having it all

The Myth of the Biological Clock?

Last year an article came out supposedly debunking the idea that it is more difficult to conceive after 35.  Women around the world cheered, and jubilant articles were written, applauding how science could finally free women from the pressure to start their families before they were ready and the guilt they might feel if they didn’t. Let’s celebrate ladies: the notion that our bodies are too old to reproduce is just another way the patriarchy has been trying to keep us down and out of the workplace.

Now, the articles and critiques are reappearing upon the publication of Tanya Selvaratnam’s book The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock, which addresses the conflicting information women receive about the reality of their bodies and reproductive capabilities and the media focus on the many celebrities over 35 or even 40 having children seemingly effortlessly.  This morning I read an article in Salon by Mary Elizabeth Williams that criticized Selvaratnam for blaming feminism for never tackling the issue of fertility. My first issue with Williams’ piece was that I didn’t think her examples of previously-written articles did much to debunk Selvaratnam’s thesis. Secondly, this quote:

Can we stop setting up the straw man, as Selvaratnam does, that “Biology does not bend to feminist ideals”? Because I’ve got to tell you, I know a lot of people who’ve been to hell and back trying to become parents but I don’t know a single one who put off motherhood because she was a self-centered pawn of feminism.

Here’s the problem. I don’t think any of the journalists who write pieces like this have ever been to a fertility clinic. I have the dubious honor of having been to three different clinics on our 4-year journey to parenthood and I can assure you that at ages 28-31 (hardly a spring chicken), I was often one of the youngest patients in the waiting room. I joined fertility message boards and read blogs from other going through infertility and again, there is a decent number of women who were over 35 trying to conceive.

It’s kind of funny because when I was in the trenches and would read articles escoriating “those women” in fertility clinics for putting their jobs first and bringing their conception problems on themselves, I wanted to scream that not all women having trouble conceiving were older (age was one of the few things Jimmy and I had going for us). But that was the perception: trouble conceiving = advanced age = selfish bitch who put her career ahead of family.

So my question for Williams and others is just who are those women over 35 in fertility clinics? Why are they there? Was it because they just didn’t meet the right person until later in life? Maybe. But the bottom line is that for many women, they are in the clinic over age 35 because they put off having a baby for whatever reason. Maybe it was their career. Maybe it was because there were other issues. Maybe it was because they wanted to travel, see the world, whatever. It doesn’t really matter WHY; what matters is the fact that they delayed childbearing and then found themselves in a fertility clinic because they were having problems conceiving.

Now it appears the tables have turned and women supposedly have more time to conceive and woe anyone who dares to question that “fact.” Because science.  This change is troubling because, well, SCIENCE.  The fact is that while humans have made incredible gains in longevity, basic biology hasn’t changed. Maybe in a few thousand or hundreds of thousands of years, our reproductive organs will catch up to the fact that we can live longer lives, but the reality is that fertility declines with age, especially for women. And if you do conceive, you have a higher chance of miscarriage or having a child with a disability. I’m not going to cite the facts; you can read many of them here. Yes, yes. I know. We all know women who have conceived on their first month trying at age 40 and gone on to have a healthy baby. And of course, celebrities and their apparently amazing fertility after 40. Those are the outliers. Those are the examples that tempt us to believe we have more time than we do.

Selvaratnam is correct in that frank discussions about fertility are a feminist issue. We cannot change biology and the basic fact that the human body is best suited to reproduce in its 20s when we are busy building careers. Yes, I know that SUCKS, but feminism cannot change that and needs to acknowledge that. You know what feminism could change? Policies that make it career vs family. Policies that make it easier to delay childbearing because it hurts your career and earning potential to have a child. We’ve read the articles that tell us women who have children are often mommy-tracked and lose earning potential. That’s what we need to change. That it’s not career OR family but career AND family. The ability to downshift for a few years when children are young. Affordable, quality daycare. Supportive workplaces and flexible schedules.

At the very least, feminism could lead discussions about basic fertility. Why aren’t we taught more about our bodies beyond ovaries, eggs, fertilization and menstruation in school? Every one should be required to read Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I was amazed by what I learned about what my body could do and tell me (mine wasn’t working so well at the time, so it was mostly theory but still) and shocked that at almost 30, I knew none of that information. Put off having children if you want, but at least make that decision knowing the facts about female biology.

But…wait! What about those treatments in the fertility clinic? They allow women to have babies. It’s cool. I can just saunter into a clinic and have IVF whenever. Maybe even get twins! Fertility treatments let us overcome age and are actually a source of empowerment! Oh dear. Bless your heart. Reproductive technology is awesome, and I salute science for helping me to overcome my fertility issues to have my son. But folks, it is not a panacea. Clomid != baby. IUI !=baby. IVF !=baby. What assisted reproduction does is give you a chance, increase your odds.  The stats surrounding success rates for these treatments are fairly dismal. You may have a 0% or 10% chance on your own; IVF may increase it to 30%.  Yes, those are improved odds but not necessarily ones I’d take to Vegas. If I saw we had a 30% chance of it raining, I’d assume that rain was unlikely.

Age rears its ugly head in fertility treatments too. Over a certain age, you may not produce many eggs and the ones you do may not fertilize or develop.  The doctor may tell you your best bet is to use the eggs from – wait for it – a donor who is 10-15 years younger than you are. The only reproductive organ age doesn’t impact as much or can be overcome more easily is the uterus, which is why you read about 60 year old women carrying their own grandchildren. Part of the problem is that beyond concluding that eggs are old and of diminished quality, doctors really don’t know much more about egg quality and why some IVFs work and some don’t. What they do know is that their success rates decrease dramatically for women using their own eggs over 35. Frankly, successful conception is a crap-shoot for everyone, regardless of age.

Speaking of empowerment, there is little empowering about fertility treatments. I did 6 clomid cycles, one injectable IUI cycle, 2 fresh IVS, and 1 FET. I’ve also had a HSG, 2 laps, and a lot of pain. I have one child. I can think of little that is empowering about the following:

  • Feeling rage, hot flashes and irrational while taking Clomid.
  • Having a doctor tell you that maybe the excruciating pain you feel that makes you seriously contemplate a DIY oophorectomy is normal for you
  • Bleeding daily for months
  • Finally being in a position to afford children only to have to pay exorbitant sums to attempt to have a child (outcome not guaranteed)
  • Feeling depressed and unable to focus at work because you are focused on how you feel less of a woman; you are supposed to be able to do everything – why can’t you have a baby? And why isn’t your career enough for you?
  • Hating your body because it failed you so spectacularly (hardly body acceptance)
  • Accepting that your only path to a biological child is for another woman to carry your child (are you Mom Enough? Apparently not)
  • Looking like a heroin addict thanks to daily blood draws at the clinic
  • Two weeks of painful shots of progesterone-in-oil (PIO) in the butt
  • Becoming comfortable dropping trou and extremely familiar with the “dildo cam”
  • Lack of focus at work because you are in and out for doctor’s appointments and waiting on the daily call on your hormone levels; sobbing uncontrollably when the levels don’t cooperate
  • Having little control over your reproductive outcomes; that control resides in the RE, usually a man, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it does reinforce a power differential
  • Having your clinic break up with you because you are a hopeless case and they don’t want you to ruin their stats.

Those are just a few I can think of based on my own experiences. Others have more examples I’m sure.

The point of this post is not to blame or shame. Do what you want, wait as long as you want, but do so armed with information. Understand that every decision has consequences. Understand that it sucks for women because our biology pits us against other goals we have that don’t involve children.  And it isn’t talked about. Not as much as it should be.  Ann-Marie Slaughter alluded briefly to the fact that she waited until her mid-to-late 30s to have her children and did experience trouble conceiving, but that tidbit was lost in the brouhaha about how she dared to tell women they couldn’t have it all and that they needed to think carefully about their choices.

So maybe feminism didn’t lie overtly to you about putting off having babies, but at the very least, it was a lie of omission. We can do better than that for each other.


An Epidemic of Generalization

The mainstream media has had an awesome couple of weeks of telling us how much we all suck.  First, there was Elizabeth Kolbert pondering why American kids are so spoiled.  Then came Anne-Marie Slaughter laying out for us why women still can’t have it all.  And if you didn’t feel crappy enough because of your spoiled kids and futile, pitiful attempts to have an amazing career and a wonderful family, then you must certainly feel lousy after Tim Kreider chided us all for being busy for the sake of being busy last Sunday.

Those stories went viral, generating discussion and reaction.  What frustrates me is that those articles were held up as truth when they were actually one person’s experience generalized to all of us.

Spoiled Kids

Kolbert’s article compares a study Ochs and Izquierdo did on 32 middle class families in Los Angeles to the helpful, cooperative children of the Matsigenka tribe.  While a six-year-old member of the Matsigenka tribe cooked and cleaned for members of the tribe, an 8-year-old named Ben in LA refused to untie his own shoes, and in example after example, the parents ended up doing things for their children.  Kolbert’s conclusion is that all American parents want their children’s approval and are raising spoiled, entitled children.  I object to that generalization.  If Daniel cannot tie his shoes at 8-years-old, I have done a pretty crappy job as a parent.  The examples used by Ochs and Izquierdo are horrifying, and I cannot believe that the majority of parents reading Kolbert’s article would nod and agree that those scenarios happen in their house.  Thirty-two families from the same city is also a very small sample size and certainly too small to use to generalize to millions of parents and children.  It’s another case of shoddy research or at least misunderstood research generating headlines.

Can’t Have It All

Ms. Slaughter left her dream job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  to return to her university job and her family after only 2 years because she decided her family needed her at home.  I’m not deriding her decision; I object that based on her experience, she pronounces that women can’t have it all and gets to do it from a major outlet.  I don’t even dispute many of her points and recommendations. Slaughter’s article addresses the dearth of women in high-level leadership positions, which isn’t germane to most working women.  And yeah, that’s sort of her point but at the same time, for many women, we’re working hard to survive and taking care of our families. We don’t have the luxury to stop and think about why we aren’t in positions of leadership.

More importantly, what is the definition of “having it all?” At what point do I say I have it all?  At what point would Slaughter conclude that I have it all?  I work full time doing challenging, interesting work.  My paycheck pays our mortgage and other bills. I manage 3 people.  I travel to conferences and around the state for meetings.  I’m fortunate to to have the ability to take my son to doctor appointments, schedule play dates, scope out day cares, play with him at night and on the weekends, read books to him and sing him to sleep.  To me, that’s having it all. If I have a friend who works as an executive assistant or dental hygienist and they are happy with that, then don’t they have it all?  I absolutely, 100% agree that there are a lot of changes to be made to legislation and in the workplace in order to make it easier for men and women to have careers and be the involved parents they want to be, but that’s for any job, not only high-level ones.  I disagree with Slaughter deciding that based on her “all” not working out for her, her “all” is my “all” and impossible to have.

My Fault I’m Busy

And last but not least, Mr. Kreider.  Mr. Kreider can support himself by working a few hours a day.  If he wants to take off for parts unknown or kick up his feet, he can.  And based on his experience, he concludes that the rest of us are manufacturing being busy in order provide “existential reassurance” and meaning to our sad, boring lives.  First of all, I can assure you that I am not making up being busy because the truth is that I don’t like being busy.  Sure, sometimes it’s nice to be busy and have meeting after meeting, obligation after obligation to create some structure to my day or week, but more often, I prefer not being busy.  I love the nights when we have nothing more to do after dinner is eaten and Daniel is in bed than to read or watch mindless tv.  Or sit on the porch and talk.  As with Slaughter’s article, there is a grain of truth in Kreider’s piece in that we could all do with a slower-paced life, but it’s insulting that he accuses us of causing our own problem instead of acknowledging that modern life is incredibly fast-paced and that most of us don’t have the luxury to unplug and work only a few hours a day. Take back your finger wag, please!

Mass Media and Truth Making

I also recognize that you could accuse me of generalizing too based on only my experience.  Fair enough, but that brings us to my second major issue: mass media and truth.  By being published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times, Kostner, Slaughter and Kreider have the power of traditional media behind them to sanction their points of view.  The challenge to traditional media is exactly why I love blogging and its power.  We get to share our voice and challenge these sanctioned points of view.  We get to demonstrate that there is not one truth but many truths. My truth, your truth, someone else’s truth. I believe blogging has the power to take down the Truth Makers of traditional media.

Or at least I did believe that.  I’m worried that the potential blogging has is in jeopardy.  I have a brain crush on Bon Stewart, and she has been doing some amazing thinking on identity, truth-making and culture in the Digital Age.  We’ve chatted a bit about whether traditional media is reasserting control over us through monetization and audience-building trends in blogging.  Please read her post today on produsage and think about the potential harm Kostner’s, Slaughter’s and Kreider’s articles pose when communication is only one way.

What do you think?  Is this another case of KeAnne going off her rocker again?