"Bumpaholics" anonymous

Can women really get addicted to pregnancy, Octomom-style?

Published August 19, 2009 6:20PM (EDT)

Remember when Octomom Nadya Suleman's mother came forward to say that her daughter was "obsessed with children"? In the weeks that followed the children's birth, America learned that their grandmother was right. And Suleman wasn't only fixated on babies; it seemed, rather, that she was also enamored with fame, attention, Angelina Jolie -- any number of things, really. But while her behavior seems to fall into a more general category of psychopathology, Women's Health has diagnosed her disorder as "bumpaholism" -- just in time for Suleman's Fox special, which airs tonight -- and suggests that she isn't alone in her addiction.

In the piece, writer Martha Brockenbrough explains that pregnancy creates a certain high that some women can come to crave. "Having babies isn't addictive in the way that alcohol and narcotics can be," she writes. "But bumpaholics feel compelled to procreate for many of the same reasons that substance abusers turn to booze or drugs." As Brockenbrough explains, "Infants are dependent creatures. They can give their mothers a clear identity; they can also become handy social buffers. At a party or on the playground, a woman struggling with feelings of social anxiety or self-consciousness can hide behind the adorable infant in her arms." To drive home the point, she quotes family therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil as saying, "Bumpaholics breed to blot out their feelings of insecurity." Brockenbrough goes on talk about the oxytocin that flows through a woman's body during pregnancy (Weil refers to it as a "baby-love drug") and the fun of baby showers and other pre- and post-birth events. She even floats that there's such a thing as a "belly-rubbing high" that pregnant women feel when they or others caress their bulbous stomachs.

Obviously, Brockenbrough tells us, not all women become bumpaholics. Rational moms realize that babies are expensive and time-consuming and reign in their reproductive urges, limiting their broods to one or two. (Weirdly, the author doesn't mention other possible factors, such as mothers' need and desire to work or, say, the blinding pain that tends to cap off most pregnancies.)

In the week since the article appeared, all kinds of publications and TV news shows (see the "Today" video here) have jumped on the new buzzword, each adding their own dose of hysteria to the feeding frenzy. In Wednesday's NY Daily News, Dr. Shari Lusskin, director of reproductive psychology at NYU Medical Center, tells us that bumpaholics "run the gamut from women who are personally and culturally inclined to have larger families all the way to women who have a pathological need to have more children." In other words, any lady who elects to have more than a few kids is as nutty as a fruitcake -- even if she can reasonably support those kids or is responding to cultural or religious obligations.

Now, I'm not a mom and can't respond to that line of reasoning from personal experience. But Babble's Meagan Francis, the proud mother of five, sure can. In her thorough reaction to bumpaholism-mania, Francis points out that "human beings sometimes turn to compulsive behavior to fill a psychological void." That's certainly not limited to having babies -- or engaging in illegal activities. As she writes, many of us get off on "money, puppies, designer clothes, long hours at work, meaningless sex, alcohol, or any of the myriad ways people find to self-medicate." 

But what if some mothers -- and, hell, some fathers, too -- simply enjoy parenting and want to have a large family? Is it really possible that every woman who has more than, say, three kids has a problem? Francis writes:

I'll be the first to admit that I find newborn babies awfully compelling. Their soft, wrinkly little heads, that baby smell, the scrunched-up hands, the first crooked smiles . . . all of those things seem to set off a dopamine flood in my brain. Looking at and holding a baby feels good. Didn't nature intend it to be? Otherwise, we'd never make it through those sleepless first few months or overcome the urge to run away and join the circus.

But apparently we are no longer allowed to respond to our own natural impulses, even when we apply a healthy dose of reality and intellect to the equation. It's people who stop at one or two children, the article says, who use their "higher brain functions to keep those instincts in check." I guess the rest of us are little more than primates, reproducing willy-nilly to keep those hormones flooding in.

As usual, what we learn from this story is that women just can't win the mommy wars. Famous ladies who decide not to have kids are "unnatural" and "evil," while moms who have too many babies are just plain whacked. We're supposed to enjoy motherhood, but not too much. And there will always be some lady mag out there to tell us we're doing it wrong.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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