Nature or nurture? Are some kids destined to NOT become parents?
Last week on a the walk home from the neighborhood elementary school, my stepson Ferris started asking me a lot of questions about the origin of babies and how they come into the world.
We’ve talked about childbirth and babies before, so it was just more of the same. He asked how he would become a dad if he can’t have babies himself. I explained it vaguely and assured him that one day when he is an adult and is ready, he will be able to be a dad. He was really, really happy to hear that. Emilia walked quietly beside me, seemingly deep in thought.
“Mom,” she finally asked, “How can I make it so I DON’T have a baby when I’m an adult?”
Our hot walk home from school was not the best time to get into specifics about birth control with my Kindergartner, so with the same enthusiasm I had generated for my stepson, I told her:
“There are ways to make it so you do not have babies when you are an adult. Don’t worry. You do not have to have babies if you do not want to have them.”
She was just as happy to hear me say that as Ferris had been about the opposite news.
I recounted the conversation to my husband, Emilia’s adoptive father, later that night and told him that our oldest girl may not be the one to give us grandkids.
Nature or nurture – which is it? I wondered aloud.
He chuckled and said that was just fine, and that Emilia’s question did not really surprise him much. She often lets us know that she wants to grow up, get a job and live alone (or stay living with us — she goes back and forth on that one). She’s not a nurturer — at least not in a surface way — and she certainly entertains no fantasies about motherhood.
I, for one, was never a kid who dreamed about being a mom. It was not something I ever really desired for myself, but as I grew older I realized it was something I would likely love once it happened (and I was right!). She gets a little bit of her complete disinterest in all things maternal from me but I’m only half of her genetic pool. It is the other half of her chemical makeup that often makes me wonder if indeed the desire to procreate and nurture is inherited, and not learned.
Nature or Nurture – Is It Genetic?
Emilia’s biological father, after all, was able to walk away from her as an embryo and never look back. His own father did something similar when he and his brothers were very young. Though my daughter’s oldest uncle came from the same genetic pool as his younger brother, and saw the same behavior in regards to his own dad, he has been happily married for over a decade and is a very involved father to his 1st grade daughter. I often wonder how two men from the same stock could turn out and act so differently when it comes to their offspring.
Does my daughter represent the third generation of people who simply are not scientifically mentally predisposed to have children of their own — people who actually demonstrate aversion to becoming parents?
When people would (and still do) ask me why I’m not more visibly angry at the circumstances between Emilia and her bio-dad, my answer is pretty simple: You can’t make a person care about something he should just care about inherently. In this case, I’ve always just attributed his paternal distance to that one missing “something” in his mental makeup — an outlook that has actually brought me a lot of peace knowing that even if the circumstances of how my daughter was conceived had been different, the outcome would likely have been the same.
But for all my first-hand “proof,” the science of the urge to be a parent and nurture is far from proven. In the research study Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, University of California anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy contends that maternal instinct is a learned behavior. Hrdy cites the science of human babies and their mothers, and how the chemical makeup of a woman’s brain changes when she is a caregiver for an infant (biological) BUT contends that the success of maternal instinct hinges on the frame of mind of the mother going into the relationship with the infant. She says:
“A woman who is committed to being a mother will learn to love any baby, whether it’s her own or not; a woman not committed to or prepared for being a mother may well not be prepared to love any baby, not even her own.”
I’d argue that the same is true for men. Nature or nurture can be swayed either way based on intent.
Author Laura Carroll also dismisses the idea that there is such thing as a biological “urge” or that some people are scientifically predisposed to wanting to have children of their own. For both men and women, she says “there’s no real evidence linking biology to the creation of parental desire.” She continues that “deep feelings of wanting to have a child have their roots in a learned desire.”
So perhaps there is no real scientific connection between the behavior I witness in my daughter and the behavior of her father, and grandfather (the latter she has never met). Perhaps it really is all environmental. Maybe this is the true scenario: Her bio-dad experienced the abandonment of his own father in a different way than his older brother — which resulted in different paternal outcomes of their own. My own daughter had no father figure in her daily life until she was over 3 — and research insists that the involvement of fathers in the lives of their children in the first few years of life is crucial in personality development. Though subconsciously, maybe Emilia’s non-desire for a family of her own one day is rooted in the semi-memories of those early years of her life.
I have no idea how much further back this parental indifference stretches, and I likely never will, and I’m certainly no anthropologist. It does seem though that there has to be a connection — a real, scientific one — somewhere in the midst of it all that determines if people follow a nature or nurture approach.
I’m interested to hear if other parents wonder the same things about any of their kids, and if they have seen any family disposition either way — to nature or nurture?
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