What do mothers want?

Posted: May 04, 2004 12:00 AM
It's Mother's Day again. Time to reflect, with gratitude, on the continuing power and presence of senseless love in our lives. Romantic lovers require from each other at least the facade of reason: We desire to be what romantic love makes us appear in the other's eyes. We want to imagine we are deserving of the love we inspire.

Mothers are the people who love us for no good reason. And those of us who are mothers know it's the most exquisite love of all.

At 43, I have a lot to be grateful for: a husband, gratifying work, two fine boys (21 and 9 years old) who are, without doubt, the best things that ever happened to me.

I am grateful, and yet lately I find myself ruminating on the children I meant to have but never did. I always wanted four kids. For good and less-good reasons, that never happened. I regret that. I regret the whole worlds that will never come into existence, the children, the grandchildren, all the human possibilities that never were and never will be.

Why am I bringing this up? Two recent books have persuaded me that I am not alone in regretting the children I never will have. In "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity," Phillip Longman notes: "Clearly, there is a large and growing frustration with the rising cost and difficulty of family formation, not only among the childless, but among parents as well." Only 4 percent of adults say they will be satisfied if they never have children. Among childless Americans 41 years and older, 76 percent wish they had children (up from 70 percent in 1990.) American women (like me) born in 1960 wanted an average of 2.3 children, but we actually had just 1.9 children, not enough to replace ourselves. One study found that 88 percent of American women underestimate (by as much as a decade) how soon women's fertility begins to decline.

The empty cradle is fueled too by versions of feminism that encourage women to repress or distrust maternal desire. Daphne de Marneffe is no conservative. A clinical psychologist and feminist (and mother of three), she writes in her important new book, "Maternal Desire," that "feminism has not always helped me. How many times I have encountered a feminist book filled with innovative ideas for changed gender relations, the acceptance of whose argument requires just one small price: that I relinquish my attachment to spending time caring for my children." At that moment, she writes, "the author and I inhabit truly different emotional worlds. What seems like a rational, sane and human solution to her seems like a Faustian bargain to me." She asks: Why can't we see mothers' desire "as a feature of their self-development" rather than its "negation"?

According to Longman, "The desire for large families is much stronger among (the younger) age group than among older generations." Among Gen-X Americans (ages 18-29), a stunning 42 percent want at least three children. Among their boomer parents (age 50-64), just 29 percent consider three or more children ideal.

Amid all the doubts and worries young women face when it comes to combining not just work, but life and family, too few forces stand up for the seemingly senseless inner voice inside married women that says: I want (another) baby. It makes no economic sense. It won't help my career. It's enormously inefficient.

It's just the greatest thing in the world.

Happy Mother's Day.