On Baby Fever
Do you ever have the desire for a baby of your own?
That is, regardless of any realistic considerations about your
economic, social, or personal circumstances, do you at
times feel a bodily desire for the feel, sight, and smell of
an infant next to you?
(rated on a 9 point scale from 1
[Very Rarely/Never] to 9 [All the time/Always])
When you feel this desire for a baby, how strong is its
emotional effect, or “pull” on you?
(rated on a 9 point
scale from 1 [Extremely Weak] to 9 [Extremely Strong])
In 2012, Kansas State University psychologists Gary L. Brase and Sandra L. Brase conducted research to answer the question “does baby fever exist?” In the first phase of their three-part experiment, they surveyed eighty students in northeast England. The purpose of this survey was to design a tool for measuring participants’ desire to have a baby. In later rounds, they polled new sets of participants to try to pin down if a psychological phenomenon called “baby fever” could really be separated out from the biological urge to reproduce and/or from the social pressure to do so.
In trying to decide whether to become a parent again—for the fourth time—I find little writing by those asking this question not about their first. In our twenties, we did not stop to think about what we were doing. This is not a good time but there will never be one, we said.
Now, I feel I am held up by lack of faith in the world. How to move forward again in faith that there is a forward? But if I cannot give into the desire to get pregnant again, what does this say about my other children, especially about the one I gave birth to in 2013? What a hopeful and stupid act, this thing I desired and did. The desire came, and it was satisfied, and it went. It was not like my desire for coffee or sunshine which stays with me no matter how much of the thing I get. I wrote about this desire, thinking it was over, and revised it knowing it was over. But then it came back, this feeling, this bodily desire, out of nowhere and yet.
Among the questions researchers asked their participants:
Please rank the following items, about which you may
sometimes feel urges or desires, in the order of how
strongly you are affected by the thought of them. (Place
a 1 next to the item that produces the strongest urges in
you, followed by a 2 next to the item that produces the
next strongest urge in you, and so on):
- Eating chocolate
- winning the lottery
- having a baby
- having a cigarette
- being famous
- having an alcoholic drink
- having sex
7. Winning the lottery
When I was a young child my grandmother brought me to church each Sunday and out for breakfast after. She introduced me to gambling. In exchange for memorizing jokes to tell at breakfast, which was usually attended by a number of other older adults and no other children, she gave me scratch-off tickets. Of course, she never codified this exchange, but I felt it was. My grandmother had seven children; her son, my father, was number three. Being away from my siblings, not the money or the food, was the reward.
Once, I won fifty dollars. I have no idea where it went. My father loved to bet on horses at OTB or, worse, at Saratoga where he went annually to lose loads of money and drink loads of beer with his childhood friends, or at least that is what my mother said he did. I never saw a real lotto ticket in person until I was in my twenties and teaching at University City High School in Philadelphia, where every assistant in the classrooms on our hall went to buy tickets each week. I taught eleven teenagers and young adults with intellectual disabilities in a basement classroom which, looking back, I was wholly unqualified and unprepared to lead.
Growing up I never dreamed of the lottery. I dreamed only of a life in which I was understood. What, exactly, there was to be understood about me I could not say; couldn’t someone just help me figure it out? I wanted never to be forced to wear anything but basketball shorts, never relegated to my own room away from my brothers whom I fiercely and jealously loved. I wanted red walls, blue curtains, a denim comforter my parents deemed too boyish.
I didn’t dream of money because I never needed it. My parents had plenty. In my young adulthood, Anna and I were on a long drive—to a wedding I think. That year she worked as a research assistant on a psychology study in which she had to, in part, ask people for an extensive record of their antisocial behavior. We thought it would be fun for her to ask me the questions on the measure she used to pass the time on this long drive. There were hundreds of them. New England whizzed by as I recounted every drink I had taken and every time I had lied. After years of endless talking she was surprised only at having to mark gambling as a problem behavior. She knew I drank, smoked sometimes, had a history; we all do. It’s silly, I said, having to mark me as a gambler for some scratch-off tickets somebody gave me as a kid.
But did you like it? she asked. This woman, who wanted to have my child, wanted to do it soon, needed to know.
6. Being famous
When I tell a friend I want to write an essay about my baby fever, she offers me alternatives. She does not have children nor does she want them. I can see, when she regards my children, her calculations of how much of my time they take to keep alive, not even the time required to do a good job, just the minimum time necessary to keep them alive. To her, I must be so old and so tired.
Sometimes when I admit I have this desire I receive nothing in response; there is no response to the ridiculous urge to create more chaos in my life, to create in the face of destruction. Once, before I looked the way I look now, a woman accosted me because my baby was not wearing a hat. Did I not understand that it was cold outside? Later, after hormones, I became a famous parent, famous for being a dad and being next to alive children. The nuances of my personality eclipsed by the phrase good dad. You’re a good dad. Masculine parents have a very low bar to clear, subject to celebration for any successful caregiving. Because my partner worked many hours, I was the public face of our parenting efforts. Everywhere I went people recognized me as good until I felt like a mirage.
My friend says she would not like to be famous. Being famous doesn’t sound fun, she says. I guess this depends on the definition of famous one is going by, I say. Like, would you want to be Anne Carson? My friend is a poet. I wouldn’t mind being a popular writer, she says. Somehow, I didn’t think I would become a famous parent when I transitioned. You would think in ten years of considering hormones I would have thought things through but the fact is: you can’t think through things you haven’t done as much as you want to. I know that people mean well, that they want to encourage me, my sometimes gummy-like kindness, my softness in such a hard world. When I was perceived to be a woman, a mother even, my kindness was not special. It was expected. Now, it is remarkable.
What does it say about me that I want to have that experience, to be perceived as a dad, from day one? My youngest was five months when I started hormones. I never held a brand-new baby as me.
5. Eating chocolate
Every weekend, when the first baby I birthed was young and his brother was only a year older, I would walk the stroller down Cumberland Street to the outdoor market. If the market was there, I would buy the chocolate milk—the good chocolate milk—from the case. It was so expensive and more importantly, so rich, like a milkshake. The boys and I would wander among the plants and animals, passing time, my mind always on their next nap. After I poured the chocolate milk out into cups, the glass bottle would stay streaked with thick brown. Chocolate milk never meant anything to me before I had a baby and it means nothing to me now.
A thirty-three-year-old having such bodily memories of chocolate milk has an absurdity to it. Why is the desire for the feel, sight, and smell of an infant next to me tied up innately with things I know I should not want? My vices include having a body and wanting something for it and from it. Look around: everyone is saying I have one of those bodies that should not want, should not be. It should not have been the way it was before; it should not be the way it is now. It should not have made the life it made, and it should never do so again.
When I was pregnant I replaced everything with chocolate: my second cup of coffee, my first beer, my second beer, Diet Coke from the vending machine, tea at my desk, espresso after dinner, whisky after dinner. I remember most of all the hot fudge sundae I ate just days before I gave birth, sitting outside the Franklin Fountain in my purple tank top, legs spread wide on the metal chair in my too-big basketball shorts. Cold and hot and in a little paper takeout container.
This publicly deviant body. So many things about my marriage came apart at the seams each time we had a child: first, when we brought home the one she carried, then when I became pregnant with the next, and, finally, when we were dead tired but still she had the third.
When I asked Anna to rank these seven items she ranked chocolate as producing the strongest urge in her, even though our kitchen is absolutely full of the stuff.
4. Having a cigarette
There are brief periods of my life I associate with smoking. (Are there any periods in my life that have not been brief?)
That summer after freshman year of college I worked as a tutor at a camp for children with behavioral disabilities on Staten Island. Eight weeks. Each early morning, driving across the Goethals Bridge just after sunrise holding my breath as trucks whizzed by me in the impossibly narrow other lane, all of us firing out of New Jersey into the hot city. I gripped the wheel and thought about the cigarette—just one—I would let myself have on my lunch break, trudging a few blocks from the school where the camp was held so no one would see me. My payment was a small grant that went almost entirely to gas.
Well over a decade later, Anna and I started smoking a cigarette or two outside when our kids went to bed. Summer where we lived was so brief and yet the glory: sun til ten and seventy degree days nearly every day. Our time in the Midwest was dwindling and we wanted to be outside where it smelled like gardens and firewood and where you could see stars. We sat and we smoked. How much of wanting the thing is wanting another time? We scooted our lawn chairs away from the open bedroom windows. It was the first time in so many years we could just say goodnight to them and close their doors and that was that, their day was over and ours could begin.
Anna says she is glad she has kids but says that not having them would have been fine, too. Sometimes I think I would like to have more dates and less laundry, but I do not think my life without kids would have been fine. Prone to loneliness, I used to annoy Anna. After growing up in a big family, I had come to rely on the noise other people make to be okay. Early on, we fought once because she had nothing to say on a road trip. I drove and drove across flat highway in a state I had never visited, waiting for her to say something. Silence buzzed around us. She had her first cigarette outside an Olive Garden in Missouri with me on that same drive. Minutes before, she had left my car and stated she would be seeking employment at this roadside Olive Garden because no way was she continuing on to Colorado with the likes of me. We sat on a parking lot curb smoking cigarettes she had not known were in my glovebox.
Later, this would become one of her enduring cravings. Never a smoker, just a cigarette-craver, always trying to get back to that moment on the curb when it almost ended but didn’t. Just days before she had graduated from college. I thought about the life we dreamed for ourselves and how maybe it was all ending here; would we continue onto our planned vacation in Colorado or turn around, call the acquaintance waiting to host us in Kansas, the friend who was an hour or two ahead of us in her Subaru on her own Colorado journey? I’m sorry, I’d say, we thought we would get married and have children, four of them we have even talked about, but we won’t be making it past this Olive Garden.
3. Having an alcoholic drink
There are things about ourselves we wish could be different. One is that when I said I was really leaning toward having another baby, that I’d given it a lot of thought, her eyes lit up. Then she said, Wait, but like, that is a long time to go without a beer. I hate how much I love beer, but not more than I love to drink it. I love the bitter and calm, the ritual of really, truly ending a day when my children are in bed. My whole mouth coated in calm. Whenever I write about wanting to have another baby I drink a beer. It’s what I use to motivate myself to write after my day job in the oncology clinic and dragging myself and my kids through another weekday. If I write a paragraph, defined as a few decent sentences, then I can have a beer. Then I go to bed and start over.
Four kids is what we wanted once, at nineteen and twenty-three. At the time, I babysat for a family with four children, each one year behind the last. Four, we said before we got tired and angry and more tired. The four children I babysat for were beautiful, radiant, and fierce, all tickles and snuggles. Their mom was a former elementary school teacher who had it must have been a thousand children’s books. The family loved Anna, they loved her before my family knew how to love her. There must be a connection there, there must have been a moment when we bonded to a that-sized family. Is it selfish to want more, was it selfish to want at all? Anna says we have replaced all of the adults involved: she replaced herself, I replaced myself, and then she replaced our children’s sperm donor. What would this extra person be? New life, a new life.
Reading about the thing my body is not supposed to want, not in the state that it’s in now, only fuels me more. The son I had wants me like I want a baby. My pull on him is strong, an 8 or 9 out of 10, I would say. He wants to glue his body to mine while reading, he wants to sit on my lap, he is standing with the bathroom door cracked yelling when will I come out. He wants me to himself. He alone came from me. Our youngest is five and will start kindergarten in the fall. The other day, I recorded a short video of him reading.
Would a new baby take up a space that does not, that should not exist? After my beer I lie down in bed and wonder if there will even be a tomorrow.
2. Having sex
On the first day, I forget to take my testosterone. It is Sunday and Anna is at work and the light streams in through my window as I stay in bed, not wanting to get up. Another day of no plans, no movement, the world outside foreboding in its stillness. I lie there listening to the faint muffled sound of music coming from my children’s Echo Dot downstairs and to the hollow sound of their DUPLO blocks as they construct something or other.
In the bathroom I brush my teeth and stare at my pre-coffee face and I pass by the drawer where I keep my testosterone and I pass by the shelf where I keep my old laundry detergent bottle full of needles. I forget. And then I am headed downstairs, I am saying good morning to the kids, I am offering to make muffins and promising the dog I will walk him in just a few minutes. The next morning, I remember and I walk by the drawer and then shelf again. Then, again. On the fourth day, I tell myself I am seeing what it would be like to be off testosterone.
Two weeks later, I tell Anna. I try not to say it in any kind of way, just, I went off T. I want to see what it feels like. Next, I tell another trans friend. He says, I feel like four children for millennials is like ten for boomers.
I have heard that some people’s beards get wispier, that one’s voice can even get higher, but what I really care about is sex: sex is different. Is it different because of the years of knowing each other or because of these hormones or because every single mappable circumstance of our lives has changed again and again? We are addicted to it. Like chocolate, like cigarettes, we want something more and different. We are existentially bored. We want to step back into a phase of our lives we have already departed. I am off testosterone for six weeks and I look in the mirror and I look the same.
I want to ask Anna for a map of desirability. Where was I before, where was I pregnant, where am I now? In my life, there is no connection between sex and the creation of a new baby. Our desires for these things are, cannot, be not entwined at all.
1. Having a baby
Maybe the thing I am addicted to about my body and its life in the world is its unending potential for reinvention.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick