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My hormones are thwarting my feminism

Baby_hormonesE.K. wants to be exceptional. But biological urges around wanting babies may be poised to get in the way. What’s a girl to do when her actions appear to be driven by her hormones?

I'm from one of those upper-middle class, liberal but not entirely open-minded families, where Dad went to work every day and Mom stayed home and told her daughters they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up.

I'm not criticizing my parents--I know they're both doing what they're doing because it makes them happy and for no other reason.  I'm just saying, when Dad's a doctor and Mom's a homemaker, the idea that things could be the other way around can be a little confusing to a kid.

My little sister had an especially hard time grasping the concept. Once, when she was harping on about how boys are doctors and girls are nurses, (we must have been about 3 and 6 at the time), our mother tried, for the umpteenth time, to convince her that really, truly, a girl could be anything she wanted to be. Anything.

"Okay," she piped, "then I want to be a Daddy."

I didn't know much about birds or bees at this point, but I was sophisticated enough to know that to be a Daddy, you had to plant a seed, and to plant a seed, you definitely had to be a boy.  (I knew this because at one point I had made sure to ask whether a girl could do the planting.  That may have been the same day I asked whether three people could all get married to each other... but that's another story.)

Anyway--thus began my continual struggle to reconcile biological dimorphism with feminism.   I wasn't too upset at the time; other than the planting of the seed (and that having-a-big-tummy-for-a-while thing, which, as far as I could tell, was pretty temporary), I couldn't see that much difference between being a Mommy and being a Daddy.  They were just names.

Since then I've tripped over a few more exceptions to the old "Girls can do anything boys can do" adage.  One that bothered me for a while was athletics.  If girls were just the same as boys, then why were we held to different standards when we ran the mile in gym class?  And why, in middle school, were girls sports teams seperate from boys sports teams?

As I muddled through puberty (one so awkward that typing the word still makes me shudder a little),  I learned through science class and personal experience that, physically, women are different from men.  We are smaller, and we have different centers of gravity and muscle/fat/water/whatever ratios.

And I learned to accept that this meant we just weren't built to run quite as fast or jump quite as high, and I decided that that was okay, and that being the fastest woman in the world wasn't any less admirable than being the fastest man in the world.

Besides, I knew that physical strength wasn't what really mattered to me.  At 13, I knew that what would really matter would be the success of my carreer.  And I didn't know whether I'd be a doctor, a lawyer, or something else (equally prestigious, I was sure), but I was sure that whatever I did, I'd do it better than any other woman OR man.  Because you don't need big muscles to conduct a symphony or play the stock market.

A little later, as I grew into more of a scientist, I made peace with the idea that women are more emotional than men.  I'd experienced plenty of premenstrual mood swings (did I EVER) and studied the endocrine system in AP Bio--I got that hormones make people (men and women both) do lots of crazy things, and the balance is fundamentally different between women and men.

But I figured the fact that I understood this meant I'd be aware, in the future, of when chemical imbalances were making me behave irrationally, so I could still rule the world if I wanted to.  And I wanted to--at this point I was pretty sure I wanted to be a scientist, and the best damn scientist in my field, too.  I knew what was important to me--knowledge, fact, prestige, success.

Maybe I'd find a man one day, but he certainly wouldn't affect my career, and I'd let my friends drive the minivans--Children were not for me.

I knew I was supposed to have a mothering instinct; I was also very certain I did NOT possess such a thing.  I have three younger siblings, so I knew the drill:  kids are snotty, loud, obnoxious, money sinks, and no matter how great a parent you are they'll still learn nasty, annoying little tricks from all the other kids they meet at school.

Plus, I had awfully high expectations about how fabulous my life was going to be, and an unknown, sovereign creature added to that picture was just another element of uncertainty--one more thing I couldn't control (though I'd try, and be inevitably disappointed).  Plus, the snot thing.  Ew.  Fabulously successful women have no time to be wiping snot off their Manolos.  (Manolos were an integral part of my Life Plan).

I'll stop pretending I'm old and wise and note that I still pretty much feel this way, although a few semesters of college have bullied a little more realism into my Future Plans.  I've become a bit more of a humanist and even considered that raising a child could be an interesting first-hand study in psychology, but I'm still pretty sure it's not for me.  There are too many other things I want to do in life.  And I still want those Manolos.

Which is why it so irks me to come across babies as cute as the one I saw in Starbucks today.  Because that instinct thing?  Turns out it's mediated by some kind of hormone, or so I've read, and since the desire to reproduce is obviously advantageous for the survival of a species, women are all pretty much chemically programmed to think that babies are adorable.

So I smiled back at that baby, and  I cooed at it, and  I asked it its name.  (I even tried making some faces at it to see if its mirror neurons were working okay, but I think it was a little old for that because it just looked really offended.)  I could not ignore the fact that babies totally make me feel all warm'n'fuzzy.  And that really ticks me off.

I can deal with my hormones making me extra irritable once in a while, but I'm not sure I can deal with this.  I feel like the principles of species evolution have totally gone behind my back, the way they've just engineered my endocrine system to make me want to change diapers and drive to silly little soccer games, rather than spending life reading, writing, constantly learning, fraternizing with the intellectual elite.  I don't want to want babies.  I want to be exceptional.

How the hell am I supposed to take advantage of life, and be whatever I want to be, if I can't even want the right things?

Anyway... The baby's mom hauled it away and I decided the instinct wasn't that strong.  (Her mom jeans were pretty bad, and I couldn't see what book she was carrying but it definitely had an Oprah's Book Club sticker on it.)

But it makes me wonder how much of my life is out of my hands--how much of what I'm doing is because of my particular (or not-so-particular) concoction of hormones, teeny tiny trace amounts of matter that I can't even see, much less control.

On one hand, I don't care that much, because I can still do whatever it is I really want to do, babies or otherwise.  Whether or not you know the chemical mechanism, you can't really control what you want anyway.

On the other hand, that fact still annoys me.  I've always been so set on breaking the mold.  If a normal life is ever really what I want, then I guess I'll do that.  It just seems like such a cop-out.

E.K. is a student at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in Cognitive Science and Philosophy. She plans to apply to graduate school to pursue her interest in neuropsychology research and to put off entering the real world for as long as possible. Outside of class she is also an amateur musician and Facebook comedienne. In the future she hopes to help solve the world's problems and enjoy her life.



0 #5 Aimee 2010-08-10 00:09
I know what you mean, I was raised with high expectations, told that I could do anything I wanted, and that to get a good job it was the responsible thing to go to university. So I embarked on a uni degree, only to realise that at 23, i want to start a family, not build a career.
I feel like i've been duped. I actually wish i'd never started the monster uni course. I wish I had started working and built up savings and work experience. A short course at TAFE would have been fine, but not my monster uni course, it's made me miserable. I don't even think it's going to get me a good job, and anyway, I want kids now, so perhaps it's all just been a big waste of time and money. I feel like a fool.
0 #4 alana 2010-03-10 11:55
As a mother and a feminist, I object to the idea that this is a contradiction!
0 #3 alana 2010-03-10 11:54
As a mother and a feminist, I object to the notion that this is a contradiction!
0 #2 Del LaGrace Volcano 2010-03-08 08:35
I have to admit that although this essay was entertaining I also found it extremely annoying and dare I say, essentialist?
I am old and while far from wise I also get warm fuzzy feelings about babies and have to be careful when I make faces at kids on the bus.
Why? Because people perceive me as male! I've got lots of hormones coursing through my body, T and E. It makes me worry that someone who is studying hormonal biology makes so many (funny but) unsubstantiated claims about the effects of hormones on our emotional lives. Both my partner and I identify as gender queer and present as masculine. I know we are equally excited and committed to our future parenthood plans-despite the difference in hormonal balance. The fact of the matter is we really don't know what is nature and what is nurture and it's unlikely we ever will!
0 #1 Natalie Becquet 2010-02-16 04:07
As a mother and a businesswoman, I can really identify with this. Me being me, I jumped into both motherhood and my career almost simultaneously. Looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way, but at the time I felt rather...frazzl ed, to say the least.

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