose a mate? To have a reason to give prying relatives who insinuate that we need to get started having kids?
Would you want to know your estrogen levels at all those points throughout the cycle (I only know my levels from when we were already messing with my body with stims)? Would it make any difference?
The discussion of the study is sort of more interesting than the study itself. The original researcher weighed in with her own blog post this week responding to their blog posts about her study (was that convoluted enough for you?) She points out that she didn’t disregard those societal factors, but rather, discussing them in the paper would be like discussing how restaurants are constructed when trying to critique the food — of course restaurant structure plays a role in how you enjoy the meal, but if the point of an article is to examine the chef’s skills in the kitchen and discuss the food, it would be off-point to start talking about the history of the building and where the supporting walls are located.
I could understand the objection, if we had written only about hormones in the context of a broad review paper of maternal behaviour, or a piece for popular consumption in a newspaper. But scientific research is necessarily specific. We are evolutionary psychologists working in the field of how hormones relate to behaviour; Our research question was investigating possible links between hormones and behaviour (in this case, maternal preferences); We published in the journal ‘Hormones & Behaviour’!
And she gets to the heart of the matter with her question:
I can’t help but wonder, would all these criticisms be made of a research paper looking at … hmm let’s say.. genetic variation and osteoarthritis? … So why, when it comes to studies like ours, do scientists from other disciplines momentarily forget their scientific training and opt for emotional responses, personal anecdotes, and sweeping generalisations about a broad academic field of study?
She’s right: I would probably not have even clicked to read the whole article if it hadn’t been speaking about maternal desires, a topic that twists a little knife in my heart. And her final point about treating maternal instincts as a spectrum vs. a normal/abnormal resonated with me.
Maybe this study gets under my skin because if there is a hormonal tie, there is a feeling of “you can run but you cannot hide” from your destiny. And it could be the explanation for why some people are willing to try anything to reach parenthood and some people are willing to step away. Perhaps if we knew how our hormones were coming into play with those decisions, we could also have peace of heart; a lack of guilt over our decisions. We could explain it to others: it’s just as much part of who we are and out of our control as our brown hair or hazel eyes. Our need to press forward with treatments, third party reproduction or adoption, or our knowledge about ourselves that it feels right to step in a different direction.
What are your thoughts?