Is Putting Off Motherhood a Big Mistake?

The author of a new book about fertility delivers a hard truth: that biology doesn't always align with our rosy feminist ideals.

Jan 19, 2014 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

In her new book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, (Jan. 2014, Prometheus), writer Tanya Selvaratnam argues -- pretty damn persuasively -- that the semi-recent trend of women delaying motherhood into their late 30s and early 40s could be, well, a major mistake. Not the idea that we should hold onto our reproductive freedoms, or strive for amazing careers AND happy families -- Selvaratnam is a feminist, for gawd's sake, and she herself waited until she was in her late thirties and in a solid relationship to try for children.

But ... she may have waited too long; Selvaratnam ended up miscarrying three times, which she explores in painful detail in the book (which is part manifesto and part personal history). The author's miscarriages clearly helped inform her beliefs on female fertility and the myth that having kids can wait. Selvaratnam serves up the cold reality that no matter how much money we throw at it or how many breakthrough reproductive advances science struggles to develop, biology is biology, and expecting it to bend to our whims and wishes might be setting ourselves up for crushing disappointment.

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The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock

The book hit home for me as a newly 37-year-old (eeeeek, my birthday was Friday!) single woman who still feels vaguely unclear about whether I want kids. I've spent the past few years reassuring myself that I'll figure it out eventually -- namely, when/if the right dude comes along -- and that NBD, I can totally wait until I'm 39 or 40 to try to pop one out, because my friend had a kid at 40 with no problem, and my friend's cousin had a baby at 42, and hey, didn't Halle Berry get pregnant at something crazy like 46? See, told you, NBD! Um, never mind -- it's kind of a BD, actually, as Selvaratnam's book reminds us. She might not be saying what we want to hear, but hey, at least she's honest.

Read my interview with the author below.

xoJane: Can you explain what the title "The Big Lie" means for people who haven't read the book?
Tanya Selvaratnam: The Big Lie is that we can do things on our own timetables. The Big Lie is that we can manipulate evolution. The Big Lie is that we don’t need feminism anymore. And in the book I ask and attempt to answer: Are these lies or willing deceptions?

How did going through 3 miscarriages change the way you looked at delayed motherhood, and motherhood in general?
I blamed myself for not seeking out information, and I blamed my education and conditioning for my lack of awareness of the exact correlation between delayed motherhood and fertility issues. I knew that I was pushing things by waiting until I was in my late 30s, but I didn’t realize by how much. Moreover, the longer you wait, the shorter your window within which to have a biological child. Now I tell my younger friends, especially those who are in their 30s, to think proactively about their goals for parenthood and strategize accordingly. They might not want a child now, but they should be prepared for the fact that they might change their minds in the future.

What do you wish you'd known as a younger woman about your reproductive options in your thirties?
No one ever talked to me about fertility preservation — from the relationship between eating disorders and fertility to the possibility of freezing my eggs, which I could have done in my 30s because the technology was gaining ground by then. But then, no one ever talked to me about my fertility span. I went to a Christian elementary school in East L.A. where I remember one session of sex education in 6th grade during which I came away with only that babies were made through sex between a man and a woman. Thereafter, I went to an all-girls junior high school for two years where I don’t recall any sex education (though I read lots of Judy Blume books), and then to a boarding school for high school where the emphasis was on pregnancy and STD prevention.

You wrote that, as a culture, we "prefer positive spin to more difficult narratives." How does that idea play out in the realm of women's fertility?
I was citing Barbara Ehrenreich, the great feminist author and activist. One of my goals with the book is to present both the fertility successes and the infertility struggles. I was one of those many women who looked at celebrities and friends having babies seemingly without any difficulties in their late 30s and 40s and thought I would be like them. Those who struggle often hide their stories.

You also wrote that, after having miscarried multiple times, you realized that a dozen of your friends had also had miscarriages, but no one had talked about it. Why do you think that is? Why is there such a stigma around talking about miscarriage?
Peggy Orenstein has written about the silence around miscarriage, “Without form, there’s no content.” Even though it is so common (25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage), we still feel like failures when it happens to us. It’s a deeply emotional and physiologically trying experience, and it’s hard in general to talk about pain. But by sharing our stories, we can help others who might be in the same boat. We might even be able to lessen some of the suffering.

How does feminism play into this stuff -- do you think modern feminism devalues motherhood?
I don’t blame feminism at all. The messages of feminism dovetailed perfectly with advances in reproductive science (wider access to birth control, IVF, etc.), and this gave women the feeling that their fertilities were more within their control. They could delay motherhood until they were ready, and if necessary, science could give them a child. I think we’re at a good moment to reconcile the language of feminism with the reality of the biological clock. That’s one of the main goals of my book. It’s very feminist to arm women with knowledge so that they can make better decisions about their futures.

What advice might you give to women graduating from college today about their future options around having children?
My main advice to women in college is to educate yourselves about the fertility basics, think proactively about your goals both for parenthood and career, and take care of your bodies. Lifestyle choices you make today can impact your fertility in the future. I end the book with Action Items for the Future, in which I give women in their 20s this kind of advice and much more. I’m also creating a toolkit that will be available as a free download on my website, TheBigLieBook.com, beginning in January.

What do you most hope readers will learn or take away from your book?
I want the book to be a conversation-starter and policy-changer. I hope the book inspires readers to make change in their lives and in the world. I want people to put themselves boldly into the future they envision for themselves. We are constantly pitching ourselves against the expectations of others, and this sets us up for disappointment and failure. I want people to embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people build families and the various ways people live their lives, with kids or without.

Anything else you want to mention or emphasize? Anything I've missed?
You asked excellent questions. Thank you! Maybe “what are you working on next?” When I’m not writing, I’m producing or acting. On Monday, February 24, Mickalene Thomas’s "Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman" will premiere on HBO. Another film I produced, Catherine Gund’s "Born to Fly," about Elizabeth Streb, the Evel Knievel of dance, will play at Film Forum in New York this fall. Director Chiara Clemente and I plan to start a documentary feature this summer. And I want to get to work on my next book!