Motherhood isn’t easy, but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. When a newborn is placed into a mother’s arms for the first time, she can experience a range of different emotions—including an overwhelming sense of euphoria. For some women, the feeling, which can linger throughout the first year of a child’s life, has a chance of becoming an addiction.
One of the more famous cases for this is Nadya Suleman, otherwise known as “Octomom.” After giving birth to 14 children, she admitted in a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey that it became a type of addiction.
“I felt like a watering can with holes in it. In my delusional mind, the more I give to them, the more of me is leaking out,” she said. “When it’s empty I go back. ‘Doctor, one more.'” Some critics go as far as to call irresponsibly having children a symptom of “Octomom syndrome.”
But this isn’t the case for every woman. U.S. fertility rates are at an all-time low, and middle children are becoming rarer; according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, American mothers between the ages of 40 and 44 had an average of 2.07 children, slightly up from the record low in 2006 (1.86) but still a whole 1.02 fewer than in 1976. With the landscape of the American family continually shifting, it’s a real possibility that large families may become a thing of the past—or could they just be getting started?
The emotions of motherhood can manifest in many different ways. For some, the newborn stage is full of warm, fuzzy feelings of being needed by the infant. For other women, it can be a difficult experience of sleep deprivation and endless cries. A woman’s urge to have another child soon after giving birth, even when she—or her family—may not be ready, can occur for a variety of reasons.
Can you really be addicted to babies?
The answer isn’t as simple as it sounds. Some people want a large family and know they can provide for each member; others have additional children without being able to devote the same love and care to older children in the family.
“An addiction is something that is out of control and substituting for something that you need to find inside of yourself,” says Gayle Peterson, a San Francisco-based licensed clinical social worker who specializes in family development. “If a woman really wants to have another child and just loves babies but is really good with her other children and able to mother the ones she has, that’s more of a bigger family concept.”
Then there’s the alternative.
“If you begin having more children for selfish reasons, or because you are bored with your older children, or you are not giving them what they need but still want another baby no matter what, then that likely could be the sign of an addiction,” Peterson says.
If a woman already has children and is considering growing her brood, Peterson says, it’s important to look at the factors driving her to make this choice.
Jessica Zucker, a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, echoes Peterson’s sentiments. Throughout her professional career, Zucker has spoken with women who want another baby to nurture because their previous children are now older and don’t need them as much anymore. For this reason, Zucker, like Peterson, feels it is important to explore the reason behind a woman’s feelings on this topic.
“When someone is considering having another child, it’s important to evaluate where these desires are coming from—is it to fill a void? Is the desire to expand the family well thought out?”
iStock.com/HalfpointZucker says these feelings can also stem from the lack of a passion or purpose, as well as feeling disconnected and that a baby may bring meaning back into their lives.
“A lot of people will try for more children with this imaginative idea of who the baby may be,” she says. “We have no control over the baby we get, so it is important to evaluate the situation and look within yourself to figure out where the desire is coming from.”
For some, it’s a desire, not an addiction.
For Jennifer Bush, the overwhelming feelings of wanting another child are different. Bush and her husband were unable to conceive on their own and turned to fertility treatments to help bring their two sons into the world. After her treatments, Bush was left with three healthy embryos—a part of the process that she never considered.
“We have three embryos that are sitting on ice,” says Bush, who lives in Tampa, Florida. “I mistakenly asked the gender of the other three embryos, and now I know there is a girl in there. That really weighs heavily on my mind—that there are these three children we could potentially have.”
Because she knows it’s likely her last baby, Bush is soaking up the moments with her 11-month-old son while she can. She is also the mom of a 4-year-old boy.
“I love waking up to them, putting them to bed, taking them to school,” Bush says. “My youngest just started sleeping through the night. I didn’t even mind getting up and feeding him in the middle of the night because I know it’s probably my last baby.”
The nostalgia is already setting in, and Bush is mindful to be present in all areas of parenting her infant son.
“The things that used to bother me with the first one, now I just kind of let it roll off my back,” says Bush. “You want to have a schedule—and we do, but I think I let more go because he’s the second.”
Even during the hectic mornings of getting ready for work, Bush sets time aside to spend with each child, singing silly songs, letting her youngest feed until he’s smiling and cooing.
“You have a different closeness with a baby. They come to you when they are hungry. You are their only source of just about everything for those first six months,” she says. “I just try to make the most of every day, because when people say, ‘My kids are so annoying’—which they are for every parent—but if I could only have that annoying child. It’s a completely different perspective and appreciation when you have wanted it for so long, and when you finally get it, you don’t want to say anything along the lines of, ‘Why did I even do this?’”
Considering the Future
The transition to motherhood can be a vulnerable time for a woman’s emotional and mental well-being, according to a study conducted by researchers in the Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford. Before bringing another baby into the picture, Zucker encourages women to think about what the future looks like when adding another child to the mix—including a mom’s mental keenness.
“The idea of being loved, wanted, and needed may be a strong desire for people for a variety of reasons—perhaps based on personal or family history,” says Zucker. “We need to be mindful of our own readiness before making such a life-changing decision to undertake motherhood.”
Zucker also invites families to think about the long-term implications that bringing a human into the world might mean. How it will impact your lifestyle, your relationships, your finances, and the existing children in your family?
“It’s one thing to think babies are sweet and cuddly, and it’s another thing to actually be ready to raise a human being,” Zucker says. “People should keep in mind the phases that follow infancy. Soon, babies become toddlers and dynamics become more challenging.”
Finances and demanding job schedules are just a couple of the reasons keeping Bush and her husband from moving forward with her leftover embryos. While Bush recognizes that a third child doesn’t seem to be in the cards for her family right now, the longing to bring another baby into the family is there.
“If we had a million dollars, we would definitely have another baby, but kids are expensive and my husband and I both work really long hours,” says Bush. “We don’t have a lot of downtime.”
Peterson advises caution when considering the motives behind having additional children when a woman isn’t ready and urges parents to consider the impact it can have on a family. In larger families with upwards of eight or nine children, she says the older siblings may get saddled with parenting responsibilities that they are not mentally prepared to take on.
“Clinically, what happens is you may get a woman who is in her 40s who does not have children,” says Peterson. “When you talk to her, you find out that, because she was so burdened as a child and really did a lot of the mothering to her younger siblings, [she] may be less likely to feel like they can parent because of these inadequate experiences from childhood.”
Making It Work for Your Family
Whether you have one child or six kids, motherhood is an exhausting, but worthwhile, adventure. From the newborn stages to the teenage years, most parents will tell you that the days are long, but the years are short. As a mom of two kids, I know that letting go and watching them turn into their own little people is one of the hardest, yet rewarding, parts of parenthood.
For now, women like Bush, who still yearn for more children, are savoring the sweet moments of the younger years with her kids while looking forward to the future and watching herself and her children grow together.
“It’s so much fun at every stage and goes by so much faster with the second child,” says Bush, whose second son is hitting milestones like crawling sooner than her first.
“With my second child, I’m kind of old school in the sense that I want time to slow down. But it’s fun to watch him grow, and I love to watch my two kids together. When they smile at each other and laugh, that’s the best thing ever.”