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Desire for children and social constraints


For a long time, sexuality and fertility were linked by biological fate. Desired or not, women got pregnant without being able to control it. Even though! Contraception became a preoccupation once a minimum of civilization emerged. The Egyptians had already invented the IUD, they inserted a diamond. But it's only very recently that contraception finally allows a certain control of fertility.

Family Planning has fighting this since 1956, but the Neuwirth law only dates from 1967 (the right to contraception). It is a decisive step in women's conditions (for Elisabeth Badinter, it is a variation, a break). Sexual desire and the desire to have a child are separate and have their own logic. However, everything gets complicated because what was once random has now become a personal decision. Who says choice says freedom, responsibility, maturity, reflection …, risk of error … the reason for my decision to intervene in an attempt to clarify the choice of having a child or not.

© Juliette Michel
Picture : Juliette Michel

By Bernadette MATHIEU, psychologist,
French Movement for Family Planning

(Mouvement Français pour le Planning Familial)
in the Haute-Marne (contact information).

Text written for a conference on pregnancy termination,
March 8, 2000
(International Women's Day
Journée Internationale des Femmes)
Chaumont, 52.

A child that I want

The desire for a child is universal.

Before being a personal adventure, the desire for a child has its roots in our mammal nature. The species needs to reproduce itself. In the animal kingdom, reproduction is strictly managed by instinct. Even if they are very complicated, the rituals which guide the choice of a partner, coupling and the protection of young, leave no room for personal fantasy. They are identical for all individuals of the same species. Coupling is entirely subject to reproduction and is determined by periods of female fertility.
For the human being, sexuality is only linked to reproduction in young children's dreams. Once they begin to understand something about the mystery of their birth, they imagine that their parents made love one time per brother and sister and I would say that the people who have refused access to contraception and abortion have remained at this stage because they are unable to separate conjugal duty and the need to have children.
We have known since Freud that sexuality is the motor of psychological construction of a human being. For a very young child, it is initially an attachment to the first object of his or her love: his or her parents.
The mother is the first object of love; the father is seen as a third-party in the mother-child bubble. The quality of this first relationship is going to determine the child's future capacity to love by allowing the development of primary narcissism.
Then comes the awareness that the child must assume that one is a boy or a girl, by identifying with the parent of the same sex and testing his or her seduction on the parent of the opposite sex.
Then during the course of discovery of a world outside the family circle, the child will diversify these objects of love, discover similar and different Others.
In adolescence, with puberty, comes the discovery of genital sexuality which specifies toward which object the desire is directed and gives meaning to the meeting with the Other.
And only then, when the woman has come to the end of her sexual and emotional evolution emerges her true desire for a child, when she has met - or thinks she has met - the partner that suits her.
Françoise DOLTO thinks that experience of motherhood is the last mutation in the life of a woman, after puberty, then the first sexual experience, the first orgasm. Next, at menopause, will come the necessary renouncements to fertility and youth. She also says that motherhood is a need in a woman's body. The impossibility of filling this need brings the feeling of being mutilated. When a fundamental need is resisted, a feeling of emptiness appears which invades every conscious domain. All available energy is then focused on the unique goal of stopping the painful tension caused by the emptiness.
This is what we hear during interviews with women who are confronted with problems of sterility. The need is so strong and the suffering so intolerable that the desire for a child transforms itself into a quest for a child at any price. They multiply the treatments, the attempts at insemination, sometimes compulsively, at the price of considerable constraints and suffering.
To become humanized, the need must become desire. A long development is necessary for the desire of a child in one's arms, the desire for a child to raise and watch grow up, breaking free of the need for of a child in her stomach, making possible the option of adoption. Certain women don't achieve this and feel mutilated, others don't dare because they begin to doubt their capacity to give love and still others don't feel sufficiently supported by their partner.

Men are also concerned.

Men and women don't have the same view concerning the desire for a child, but men are also concerned by becoming a parent.
Naouri places the desire for a child, the desire to create one's own family, to have one's own lineage as the ultimate step toward independence from one's own parents. Becoming a parent will be the sign or the means of renouncing childhood.
But for them, becoming a parent is always adoptive. They must recognize the child that will be put in their arms at the moment of birth as their own, as witness to the trust that they have in their cherished wife.
This step is essential for the child to be able to serenely find his place in his genealogy, for him to build an identity based on a name.

Two specific periods


Adolescence is the age of all dangers, including and mostly in the domain of affectivity and therefore sexuality. It is the age of contradictions and doing, it is the age where dialogue with adults, especially with parents, becomes difficult. Therefore, the information, even if it is given correctly (which is not always the case) is not enough.
We often see adolescents "become pregnant" with a pack of birth control pills in their pocket because they believe "that won't happen to me" or "I'll take it next month".
It is the age of the first sensual discoveries, training in seduction. In our society where sex is seen everywhere, adolescents are impatient to explore this new path that their genital impulse opens, a sexual awakening. It is tempting to play the adult, by breaking boundaries, by allowing oneself to act like a parent.
It's the age where one acts before thinking, so they don't think about the consequences.
For little loved adolescents, it is also a flight towards repetitive affairs to assure themselves of their capacity to be loved. Sometimes, it can be a form of violence without being a typical rape because the girl agreed, but which becomes this afterwards when she has the feeling of having given in to blackmail.

But do they still want a child?

Maybe yes, because there is no age limit for building a stable emotional relationship and a desire for a shared child, it's cultural!
Maybe yes because the dream of beautiful baby to play mother to when she was herself little loved is a big temptation. It's a serious problem because it is often the first time that these girls feel a deep attachment, an authentic bond which could help them to rebuild themselves. Society needs to give them the means to humanely face up to this pregnancy, which is not actually the case.
But the most often, the question of desire for a child isn't even asked.
The first sexual relation, which is very important because it will make her a woman, is a meeting with oneself and with another without a third person being desired. I would like to cite Françoise DOLTO here who wrote in 1986 in Feminine Sexuality (Sexualité Féminine): "Contraception should be an exceptional means by which a young woman starts her relational life but who is not yet mature enough to be a mother." It cannot be said that she was indulgent of feminist ideas, her attachment to Catholic values is well-known, but she had a great respect for all people.

The fourties.

As menopause approaches, once the children are raised and are independent, there is a strong temptation to please oneself and to become maternal once again, to prove to oneself that one can give life again. Certain contraception failures can be interpreted in this way, as if the very deeply buried desire was creating a way despite all the logical reasons that one has not to have another child.
For certain women, the mourning of youth is already clearly started and the scales tip in favor of a pregnancy termination.
For other women, this will be the birth of a "late" child, the last chance child who will have the responsibility to take care of his parents in old age.
We even see doubtful practices emerging like insemination after menopause, as if science is supposed to find solutions for all whims, for fantasies of eternal youth. But I wonder what place there is for this phenomenal poor child, fetish object of an incorrigibly narcissist mother.

The desire for a child is sometimes prevented.

During pre-abortion interviews, the women explain their desire for a child.
Either they have already had children and explain to us all the happiness that hey felt or they haven't had any children yet and they speak emotionally about the children they hope to have later.
The women are always on the side of life.
There are three principle reasons that a woman refuses her pregnancy:

 fear of the future or fear of not being able to raise her child correctly.
The fear of losing a job or not to be offered a coveted job is among the most common motivations. But economic reasons are not the only reasons. Media pressure on the child, a favored target of ad campaigns, makes the women feel like they cannot deal with everything that is expected of them in terms of time, money, availability… They always want the best for their child and feel "eaten up" by too many demands. If the child doesn't have all the comforts, brand-name clothes, toys proposed on TV, if daddy doesn't have a great car or a beautiful home …, the child cannot survive, poor thing! By promoting the reign of the royal child, we discourage women from having them.
The same exaggeration has been observed concerning educational demands. Poorly assimilated psychology conveys the idea that it is very difficult to raise children, you must give them everything all the time, you mustn't frustrate them, make them feel guilty, traumatize them. So it's the mother who feels guilty, who no longer has self-confidence, who doesn't allow herself a personal life. The more you think about it, the more you hesitate while families that live very precariously don't think about it, they just do it.
Social workers know these families very well, where it is impossible to put any family planning into place, in the absence of being able to project into the future. All that counts are the immediate needs, and for the rest, the RMI will take care of it.

loneliness because the man suddenly shrinks away at the announcement of the news, even if it was planned by the couple. Currently, the place of the man is difficult, women change and they don't always know how to situate themselves in relation to this new event so certain prefer to escape their responsibilities, to remain children, change their partner as soon as she starts to talk about wanting a child, as if this child was going to take their place. Access to becoming a parent is also an important step for them but women are in the foreground in this business, they don't know too well how to enter. Women don't always help with matters because the temptation to keep the child just for herself is too great.
The advent of "new fathers" still isn't for right now. It's not however about fathers becoming assistant mothers, because the children need for daddy to be comfortable in his role as the man. Men need to invent their own role of father. Read Naouri: Une place pour le père (A place for the father).
As a result, many women find themselves raising their child alone. Certain do it. It's possible but it's hard. Others don't feel capable and no one can know in their place.

hate of what will happen to their body, forbidding in their mind, in the case where the sexual relation was more or less non-consensual. I am not only talking about certified rape but also relations lived without enthusiasm, without real adhesion. Either to please her partner or because the couple's emotional relationship is no longer sufficiently passionate; or, for adolescents, because this relation was more or less imposed by the boy ("if you don't want to, I'll leave you") or because she was premature in her evolution, accepted simply by curiosity, the desire to act like an adult.

Un enfant si je veux

The desire for a child is not permanent.

A woman's life is not only about the desire for a child. What they tell us most often is, "not now".
Like all human desire, the desire for a child can be sublimated. That is to say that this need to create, to give life which excites them to the very core can be redirected toward other more important undertakings. I think of Simone de Beauvoir who didn't want children because her literary creation seemed, to her, a greater gift to leave to humanity that a child of flesh and bones. You might also want to create or build a business, dedicate yourself to a career that you love or to humanity, there is no lack of causes. A woman can be fulfilled without having had children.
But most often, there is time for everything.
Thanks to contraception, women are able to manage their desire for children and other projects. Women can pursue personal projects without damaging their sexual and emotional life.

However, not everything is perfect.

Contraception still rests entirely on women, research on masculine contraception has not made a lot of progress. There is of course the condom that the younger generation is beginning to use but it is not completely reliable and it isn't the easiest thing to use. Certain women can't use any type of contraception and thus remain with their anxiety. The birth control pill, which is the most reliable method, requires a minimum of maturity and a sense of responsibility. It must not be forgotten that the constraint of taking it regularly is insufferable for some. That is why the morning after pill which we hear so much about lately is so interesting for adolescents, to make up for the consequences of irresponsibility which is normal at this age when one acts without thinking.
Also and most importantly, there are always unconscious games. Even if the reasonable part of me still doesn't want a child, there is another part of me that does want one, so the door is open for messing up.

There remains the recourse to abortion.

I do not think that women take this act lightly. Except for some incorrigibly immature women who will be multi-recidivists without anyone being able to do anything. But for the most part, women think, hesitate and feel guilty. I find it very important that the law has planned for counseling at this always difficult moment of the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I am always surprised at the ease with which women recount their entire life story as if this moment was pushing them to take stock of their life as a woman; their life choices, their children, and their man. It is the story of unlimited desire and reality which imposes its limits and its frustration. They often arrive feeling guilty and aggressive but, in general leave feeling soothed, reconciled with themselves. They haven't found a solution to their problems but when leaving, they will certainly ask themselves the right questions which will guide them toward a better awareness of their dignity.

In conclusion

Other places and other occasions are necessary, so that women can be listened to respectfully or that the dialogue about sexuality is authentic.
We hear a lot right now about school nurses and I find it very positive that they are encouraged to dialogue with students, not just to give them birth control pills but to help them better assume their responsibilities. But the reflection on this subject should concern everyone who has a function of reception. If the person intervening is receptive, trust is built, discussion is freer and what seemed complicated, difficult to handle, guilt inflicting, becomes simply human.
Such occasions, such places are still to be invented, and perhaps you have some ideas about the way to build together a society where women will be helped to give birth to children in more humane conditions...


Mouvement Français pour le Planning Familial de Haute Marne :
c/o Michelle MARCHAND - 2, rue Jean-Philippe Rameau - 52100 Saint-Dizier
Tél./fax : Email : michelle.marchand@wanadoo.fr

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home l domestic violence | rape and sexual abuse | harassment | prostitution | homosexuals | birth control and abortion
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