The scarcity trap: How sugarcane farmers helped me understand my obsession with becoming a parent

May 19 | Guest post by Kae Pat
Sugar cane farming in Karnataka
By: iloasiapacificCC BY 2.0

I've been feeling off lately, and scrounging the internet for something or someone I could relate to. I've found some relevance in articles and incredibly personal accounts of pregnancy loss, infertility, grief, and/or anxiety. But it wasn't until listening to this Hidden Brain podcast from NPR — The Scarcity Trap, Why We Keep Digging When We're Stuck in Hole — that I found an unlikely solidarity with the experience of sugar cane farmers in India.

These farmers, a study by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan found, behaved differently right after harvest when they were relatively wealthy. Compared to when faced with poverty later on, the wealthy farmers had better impulse control, planned longer term, and even fared better on IQ tests. "To be clear, it's not that poor people focus on immediate needs because that's all they want to think about. It's all they can think about," states Shankar Vedantam in respect to these farmers as their post harvest earnings dwindled.

The scarcity trap

The episode also provides non-monetary examples of the scarcity trap, such as being lonely or short on time. So the mental challenge experienced by these farmers, as their earnings run out, can happen any time we are missing something…

"When you feel that something important is missing in your life, your brain starts to focus on that missing thing. When you're really desperate for something, you focus on it so obsessively there's no room for anything else." -Vedantam

I've already tried to minimize my own feelings of sadness and frustration over not being pregnant by dismissing it as a "first world problem." Presumably, I am financially distinct from these farmers in that I can afford to raise a hypothetical kid and pay my bills all year — not just after the harvest. I have wonderful health insurance that covers prenatal care (thank you Affordable Care Act). I have a job — finally — that offers some maternity leave and paid time off.

How, then, can I compare my lack of having child with someone else's lack of financial resources?

I can relate to their desperation. The poor obsess over money; the infertile obsess over babies.

Our thoughts focus on only one thing

When my husband and I first started trying to conceive, I thought of lots of other things — skiing, rock climbing, wilderness canoe trips, beer — on a regular basis. I had heard of women caught up solely in their desire to become pregnant, and assumed that would never happen to me. Those women, I reasoned, are more high strung. I, on the other hand, was carefree and open to whatever happened — baby or not.

Slowly that shifted. Maybe it was because of the intense joy I felt upon getting pregnant and the subsequent disappointment of miscarriage. Maybe it was because I got inspired by stories of rainbow babies conceived within a month or two of a loss and grieved when that wasn't me. Maybe, I worried, I'm an overly sensitive emotional mess, and my original carefree-ness was just a denial of my true self.

Or maybe, as Hidden Brain points out, it's because of the scarcity trap that we are all vulnerable to…

"What if it's not that poor people are somehow deficient, but that poverty makes everyone less capable? That it's… you and I, tomorrow, were we to become poor, would all of a sudden have the same effect, that poverty is in some sense changing our minds," Mullainathan explains.

The minds of the sugarcane farmers changed as they ran out of money over the course of the year; my mind changed as I went longer and longer without getting pregnant.

With this reasoning, anyone facing obstacles in growing a family would naturally become fixated on having a child. The only thing that had previously set me apart from those women and their fixation on pregnancy was our situation. It wasn't that I possessed a carefree attitude that was God's gift to me and not to them — it was that I just that I hadn't yet faced attitude-adjusting scarcity. I'm in their shoes now, and lately I've been grappling with why on earth this is so hard for me.

Why can't I go back to being carefree?

I recently wrote a piece, full of hyperbole, or as my husband put it "click-baity-ness," about my initial thoughts versus my current thoughts on trying to conceive. It is titled "Please Don't Judge How Desperate I am to be Pregnant," and to be perfectly honest, the person I feel most judged by is myself (or at least my previous self).

"Just stop worrying and you'll get pregnant" is the classic way to piss off someone in my situation, yet many well-meaning folks pass on this "wisdom." A year or so ago, I may have even said it myself. Thanks to Hidden Brain for enlightening me on why that "advice" is so darn hard to act on when you're in the scarcity trap.

I highly recommend giving this podcast a listen or a read so you can better understand your friends who are in a tunnel — whether it's money, companionship, time, babies, or world peace that they are finding in seriously short supply. Or perhaps it will help you better understand yourself, as it did for me.

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  1. This really, really resonated with me. Not in terms of wanting to be pregnant, but in terms of loneliness. I have been really struggling to understand why I'm so desperate to not be single now, why bad dates and short-lived flings hurt so much now, when three years ago (coming out of the last serious relationship I was in) I could shrug all of it off. I too have been spending a lot of time judging myself for not being able to just let it go and enjoy where I'm at right now, wondering what the me of three years ago would think of the desperate, depressed person I've become.

    Thanks for writing this—I'm going to go listen to that podcast now. 🙂

    3 agree
  2. Yes! This podcast caused a realization in my life too! When we were waiting for "the call" for my husband's lung transplant, I couldn't do anything else but focus on his health. I "tried" to take care of myself, but I had tunnel vision for only one thing – getting him healthy again. This podcast helped me realize how deeply effecting tunnel vision can be on your life and your decisions. It helped me have more empathy for myself and others. Love Hidden Brain!

    2 agree
  3. This post really helped me, thank you. I hope I can broaden my mind and be more open to realizing what other people may be going through, as well as realizing what might be happening to my own thoughts.

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