I HEARD ABOUT IT on public radio snippets: the North Carolina Zoo anticipated its second and third gorilla births in twenty-three years. Though they’d announced an earlier pregnancy with fanfare befitting a royal family, the zoo’s gorilla keepers were more circumspect this time. The first, highly publicized birth had ended sadly, with an infant the humans didn’t have time to name; something went wrong, and he died. His mother, Jamani, a gentle and regal-looking eleven-year-old, carried him for a day before relinquishing his body. Less than a year later, she was pregnant again, along with her enclosure-mate, Olympia, a bossy fifteen-year-old and newcomer to the group. Ultrasounds indicated healthy pregnancies, due within weeks of each other.
“We held back,” said Aaron Jesue, who had by then cared for the zoo’s shifting gorilla population for eight years and who is that rare sort of person who does exactly what he dreamed of doing as a child. “We were very excited when Jamani became pregnant the first time, but how do you react if something goes wrong?” Planning for the gorillas’ reproductive future is a significant part of Jesue’s job, and involves frequent conference calls with other zoos, consultation with the Species Survival Plan (SSP), and trips to conferences across the country. In the North Carolina Zoo’s mixed-sex group, female gorillas not cleared by the SSP for breeding with Nkosi, the lone silverback, were given birth control. Jamani and Olympia both conceived quickly. Acacia, the oldest female, took the pill.
On August 4, 2012, Jamani gave birth to a healthy male the keepers named Bomassa; Olympia followed less than three weeks later with Apollo, another male. A single pregnancy is unusual for captive gorillas at any zoo, but to have two closely spaced, successful births, two healthy infants born within the same group, is almost unheard of. Despite the zoo’s low-key announcements, word spread—by Twitter, telephone, and email—and in late August the keepers had to set up queuing lines to keep hundreds of visitors at a time from overcrowding the two-acre enclosure’s small, glassed-in viewing area. Those unable to visit in person could browse Apollo’s and Bomassa’s baby books online, or comment on their development in short video clips posted to the zoo’s Facebook page.
“It was intense,” said Jesue. He felt closest to Nkosi, the zoo’s 410-pound silverback—it was the majestic adult males that inspired him to become a gorilla keeper—but understood why people would wait in a long line, at the end of a hot North Carolina summer, to glimpse the tiny infants clinging to their mothers. “People love the babies. We look at them and see something about ourselves, our families.”
Like so many other North Carolinians, I’d followed the stories of these gorillas since the announcement of Jamani’s first pregnancy. Before I heard about her second pregnancy I’d also been trying to conceive a child for years, with no success, and when Jamani moved on, after her loss, I thought that I’d moved on too. I wanted to give up the expensive, painful, unlikely-to-succeed fertility treatments I’d been pursuing; I wanted my life to be about something other than the goal of reproduction. But Jamani became pregnant again, and her second birth story went just as her keepers hoped. I went online and browsed her baby book. One photo appealed to me especially—a close-up, with Jamani resting her great chin protectively on Bomassa’s head. His large eyes shine within his tiny, heart-shaped face; Jamani gazes upward with a look of reverie, as if she finds everything about him—his infant smell, his soft fur, the weight of his body—intoxicating. I opened other web pages and plugged my own relevant numbers (age, number of years trying, past failures) into databases that calculated IVF success rates. Sometimes 27 percent, sometimes 24 percent, depending on the database. Perhaps one day this would all be a memory for me too.
HUMAN CHILD-LONGING goes by different names, depending where you live. The English call women afflicted by this condition broody, a term borrowed from the henhouse. (Broody hens are the ones who won’t rest or roost, but sit constantly on a clutch of eggs, sometimes plucking out their breast feathers to keep the eggs warm.) Americans, perpetual taskmasters, say that the biological clock is ticking. In Scandinavia they call it baby fever, a widely observed condition, which manifests itself as everything from a generalized wishing for a child to a delirious, aching sickness. Finnish family sociologist Anna Rotkirch studied the phenomenon and its implications for her field—do we have an evolved desire to have babies?—by asking readers of a major Finnish newspaper to write to her about their experiences with baby fever. She received 106 responses from women, and 7 from men. The male responses were too few, general, or impersonal to be used in her study (two of their responses complained of suffering caused by the “baby feverish” women in their lives), but the women’s letters were intimate and detailed, with many seeing the fever as an inescapable, unbidden, and often inconvenient fact of life.
I was infected when I took a six-week-old baby in my arms. It was an all-encompassing desire for a child, without any trace of common sense and ignoring the consequences. Actually a very agonising experience.
Many of the respondents recalled dreams as the first sign of baby fever:
About ten years ago strange things started happening. As I turned 28, I started having dreams about children almost every night. I had a restless feeling all the time, just as if my womb was demanding something I did not agree with. I started thinking about having a child, although I knew that I did not want it under any circumstances.
In the same way that illness can wrack the body, baby fever is painful and all-encompassing:
I was 25 years old when it hit. And it really HIT me, the feeling caused by baby fever was unlike anything I had experienced earlier in life. It was something totally biological, because I did not experience any outer pressure, on the contrary, my parents for instance stressed that I should have a good job before starting a family. I had been dating my boyfriend for six years, we were both studying and the idea was to graduate quickly and start making a career, and children were not part of that constellation yet for a long time to come.
For those who cannot act on the impulse to have children—Finnish people place a high value on education and becoming settled in a career first—the longing grows even stronger:
[My] baby fever has become uncontrollable. I have dreams about babies all the time. I have to touch baby clothes in stores. I ponder the alternative of ecological nappies. On the streets I smile at children I do not know. In every single long-term plan, I take into account our future children. Sometimes I lie awake at night and feel a huge longing, which starts from my womb and radiates to all parts of my body. A physical, compelling, painful need to be pregnant. If somebody had earlier tried to describe such a feeling to me, I would probably have rolled my eyes, encouraged her to climb out of the swamp of motherhood myth and get a life. We have agreed to try to have children in a year or two. I count the days.
When prolonged, either by infertility or other circumstances, baby fever can cause the opposite effect—instead of feeling drawn to babies and young children and the baby aisles of stores, sufferers begin avoiding places where they’ll encounter reminders of what they cannot have. They grow alienated from pregnant friends or friends with children, sometimes ending relationships that become too painful.
Rotkirch describes baby fever as “an emotion which may be typical for societies where women have many choices in life.” It appears to be heightened, she says, by proximity to children and especially babies, as well as—unfortunately for some of us—the presence of obstacles. What makes Rotkirch’s study notable is not that it describes women longing for children, but that it includes women who have always wanted children (the natural nurturers) as well as those who have not; both categories confess to the experience of baby fever and report it as an unbidden, surprising phenomenon that often works against their other goals. Finland is a low-fertility country that promotes individualism and education; more than half of Rotkirch’s subjects were born between 1960 and 1980, when these values were firmly established. Yet the respondents wrote candidly, passionately, about baby clothes and diapers and the particular smell of babies’ heads, all the traditional material and physical trappings of infancy and motherhood.
The idea to study child-longing evolved out of Rotkirch’s own experience. In her late thirties, already a mother of two and at a productive time in her career, she felt an intense desire to have a third child. Even though she and her husband agreed for a variety of reasons that they would stop at two, her baby fever only increased, and she eventually became pregnant. While on maternity leave, she decided to look into baby fever, and was surprised to find nothing in the scientific literature supporting her suspicions, only reports of babies with fevers.
“It was funny to me, someone who tries to combine women’s/gender studies and feminism with evolutionary psychology, that both these disciplines vehemently DENIED there could even be such a thing,” Rotkirch told me over email. “Feminists said patriarchy lures women to want babies, and evolutionary psychologists said it is a mistake to think people want babies (since they want sex).”
But she thought there was something to her idea that baby fever is an emotion in its own right, even though she admits that for some, this line of research appears less serious than her other work, which investigates family and fertility decisions in a more quantitative way. Rotkirch suspected that an intense desire for a child was not merely a social construction, but something deeper, biological, that could answer important questions about why people want to have children at all, and whether low-fertility countries would continue to see birthrates decline (the widespread presence of baby fever suggests the current birthrate is somewhat stable).
That doesn’t mean, of course, that all women will experience this phenomenon, or that women who don’t should take it as a sign that they shouldn’t plan to have a family. But it does illuminate the experiences of people like me, who have been overcome by a desire for a baby but have obstacles in our path. For us, baby fever could have the function of pushing us to make a decision, or the practical use of explaining our irrational pursuit of an elusive goal.
It had come over me quite suddenly, in my mid-twenties, when I was working for Vogue, a tidal surge. Once this surge hit I saw babies wherever I went. I followed their carriages in the street. I cut their pictures from magazines and tacked them on to the wall next to my bed. I put myself to sleep by imagining them: imagining holding them, imagining the down on their heads, imagining the soft spots at their temples, imagining the way their eyes dilated when you looked at them.
That’s not a response to Rotkirch’s study but an excerpt from Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, her memoir of adoptive motherhood and grief. It’s interesting to me how Didion’s exacting, often detached writing style here mirrors the perplexed confessions elicited by Rotkirch’s questionnaire, and also how the Finnish respondents, in describing something both private and deeply felt, write almost as eloquently as Didion. I sent Rotkirch the passage, and she wrote back that it was “unsettling,” so close to some of her subjects’ written memories that she wondered at first if they’d read Blue Nights (in fact it was published after she collected their responses).
MY OWN DESIRE manifested itself differently. I can remember wiping away spots of blood, a few months after stopping the pill, and thinking, I must be pregnant. In the same moment I had a panicked sense of all I hadn’t done: publish a book, establish my career, travel. I wasn’t pregnant; the spotting was actually a symptom of my infertility, masked for so many cycles by years of birth control. After another year I sought medical help. By then, instead of posting baby pictures, I bookmarked websites about assisted reproduction, about adoption, about foster care. I agonized over my basal body temperature, took pills that made me weepy, paid for medical treatments with a slim chance of success. If someone told me, “in five years you will have a baby,” I would have been fine to wait those five years; I would have been grateful to have them, in fact, and would have gotten busy with some of my other goals.
But no one could tell me that—the problem with infertility is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting, not a simple delay in your plans; it happens for many of us in the context of consuming struggle, expense, and loss. It’s five (or eight, or ten) years of trying and failing, which erodes any feelings of confidence or anticipation of a positive outcome.
Richard and I stopped treatment after two years, the most difficult I’d ever experienced; stronger than my sadness over our failed cycles was the feeling of relief to be done with medication and monthly disappointment. I thought sometimes about Jamani and Acacia and Olympia, three female gorillas who might remain childless for the rest of their days. They seemed content, as far as gorillas in an enclosure can express contentment. Then Jamani and Olympia both conceived and birthed their babies, and the gorillas entered a new phase of life. Visitors who had once breezed by the gorilla exhibit now stayed for hours, snapping photographs and pressing their faces to the glass.
Later I learned what the visitors to the North Carolina Zoo probably missed, and what the newspapers didn’t report: something that happened just a few days after the second gorilla was born, when no one, not even a keeper, was watching. Olympia, newly postpartum and socially dominant, kidnapped Jamani’s three-week-old son, Bomassa, one night and began caring for him—nursing him, holding him chest-to-chest, and keeping him away from danger—alongside her own newborn. Physically larger than Olympia but ranked last in the three-female hierarchy, Jamani made cries of distress, spun in circles, and ran from one edge of the enclosure to the other. The keepers, who’d seen Jamani cradling her stillborn baby just a year earlier, waited in anguish to see if she’d take Bomassa back, but all she managed was some halfhearted charging and huffing in Olympia’s direction.
Infant kidnapping is not uncommon among primates, who take babies for a number of reasons: as a form of infanticide, clearing the way for their own genetic success; to increase their social status; to gain experience with caregiving; and sometimes because they are just very interested in babies. Olympia had a healthy infant who was not threatened by the birth of Bomassa, and she was on top, socially. Why would she add to her workload—so considerable that gorillas typically space births at least four years apart—by adopting a second baby?
Through phone calls with zoos where Olympia and Jamani spent their early years, Jesue and his colleagues determined that both gorillas were influenced by the maternal behavior they saw when they were young. Olympia lived at Zoo Atlanta with a mother of twins, and must have thought that two babies—rare for gorillas—were ideal. In San Diego, where Jamani was raised, infant sharing was common and tolerated. They both expressed patterns of behavior they’d already seen, images lodged not in their genetic code but in the captivity-limited memories they had of motherhood and family life. This is how an adult gorilla behaves, we can imagine Olympia thinking as she loped around the enclosure, two infants clinging to her chest. Surely she’ll give him back, we can picture Jamani deciding, as her mammaries swelled painfully with milk for Bomassa. That’s what mother gorillas do.
It took five days of watching and waiting for the gorilla keepers to decide that enough was enough; they finally sedated Olympia and gave Bomassa back to Jamani. She was able to nurse him because they’d painstakingly pumped her milk using a human breast pump in the days when they were separated, and she responded to the return of her infant almost as if nothing had ever happened.
“She’s a great mother,” Jesue told me, praising Jamani’s patience with her son, her gentle discipline. We were standing by the enclosure’s viewing area while Bomassa and Apollo, toddlers then, wrestled and chased each other through the tall grass. “Olympia is a great mother too,” he added, though he acknowledged that she was also fairly permissive.
In my infertility support group, we sometimes joked about the temptation to kidnap stroller-bound babies from their careless parents, who texted or talked on smartphones with barely a glance in our direction. Just kidding! we always clarified. Mostly.
Human baby-snatching, especially by strangers, is compara-tively rare, but it makes good fodder for film capers like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, the story of a desert-dwelling cop and ex-con who marry, discover they can’t have children, then kidnap one of the Arizona quints, children born to wealthy own-ers of an unpainted furniture empire, to raise as their own.
Before Richard and I married, we agreed that Raising Arizona was our favorite movie—funny, tender, slapstick—between us we could recite most of it from memory. I watched the movie again after I heard about the gorilla kidnappings, and noticed some things I’d missed when I was younger. Ed, the policewoman who tells her husband, Hi, that the world contains “too much love and beauty” for just the two of them, is the embodiment of the baby-feverish woman Rotkirch studied, posting photos of babies round-faced, adorable, grinning, crying around her trailer. But she isn’t the only one affected by baby fever—once Nathan Jr. arrives on the scene, almost everyone is transformed by his smiling, cooing presence. “He’s fine, he is,” Hi boasts, suddenly paternal. When Hi and Ed finally return the baby, gruff Nathan Arizona is so moved by the relief of seeing his son again that he doesn’t call the authorities. He even offers the couple words of advice. “You gotta keep trying,” he tells them, “and hope medical science catches up with you.” If it doesn’t work, he adds, they still have each other.
I VISITED THE North Carolina zoo again on a warm September morning, when Bomassa and Apollo were two years old and scampering independently around the enclosure. So much had happened since their births that Jesue admitted feeling stunned when he thought about this group’s reproductive history. “It’s been a roller coaster,” he told me. In 2012 a third female, Acacia, was cleared for breeding with Nkosi; like Jamani and Olympia, she conceived quickly. But unlike those two, Acacia’s birth was difficult, more than twenty-four hours long, and the keepers and zoo veterinarians decided to give her an emergency cesarean. Though the surgery went well, and the infant was healthy—“He was the prettiest, strongest one,” another keeper told me—he died suddenly after being returned to her, and the keepers, for the second time in two years, stood by helplessly while a new mother came to terms with her loss. Later that year, Nkosi, Jesue’s favorite, died suddenly of encephalitis.
I asked him what would happen to Acacia, who was also, by all accounts, a good caretaker, frequently playing with Bomassa and Apollo but staying clear, for the most part, of the infant-snatching, socially dominant Olympia. Soon the keepers expected to welcome another silverback to the group, a role model for the two young males. Would Acacia conceive again?
No, Jesue told me. It was too dangerous. They planned to move Acacia to another zoo—her third—and hoped that she could serve as an allomother, or motherly caregiver, or even a surrogate in case another gorilla rejected her infant. That happened more often than you’d think, he told me.
Long after the gorillas’ lunch, I stayed behind and watched, paying particular attention to Acacia, who was lounging in a pile of hay near the glass, eating the rich seeds, but who also appeared to keep one eye on the dominant, reproductively successful Olympia, foraging for the last of the celery and lettuce tossed down at feeding time.
I didn’t recover from my baby fever, but I believe that I would have, given enough time. Like Acacia, I would have fulfilled my longings by caring for the children of others; I would have enjoyed independence, freedom, time; I would have taken long naps, kept my girlish figure. Instead Richard and I took what to us were extraordinary measures and conceived our daughter through in vitro fertilization. It is the best choice I’ve ever made, though of course this appraisal is filtered through the experience of success.
In the months after our daughter was born, emboldened by our risktaking, Richard and I began an addition to our one-bedroom house. I often met our contractors in the driveway with Beatrice wrapped in one of the slings that creates the magical, chest-to-chest closeness gorillas have, and though they could only see the top of her head they solicitously offered praise: she was so beautiful, so sweet.
“Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world,” began Mr. Cheek, the mason we hired to build our foundation. He pointed at Beatrice, sleeping against my chest, as if she were the imagined only baby. “Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it. If that baby was in California, we’d all go to California.”
A father and grandfather, he knew nothing of our long wait for Beatrice; that was not his point. He knew something bigger, more profound: each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure-mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek, and will each have some impact.
In my sleep-deprived haze, I pictured myself, Richard, and Bea in a kind of enclosure on a cliff above the Pacific, with a queue of curious well-wishers snaking all the way to the desert. Given how long it took us to have her, the many people involved in the process, the image felt strangely fitting. I now have a number of friends who have had babies through some form of medical intervention, through intrauterine insemination and IVF and medicated cycles, with the help of donor eggs or sperm or embryos, pills or injectable drugs. It’s common for people in our circle to call our children miracles, to see our experiences as singular and exclusive, to think about how close we came to not having them. But this is true of every baby, every romantic pairing, every relationship on Earth—we are all terrifyingly beholden to risk and fear and luck, to longings that arrive as expected or, for some of us, emerge from some deep, surprising well we didn’t know we had.
Mr. Cheek repeated himself, as if to test my agreement.
“You’re probably right,” I told him. “I’d go.”