Some women driven to ‘baby addiction’

When moms always want a newborn, even at expense of other children

By Jacqueline Stenson

February 13, 2009 / MSNBC

While it was once common for American families to have six, seven or even more children, today the sight of such a large brood makes many people stop and ask a seemingly simple question: Why?

Plenty have been asking that ever since the news broke that California mom Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets after already having six other young children. And celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Mia Farrow who have large families have long been an endless source of public curiosity and speculation.

There’s not always a simple reason why people create uncommonly large families. Some parents cite religious or cultural reasons for having many children. Some say they simply love kids and feel they can provide a big family with a stable, loving home. Some want to help a child in need so they add to their biological families through adoption.

But sometimes the desire to keep having children can be rooted in complex psychological issues dating as far back as one’s childhood. In certain cases, experts say, it can become a compulsion, an obsession or even a “baby addiction.”

While the current book of psychiatric diagnoses, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” has no entry on baby addiction, mental-health professionals say they see patients, mostly women, who desperately want to keep having newborns, even when they already have several children and aren’t managing their family situation well. That, they say, is a big red flag, no matter what term is used to describe it.

“It can be an addiction,” says Gayle Peterson, a family therapist in the San Francisco area and author of “Making Healthy Families.”

Overwhelmed, but wanting more

Peterson has seen several women in her practice who’ve been overwhelmed with four or five children, including those with special needs. Some of the women were suffering with depression or panic attacks and yet when their youngest child became a toddler, they wanted another baby. These women can be driven to have more children in an effort to make up for some sort of void or loss, usually from their own unhappy childhood, explains Peterson.

"If you’re just having babies to complete something in yourself that never got completed, you really are talking about an addiction,” she says.

Without personally treating Suleman, mental-health experts acknowledge they can’t say for sure what her motivations are but that there are similarities to these other women, as well as additional troubling signs. Suleman, who has a history of depression, told TODAY's Ann Curry that she wanted a ‘huge family’ because she had a “dysfunctional” childhood as an only child and longed for personal connections. Suleman, who is single and has no job, has one autistic child and two others who she says have some disability, raising concerns about how she’ll manage emotionally and financially with the additional octuplets who are likely to face some disabilities as well. She has already set up a Web site that accepts donations.

And while some have speculated that Suleman is an attention-seeker who is modeling her looks and her family after Angelina Jolie, she has denied a Jolie fixation or plastic surgery to look like her.

Babies — all new and cherubic and completely enthralled with their mothers — can bring profound joy. But when they enter toddlerhood and start developing independence and a mind of their own, some mothers miss the intenseness of the newborn period and want another baby even though that’s not in the best interests of the family, Peterson says.

“Therapy helps women come to grips with the fact that this only complicates their lives, does not heal them,” she says.

“There are many rewards of having children,” says Dr. Sudeepta Varma, a psychiatrist at New York Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association. But “as health professionals, we become concerned with respect to behavior that provides initial pleasure but eventually is spinning out of control.”

No ‘ideal’ family size

To protect the health and well-being of mothers and babies, fertility doctors have set guidelines for how many embryos should be implanted during one round of in vitro fertilization — guidelines that were ignored in Suleman’s case.

But while the average American family has about two children, there’s no single “ideal” family size for everyone, says Varma. Each couple should think through how many children they want and can manage, afford and provide for emotionally.

Rob Shearer, a father of 11 children ranging in age from 10 to 28, says he and his wife didn’t plan on having a large family. But he says things were going well, so they kept expanding.

“We never sat down and said, ‘Let’s have 11 children!’ We had two and enjoyed them, so we had a third,” says Shearer, of Lebanon, Tenn. “We enjoyed three, so we had a fourth.” Two girls were adopted from China.

He says that, like any parent, he feels inadequate and overwhelmed at times, but adds that it's all worth it.

Experts are quick to point out that there are plenty of big, happy families that are not the result of baby addiction. They also emphasize that children in small families can suffer emotional scars, too, from absentee or otherwise poor parents.

Kids need more than money

But having large numbers of children certainly can strain a family’s finances and emotional reserves, Varma says, and that can negatively impact the children. “Are neglect, abuse, emotional disturbances in children more likely in a situation like this? It’s definitely possible.”

Kids in large families — particularly those involving a lot of youngsters close in age — who don’t get enough attention because their mother is depressed or overwhelmed, for instance, may become anxious or depressed themselves, says family psychologist Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. On the other hand, they may act out to get attention.

“It’s really important when you have children to have resources,” Kaslow says. “Not just financial resources but emotional resources.”

Peterson says some of the most “damaged” children are those in very poor homes and those in very rich ones. Young children, especially, don’t thrive when they are raised by an army of nannies — even fabulous nannies — at the expense of bonding time with their parents, she says. Nannies come and go, which can be devastating to children who spend the majority of their time with these caregivers.

“You can’t have a baby and be a ‘weekend parent’ and expect that your baby won’t have anxiety as they grow,” Peterson says. “It’s not enough.”

As a guiding rule, families need to create “connection over disconnection,” she says.

For couples who endlessly feel that their family isn’t complete, even when it’s getting awfully crowded at home, Kaslow notes that there are other ways to get a “baby fix” — such as baby-sitting or working in a daycare center or volunteering in a church nursery.

“I do think there are people who always want to have a baby around,” she says. “But it’s one thing to love babies and another to keep having babies.”


years ago...

People used to have a large family to help make the living for the family:  farming
Now, there are so many infertile families with so much money, they can buy what they can not produce.  The more babies adopted, the more it makes up for their lack of fertility.  Sick, isn't it...

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Collecting children

Yesterday I read an article written about overwhelmed AP's, and how "adding more" can bring problems no one is prepared for:

For an adoption system bursting with unwanted kids, the Gravelles were salvation. They'd take anyone.

These days, most white parents looking to adopt are willing to travel the globe before they'll take a black baby, let alone a mentally retarded one. When word of the Gravelles spread in the adoption community, it was open season. Cuyahoga County gave them another sickly baby, who had contracted AIDS from his mother. Stark County piled on five siblings with severe behavior problems, ranging from sodomizing each other to self-mutilation. Even Chicago had a kid for the Gravelles. Nobody in Illinois wanted her, that's for sure.

But the retired construction worker and Army vet had no idea what he and his wife had signed up for. These kids did not act like children -- they acted like wild animals. Michael Jr. was the leader of the pack. At night he and his siblings would roam the house, peeing and pooping down heat registers, shredding mattresses, and eating the bedding. Michael Jr. once dangled his little brother out of the second-floor window by his shoestrings.

The couple tried everything -- putting an alarm on the bedroom door, sleeping in shifts -- but their kids were completely off the rails. They ate batteries, chewed on their own arms, and destroyed everything they could get their hands on, including each other. Two tried to insert things into the other children's genitals.

The Gravelles pleaded for help from adoption officials, but got little response. At one point Michael and Sharen told a Huron County social worker they were overwhelmed. They wanted to temporarily send the destructive Michael Jr. and his sister back, and delay finalizing the adoptions for the Stark County kids. But the social worker recommended that they keep trudging along -- putting the kids out of the house now would set them back even further, she told the couple.

The system had worked: The kids were no longer the government's problem. To help them ease the burden, the feds and the state provided the family with about $40,000 a year in subsidies. But if the Gravelles were doing it for the money, it was a hell of a way to make a living.

When one of the little girls ripped out hair from the back of her head, Sharen says she brought pictures of her bloody scalp to a state adoption official, begging for answers. All they could offer was a bigger subsidy.

"As if money is a solution," Sharen told Judge McGimpsey.  [From:  The Exorcists: The fine line between saving children and torturing them.]

I think this "Send Us More" mentality in child collecting is very dangerous.  It scares me, in fact.... both for the kids and the adults told it's alright to want more.   Just because a person FEELS a temporary need "to take-in more", does that need really have to be fulfilled?  At some point, shouldn't a calm rational adult-voice tell the eager to serve-and-please parents-to-be, "No more children... simply because it would not be safe for all involved."? 

I really believe there are far too many people collecting children simply because they are trusting "feelings" [sent by "The Lord?"!?] and not following good common sense based on the realistic needs of children, parents and siblings.  Maybe there's some sort of adult-amnesia that takes place when the prospect of "doing good" presents itself to someone who needs to be seen as a "good person"....  maybe some think it absolutely OK to blame other people when things go really bad... I don't know.... but it really doesn't surprise me to read about an emotionally needy child acting out like an animal to get the attention of parents who claim to be called to help and serve children.  Imagine being the child who needs and craves attention, but can't get it because the parents are too busy building their collection!

At what point does personal accountability and responsibility get learned by a child if the adults around him/her are too busy doing what feels good?

serial adopters

This send us more mentality as you mentioned is unfortunately not entirely uncommon. When adding abuse cases we've been tagging cases where more than twelve children were involved with Mega families, The absolute "champions" in that respect are Diane and Dennis Nason,  whom in the state of Oregon were able to adopt more than 76 children, calling themselves the "Celebration Family". They wouldn't be among our abuse cases if they could have handled their child collecting habits.

Mega Families

There seems to be many very large or mega families that end up in trouble.
Regardless of motivation, I just think it is nearly impossible for a family to have that many adopted children (often children with special needs) without trouble - whether it be parents abusing or siblings abusing each other, and often both.

In the Gravelle case, I lay a lot of blame on the child placing agencies for placing that many special needs kids with them. Those agencies should have known better.

Adopting infants has one set of challenges, but when you end up with multiple older children - who likely have already been victims of abuse themselves, you cannot supervise all the children. It is such a sad thing, because previously non-abused children become abused, and victims-turned-abusers do not have a chance to heal, and learn what family life is supposed to be about. Placing older previously abused children in a family with same age and younger children should not happen. It is unfair to all the children.

That said, we need more homes for abused children, one of the reasons that large families happen is that there are not many good (small family) homes and other support networks for previously abused children.

Before I started documenting here on PPL, I had a better outlook on large adoptive families ability to function.

We were that family...

I adopted two babies who were NOT abused in any way... and seeing how much fun it was, I thought (silly me) that I would adopt special needs kids.  OH! how naive I was...
You have it right on, silent1.  It became addictive to adopt; and so easy to adopt a special needs child.  Each one of four that I adopted should have been an only child or at least the youngest of not more than 1 other sibling.  It was just insane to put them into our family.  But the shit didn't hit the fan until my last son was already home and NO ONE wanted to disrupt any of them because there were NO homes who would take ANY of those four.  It's the timing... if there was a rule that the child must be in the family two whole years before even starting on another adoption... MAYBE this would help.  It would certainly make a difference in how many children would/could be placed in one home.
My children had VERY severe medical and (unknown) mental disabilities.  There was unknown sexual abuse before coming home.  There was very little known about the bio parents because most were abandoned.  The culture of Korea is totally opposite of America.  Some children come home as already being indoctrinated into the religion and cultures of another country; plus the ways of another family or two.  VERY confused children are placed into huge families and left to flounder around in search of their position in that new family.  They can't understand a word spoken to them; and when they do learn the language it is full of their own interpretation of meanings.
It's an addiction.  I've heard many AP's say this very thing: it's addictive.  But what I see the most is a culture within a culture; AP's who cover for each other, knowing there are huge problems within the AP culture, where it MUST stay.  Those of us who asked for help were told:  YOU have the ability to do this and WE are very confident of this.   They won't even listen.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Culture with a culture

But what I see the most is a culture within a culture; AP's who cover for each other, knowing there are huge problems within the AP culture, where it MUST stay.

I think that is best exemplified by Tom and Debra Schmitz, expecially in the article Underground network moves children from home to home. It's where special needs adoption, adoption disruption and attachment therapy/attachment parenting meet.

good idea

Teddy wrote:
if there was a rule that the child must be in the family two whole years before even starting on another adoption... MAYBE this would help.  It would certainly make a difference in how many children would/could be placed in one home.

That's a very good idea for many reasons.  We waited three years between adoptions.  I think it was a good thing for my son because we were able to give him 100% of our attention those first three years.  His last foster home he shared one elderly foster mother with at least 2 (sometimes 3) foster sibs.  We both needed that time alone.

I think there should be some carefully considered exceptions though.  Sibling groups should really stay together if possible.

Teddy, we have had ALL that we can handle with just two kids with emotional needs.  I think we would have crumbled under the weight of 5 or more children.


Personal Responsibility

I lay a lot of blame on the child placing agencies for placing that many special needs kids with them. Those agencies should have known better.

Did you hear that faint sound that almost sounded like a person screaming?  That was me cheering "EXACTLY!!!!!!!!"

Unfortunately, there are agents and agencies working for money, NOT for the children in need of safety, security and a sense of well-being.  This is why private adoption agencies working with orphanages scare me --  it's like a private fertility clinic working with independent sperm-banks -- who's making sure the parents-to-be are getting what's being promised on the brochure?

I think more and more PAP's need to be aware of one simple red-flag fact:  when "family service" workers are given a monetary incentive to lower the amount of "waiting children", PAP's must know many of these workers are not always looking for quality parenting and long-term success -- many of these people are looking for quick and easy final-placement, because that "quick placement" gets them paid more money!   Think of these people as child traffic-agents, working hard to move unwanted inventory (children) into private homes so more money can be made through the family-making business. 

Before I started documenting here on PPL, I had a better outlook on large adoptive families ability to function.

Before I had others helping me gather this information to feature on PPL, I could never understand why so many AP's would suddenly awaken and complain, (when it's all too late and without fair warning), "I had no idea what I was getting myself into!" 

Words cannot express how much I truly loathe money-hungry adoption services like those featured within our Child Trafficking pages.

Isn't it sad, sick and demented to see what people are willing to do to adults and children, all in the name of making/saving money?

too late...

"(when it's all too late and without fair warning), "I had no idea what I was getting myself into!" 
WOW!  That's me...
I would venture to say that 90% of AP's do NOT know what they are getting themselves into!  How could we?  Blending so many lives and backgrounds into one household is like Russian Roulette with all but one of the chambers NOT having bullets.  And it's the agencies who put those bullets in the chambers and spin it around before shooting the uneducated right between the eyes.
We see the other couples with the adorable babies and we have that picture imprinted on our brains forever.  NO ONE along the way shows us the troubled teens or the sexually abused child who is acting out...  THAT can just NOT be... NOT in our home.  And even when it was going on in my home, my mind only saw the innocent babies I had adopted; could only see the end result of that child with a college degree, off to conquer the world.  All the stuff in between; all the reality is hidden by agencies and other adoptive parents who only want to portray happy, happy, happy, to the world.
Only when people like me come in here and tell it like it really is for themselves   and many others, only then does what you are trying to tell the world really SCREAM!  But the truth is, most AP's are in denial and desperately hiding behind closed doors in fear of what others might think.  I had to quit thinking about what others think...  they will think it no matter what I do, but to TELL is where I find help.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

first of all

it is not true that many people travel the world instead of taking what DSS terms "special needs" because they often adopt special needs when they adopt international anyway

"in a given year 240,000 people called for information about adopting a child from foster care, but fewer than 10,000 actually did so. "

it is actually near impossible for a middle income person to adopt...

many states (foster adoption regs vary greatly by state to state and even by county to county) do have a wait list of a year or two between any family changing event (marriage, divorce, death, adoption, birth)

several state limit the number of children that can be placed in a home

international adoption is out there for one reason it is more of a sure thing, foster care and infant adoption is not a sure thing, many, many people wait and wait and wait... not even because they'd be bad, or are too picky... because the system is so messed up and money can be made off these kids in other ways..

my girls, adopted from foster care (at a young age) do fine and needed someone out there to raise them...

my son, I don't think it would have mattered one bit if he'd of just stayed with his birth mom, in a lot of ways the abuse he went through in foster care and by the public school systems made his life much harder...


Being a foster parent for almost five years opened my eyes to the severe child abuse that exists in this country.  In my young naivete I assumed that other countries were not as evil.  HA!  And yes, I adopted special needs kids from overseas.
Out of seven adopted children, four are doing very well and three are in foster care, group home care, and state school care. 
I failed with the three.  I just could not over-ride the sexual abuse and the consequences that followed.
I married a heathen that was barely human but fooled a lot of people.  And that's the problem:  The heathens (abusive adoptive parents) sneak through and go unnoticed until it's too late.  The already abused, in their birth homes and foster care, are a little easier to notice when they are adopted; but like anonymous said, it might not have mattered one bit if these three of mine had stayed with the birth mom... their lives are crap no matter which way you look at it.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

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