I’m troubled by some of the implications behind the strong possibility that the mother who recently had octuplets is mentally ill. This misreading exemplifies some of the essentialist thinking we should be wary of.
The desire to have children is a very normal, biological urge, and there are plenty of people out there who thrive with big families and big challenges. But what happens when that biological drive overruns all common sense, and bearing as many children as possible become the dominent motivation in a woman’s life? Should she be feted by the media queens and the magazines, or simply ordered to get some kind of psychological care and supervision by the state?
I’m not a psychologist, but I suspect that if this woman does have a mental illness that causes her to “collect” biological offspring, it’s because she’s got a variation of that same version of obsessive-compulsive disorder that occasionally causes “cat lady” behavior. Animal hoarding is a known psychological disorder, and most people who live in a city have heard at least one of those stories about a local person who got caught with dozens or even hundreds of cats that were unintentionally being tortured by a person whose mental illness makes it hard for her to see what she’s doing clearly. There needs to be a lot more research on animal hoarding, but here’s an overview of some theories about how to characterize it in relation to other mental illnesses. Small children aren’t animals, of course, but I could easily see that animal hoarding behavior could extend to children.
What this isn’t is evidence of some biological need to have children that’s innate and not culturally influenced. As far as I know, there’s no evidence whatsoever for the popular theory that women are born with the urge to breed that’s as real as the sexual urge. It doesn’t make sense that we would have an inborn urge to have babies that is a separate thing from the urge to have sex—sex seems to be nature’s way to convince most of us, at least, to breed. Reliable contraception was only invented, relative to human history, about yesterday. We don’t evolve so quickly that a natural urge to procreate would have to evolve to keep us alive in response to our newfound ability to separate sex and procreation. The theory that women have a natural urge to have babies is one that’s got a long and ignoble sexist history, and it was used to explain away women’s sexual urges without men admitting that women and men’s sexual urges are more alike than different. I see no reason to think recent incarnations and warning stories about the mythological “biological clock” should be treated as anything other than an effort to Other women, to spring men of responsibility for caring equally for children, and to justify denying women equal access to education and employment under the theory that they’re a bundle of hormones that aren’t subject to the same rational thought that men have.
None of that is to say that the urge to have children that some (but far from all) women experience isn’t real, and that’s my other giant problem with the ongoing preoccupation with evo psych theories to explain things that are cultural constructs. That something is a cultural construct doesn’t make it less real, it just means that it’s more changeable. This seems like a small distinction, but it’s an important one. I am routinely accused by evo psych fans of denying that men and women are different. I do think there are major culturally constructed differences, and I think most of them exist to demean and oppress women and should be changed in the culture. That’s not to say that they aren’t real, but just that they’re changeable. What evo psych fans are invested in is not reality so much as denying the possibility of progress. The myth of the biological clock is, for instance, an attempt to preserve a cultural construct that makes motherhood an obligation instead of a choice, for no other reason than the fear that if some women choose not to have children, we’d have to redefine women away from their roles and closer to how we define men, which is as complete individuals.
On the whole, I want to caution people against assuming that this case has anything to do with the experiences of most women. Even in the unlikely case that this woman doesn’t have mental health problems, her case is not especially good evidence that the law or doctors have a right to start pushing women around and making our reproductive decisions for us. The far more common cases are those when control is yanked away from the woman in question because her judgment is sound, but the control freak doctor or politician is on a sexist or racist high horse.