The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Of a woman: feeling a maternal desire to have a(nother) baby.

—Oxford English Dictionary

It’s only been since the 1980s that this word, once associated with poultry, has been applied to women. One sniff of a baby’s head and the unsuspecting female is engulfed in a tidal wave of hormone-related baby lust… or so the cliché runs.

The invention of this new emotional state, and its definition “of a woman”—men started to talk of themselves as “getting broody” in the late 1990s, although the Oxford English Dictionary has yet to acknowledge this—is no coincidence. It came a little over twenty years after the Pill became widely available to single as well as married women in Britain and America. With reproduction more of a choice than an inevitability, broodiness, which combined a henlike instinct to breed with general moodiness or “brooding,” was delineated as a powerful emotional motivator for the decision to reproduce.

Longing for a baby is not purely a cultural construct, nor specific to low-fertility societies. It can be deeply painful, a sense of something missing, a yearning, temporary feeling comparable to that experienced when separated from a loved one or home (see: HIRAETH; VIRAHA). And like the brooding storm-clouds that gather on the horizon, yearning for a child brings more emotional weather with it: HOPEFULNESS for a future of love; WORRY about being left behind as friends’ families blossom; the DESIRE for promised joys; SADNESS at the thought that it might not happen.

To reduce broodiness to the ticktock of simple animal hormones is diminishing. But there is a long history of depicting the emotions of women as in thrall to their mysterious biology, for instance in the illnesses of hysteria or “irritable womb” (see: DISAPPOINTMENT). It runs back to Plato’s announcement in the Timaeus that “the womb is an animal which longs to generate children. When it remains barren too long after puberty, it is distressed and sorely disturbed, and straying about in the body… [it] brings the sufferer into the most extreme anguish.”

Plato’s talk of wandering wombs sounds like an unscientific flight of ancient fancy today. Yet for an emotion that is imagined to exercise such tyranny over women, broodiness has been very little studied in our time. Psychologists have linked it to a heightened sex drive, which seems obvious at first glance, but less so when we consider that broodiness is also aligned to a depressive state. There is also confusion about whether it is an emotion overwhelmingly experienced by women, or can be just as pronounced—if not more so—in men. Sociologists studying the desire for a baby among involuntarily childless men have discovered a hidden world of complex emotions including sorrow and guilt, isolation and anger, and have claimed that four out of ten men describe themselves as feeling “depressed” about the situation in contrast to three out of ten women.

So there is a muddle about broodiness, and it needs sorting out. Because the idea that feeling broody is a biological inevitability for women suggests that those who choose not to reproduce are destined to suffer. And those who never feel so much as a twang of baby lust might suspect themselves to be somehow missing some crucial emotion of womanhood, and therefore not meant for parenthood.

And neither is true.