Just as soon as they press Save on their out-of-office responses this week, many Americans will catch what, statistically speaking, Americans usually catch during the cold winter months. No, hopefully not COVID-19. I’m talking about baby fever!
The holidays are the high season for baby-making, which is why so many people are born between August and October, or about nine months from the week when everyone stops working and starts drinking hot alcohols. This phenomenon, which scientists call birth-rate seasonality, may have to do with ancient fetal-resource needs, sperm quality, or, this year, the fact that there is yet another goddamn coronavirus variant afoot and only so many seasons of The Expanse.
But some people—research and, frankly, real life shows—will get pregnant this winter without getting baby fever, without even thinking about babies, and indeed without really meaning to at all. And I’m here to tell you that’s also totally normal and fine.
Being a woman of what obstetricians charmingly call “advanced maternal age,” I have tried to detect the mysterious force that is baby fever, so far to no avail. At first, I thought I’d get baby fever when I woke up on the first day of my 35th year, my body suddenly deciding that I would enjoy changing diapers more than watching TV. That didn’t occur, so instead I’ve spent the year waiting for it to seize me randomly, like a preteen X-Man expecting his powers to kick in any minute. When a baby smiles at me, I smile back, thinking perhaps he’s a messenger from the Baby Realm. At Target, I walk past hand-size T-shirts that say milk monster, and I feel nothing.
Reading accounts of baby fever makes me feel like a blind person subjected to long descriptions of color. I find posts like this, from an advice blog for moms, the least relatable thing I’ve ever encountered: “I’d curl up with my dog and think, ‘I wish I was holding someone round and soft and chubby.’ I’d watch Jason set the table for dinner and wonder what our baby would look like. The sight of our spare bedroom and empty back seat in our car made my chest tight, I couldn’t hear about other people’s pregnancies without tearing up.”
I began to think that, if you don’t get baby fever, maybe that means you’re not meant to have a baby. Something akin to “journalism fever” compelled me to move across the country twice for this cursed profession. Surely a baby—just as grueling and economically disadvantageous, though arguably cuter—requires a similar state of delirium. Right? Wrong.
When I read a description of baby fever to Tanya Perez, a mother of two adult sons, she said, “That is wild that is actually how some people are motivated. I just find it hard to believe.” Perez always liked older kids, but she thought babies and toddlers were too needy and demanding. As a young married woman, she loved her life with her husband, and she worried kids would put an end to spontaneous date nights and weekend ski trips. But when she was 30, the couple moved to Virginia from California, and Perez missed her own mom dearly. “I just valued that adult parent-child relationship so much,” she told me. She assessed it rationally: What if she didn’t like being a parent for the first 10 years, but then loved the next 50? Then she went for it.
Having her first son surprised her. She and her husband didn’t go on dates for a year, but she barely noticed. Then came not baby fever, but another cost-benefit analysis: It’d be nice for her son to have a sibling. So he got one. She still isn’t particularly drawn to other people’s babies, though. So here we have a counterexample: Two babies, but no fever.
To be sure, baby fever is real. Both women and men get it, though women get it more frequently and more strongly. The experience of baby fever varies from toying with the idea of having a child, to suddenly seeing babies everywhere, to “deep sorrow and acute longing,” says Anna Rotkirch, a research professor at the Population Research Institute, in Finland, who has studied the phenomenon. Many people describe baby fever as hitting them unexpectedly, like a sudden downpour. A woman in one study described it as “a huge longing, which starts from my womb and radiates to all parts of my body.” Triggers seem to include entering one’s 20s, falling in love, seeing friends have babies, and having had one child already.
In 2011, the Kansas State University psychologist Gary Brase and his wife, Sandra, explored the phenomenon by asking people, in part, “Do you at times feel a bodily desire for the feel, sight, and smell of an infant next to you?” The Brases found, perhaps intuitively, that people who get baby fever tend to react more strongly to the pleasant things about babies (like their oddly intoxicating head smell), and less strongly to the unpleasant things about babies (like most of their other smells). They also don’t tend to feel like having a child would seriously compromise their other goals. More surprisingly, the Brases found that for women, baby fever peaks in one’s 20s and gradually declines with age. Meanwhile, young men are less prone to baby fever, but their desire for babies grows more frequent as they age—such that in their 40s, men have, on average, more baby fever than women do.
Just how many people get baby fever is harder to say. In one of Rotkirch’s Finnish studies, 44 percent of men and 50 percent of women said they “have longed to have a baby” at least once, but men’s baby fever was, again, less frequent and less severe. Men’s baby fever was also less likely to result in an actual baby than women’s was, suggesting that while a man might stage a clever baby lobbying campaign, ultimately the woman’s vote (and her uterus) is what really matters.
Many women become mothers without ever experiencing baby fever. In 2006, Rotkirch asked readers of the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat to write to her about their experiences related to baby fever —vauvakuume in Finnish. She received 106 responses from women. In 12 of them, the woman said she had never felt baby fever, but she either has or wants children. In other research, Rotkirch found that 22 percent of women never felt any “baby longing.” And even among those who did, she writes, “baby longing is not equivalent to having children—even among parents with three or more children, one in three men and one in seven women report that they have never felt a strong longing to have a child.” In other words, some women got pregnant and gave birth three different times without ever feeling a particularly strong desire to do either. Baby fever was a fairly important reason these Finnish couples had children, but so was simply making a sibling for an existing child. “‘Baby fever’ is not a universal part of our emotional repertoire, and one should not expect to feel it before having children,” Rotkirch said via email. “There is nothing ‘wrong’ in not having baby fever and deciding to have a child, or vice versa.”
Some people want to be parents, for example, but they don’t want to physically carry a child. Cathy Resmer, the deputy publisher of the Vermont newspaper Seven Days, wanted to raise kids, but had no desire to be pregnant and give birth. She was thrilled when she met her wife, who did. Resmer says the birth of her son and daughter made her appreciate babies more than she did before, but the baby years weren’t her favorite time; the teenage years are. “I never had baby fever, but I might have had teenager fever?” she says. “As much fun as they were to watch back then, they’re so much more fun to interact with now.”
An underexamined and surprisingly common feeling in the lead-up to childbearing is ambivalence. When asked to think back on how they felt about their recent pregnancy, about 15 percent of American mothers say they “weren’t sure what they wanted,” as opposed to wanting to be pregnant right then, at a different time, or never. In a series of three surveys conducted a decade ago, 9 percent of women consistently said they were uncertain about having children or about having any more children, and women over 30 were more likely to feel this way. Of course, more women around the world—especially those who are highly educated and career-oriented—are remaining child-free by choice. Still, many women who consider childlessness go on to become mothers.
“Pregnancy intentions are really nuanced and complex, and they’re not fixed,” says Laura Lindberg, the principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. “You don’t wake up the day you get your period and decide, ‘Aha, I am a woman now and here are my fertility plans.’” The skimpiness of the American social safety net can add a ruthless practicality to pregnancy decisions: Many women say they want to get pregnant “at some point,” but not with their current partner, or not until they make more money, or not until they’ve bought a house. Baby fever might not creep in before a solid credit score does. Meanwhile, for low-income women, an IUD might be more affordable than a baby, so any desire for a family might be shelved involuntarily until later.
My friend Caitlin, whom I’ve identified by her first name so she could be frank about her reproductive decisions, is one of those adults who always thought they didn’t know how to talk to kids. She didn’t have a positive or negative view of children; she just thought they were a different species. She never had baby fever, including the day she found out she was pregnant. She was broke, and she considered an abortion. Then she thought, “If we were going to have one, then, you know, why not now?” Ever since, she’s been happy with her decision; her son has made her a better person, she says. But the way things are going in Texas, where she lives, parenthood might not be a choice for much longer. Women who get pregnant accidentally might have to give birth, baby fever or not.
Lots of people are in a similar place, feeling like they don’t want to have a baby, but also don’t not want to have one. People’s actions and feelings don’t always line up: In research, many women who weren’t using contraception and got pregnant said they were unhappy about it, but similarly high percentages of women who were using contraception and got pregnant anyway said they were happy about it. “There’s this term between planned and unplanned,” Heather Rackin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University, told me. “You’re not trying to have a kid. But you’re also not not trying.” Some people don’t seem to realize that their actions are pointing in the “baby” direction. They will go off birth control and start having unprotected sex, “but if you ask people at these stages, ‘Are you trying to have a baby?’ they’ll say no,” says Jacky Boivin, a health-psychology professor at Cardiff University.
In fact, some researchers think baby fever is a reaction to infertility struggles, not a ubiquitous maternal urge. Many women never experience baby fever, because they successfully get pregnant within a few months of going off contraception. But if months go by without a pregnancy, “these kinds of yearnings are triggered because it’s something that you really want, and you have a blocked parenthood goal,” Boivin says. The “broodiness”—as baby fever is called in the U.K.— “is not the cause of you wanting to have children. It’s a consequence of you wanting to have children and not being able to have them.”
Rackin suggested that binary notions of motherhood—either you want it or don’t; you either have baby fever or not—originated back when most women were expected to have kids. But now society has ratcheted up what it takes to be considered a “qualified” parent. The norms of upper-middle-class life pressure people to have an education, a job, a car, a house, and a stable spouse before they even consider parenthood. “It’s really hard to check all those boxes off and be able to say, ‘Now I’m going to try to have a baby,’” Rackin said. It’s less romantic and more daunting to turn 36, pass the bar exam, and get your IUD removed than it was to get pregnant on your honeymoon as a 21-year-old in 1957. Avoiding planning too hard or too purposefully is a way, for some people, to “not have to feel bad about not checking all those boxes before having a child,” Rackin said.
In that way, baby fever can feel like another societal box to check, another thing about which to think, I don’t have it, so I must not be ready. But, and I say this to my fellow anxious perfectionists: The human race would disappear if nobody got pregnant without first being struck by a special thunderbolt from God. I am not telling you to have unprotected sex this holiday season; I am merely telling you, if such metrics are important to you, that lots of people are, and that only some of them have baby fever.