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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.

As she says:

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?


1 stinkb0mb { 10.30.11 at 8:41 am }

i never wanted kids when i was younger, then i met Guv and bam[!] the maternal instinct kicked in and i wanted desperately to procreate with this man, produce mini mes and live happily ever after.

my yearning for a child is through the roof, my desire off the scale, so my estrogen levels must also be off the scale and yet i can’t have children, my body kills babies – to me i am less of a woman because of what my body fails to do.

so no, having higher estrogen levels and craving a baby don’t make me more feminine because in my eyes because of what my body fails to do so naturally, i am actually less of a woman.

2 HereWeGoAJen { 10.30.11 at 10:28 am }

I actually really liked her response. It was well written and I thought she did a really good job of explaining it. Maybe the study didn’t bother me because my background is in psychology and I’ve seen a LOT of studies and I tend not to take them personally because I know how generalizations do not really mean anything on an individual level, they only count when talking about things on a societal level. Eh, I hope I am making sense, I am still pretty tired this morning.

3 May { 10.30.11 at 11:22 am }

I am a scientist, and pure science is indeed all about knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The most important technologies we have today rest on basic research done without any specific application in mind.

Mel, I love your point about how it could tie in to how far people are willing to pursue treatments. Fascinating!

I am such a nerd.

4 Ellen K. { 10.30.11 at 12:17 pm }

I don’t see either face as more “maternal.” They both look like your average wet-ponytailed, no-makeup mom at the playground. I guess the woman on the right has longer eyelashes and slightly fuller lips, and her brow is different. It makes me wonder how my face would be rated… not a pleasant idea.

I don’t remember much about my hormone levels during treatment; I think they were always OK, but I know I didn’t have the high maternal desire of other IFers, in that we took time out from treatment and contemplated resolving IF without children, which a lot of IF women say they can’t even consider. Our single IVF cycle did work, so I don’t know how we would have felt had it not, or whether I would have felt more maternal desire. However, I feel much more female (sex), feminine (gender), and feminist (politics) on this side of pregnancy and parenthood — more identified overall with other women. Part of that is probably due to having two daughters and rather more pink in the house than I ever expected but also a vested interest in their self-identity and rights, but it’s partly a way to assert my own individuality and make sure I’m not just about motherhood.

5 a { 10.30.11 at 1:49 pm }

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake, maybe – or the building blocks for further research. It’s an interesting study, but ultimately doesn’t add much to the conversation. But it’s a starting place to see if there are things that can be attributed to hormone levels. In some ways, I think we are usually trying to find some way to ascribe all behavior to genetics or hormones or something so we can absolve ourselves of liability for it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the media can take something innocuous and turn it into a full scale panic (see Dr. Oz and the poison that is apple juice). The problem with studies is that they are generally meant for one community, and are interpreted by an entirely different one. I don’t know that it’s entirely fair to expect researchers to dumb down their articles so they are correctly interpreted by the media.

6 AlexMMR { 10.30.11 at 4:11 pm }

I was always outwardly very “I dunno if I want kids” while in the back of my head feeling that being a mom was inevitable. I guess I got that outward attitude because I’ve always known I would have trouble conceiving so I was always trying to talk myself out of my natural instincts.

7 Chickenpig { 10.30.11 at 7:51 pm }

It makes my head hurt 🙂

I didn’t want kids for most of my life. I think I look feminine enough. I’ve got big boobs and long hair, isn’t that feminine ? 😉 Now I’m trying for our fourth. All I can think is, “whatever, lady”. I could think of about a million studies that would be more relevant. My MIL had 6 kids and looks totally feminine, or did when she was younger, and told me that she regretted having kids. HUH??? Whatever.

8 Heather { 10.30.11 at 10:57 pm }

More important is what you’ve mentioned about people wanting to tell us we’d make great mothers. It seems like there is too much emphasis on it. I’ve already told my 11-year-old daughter who insists she’s not having any children that whatever she wants is fine with me. She said she wasn’t going to get married, thinking you have to have babies if you get married and I told her that wasn’t true either. She could be married and not have any children. She asked how and that was the funny part. I told her I’d explain that to her later. She’s too young to talk about birth control, LOL. We’ll see how it all turns out as she ages, but I think most of us understand that we’ve worked hard for children, but not everyone needs to have children. It’s too much when everyone else puts so much emphasis on it. We may not want them, or we may be having issues. There’s no need for pressure.

9 loribeth { 10.31.11 at 10:41 am }

“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.”

I would like to think that this message will predominate, but I’m not holding my breath. :p I have to admit that I find the whole idea of the study a little insulting. As someone who did want a child but in the end, didn’t wind up with one, I know there are people out there, IRL & in blogland, who think that, well, we must not have wanted a baby that much to just stop trying when we did. Does that somehow make me less feminine? I hear woman with IF all the time talk about feeling “less than a woman” because their bodies won’t behave in the biologically usual, culturally expected & approved way — & this study will do nothing to make us feel better.

I did know, in my heart, that I would ultimately be OK & could have a good life without children, if it came to that (& it has). We’re still in a highly pronatalist society, but I guess I absorbed the feminist messages of my youth in the 1960s & 70s for better or for worse in that regard. ; ) If believing that my own self-worth does not ultimately depend on my ability to reproduce somehow makes me less feminine (and of course, that’s the hoary cliche about feminists, isn’t it? — that they are not “real” women), well, that’s your problem. ; )

I found it interesting to read that none of the subjects studied for their supposed femininity actually had any children yet — just an opinion as to whether they wanted children or not, & how many. It would be interesting to go back to them in 10 or 20 years & find out how many children they actually wound up having. As so many of us know, wanting & having don’t always co-relate, for any number of reasons — and the number of children you want will often change as your family grows. My mother once told me that she thought she would have about four kids, until she had two, & decided that was quite enough, lol.

10 theportofindecision { 10.31.11 at 11:55 pm }

I do think that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is important, and I think it can lead to other, perhaps more realistically applicable, studies. This study of the faces doesn’t strike me as unlike the studies showing that men are more attractive to women who are ovulating, women are more attractive to men with “masculine” faces, etc. Everyone says, “Well, I can’t tell a difference,” but the studies bear out differently.

At the very least, it’s an interesting jumping-off point for further research.

11 Bea { 11.02.11 at 1:37 am }

I’m with may in that I am fine with not having a practical pursuit always in mind. And I can see the subtle difference in the faces – one is sort of… sharper? harder? But not necessarily less mumsy. There is, as you say, an awful lot of social factors involved here, and often they can be very subtle and self-referencing and self-reinforcing and horribly difficult to untangle from biology. I think the fault with these things often lies with the media and public trying to draw firms conclusions where only mere hints of mere puzzle pieces exist.


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