The gorgeous-and-divine Tertia has written a post entitled Do they owe the sisterhood anything? – the ‘they’ in question being celebrity mothers who conceive in their forties. I am shamelessly hijacking this in order to give me a jumping-off point to rant about a perennial irritation of mine – in view of this, I should probably specify from the start that my irritation here isn’t primarily with Tertia, but with the way this subject gets treated generally. Besides, Tertia’s too gorgeous and divine to get all that irritated with.
From Tertia’s post:
Let me share with you a fact that you might
not be aware of. Your fertility
declines, fairly rapidly, after the age of 37… So many women don’t seem to realize that
age has an enormous affect on your fertility… Women see other older women having babies –
high profile celebs seem to pop out babies left right and centre. Look how easy it is for them, surely we can
What the poor woman in the street doesn’t
realize is that many of these older women who are having babies after the age
of 40 have done so with assistance (fertility treatment) and often with the use
of donor eggs… I know that, many don’t. And that makes me a little cross.
I think it creates a false sense of security,
a false sense of how much time an older woman has left over in which to start
trying for a family. It makes me want
these older celeb moms to come out and be honest about the fact that they
needed help to conceive, that it isn’t easy to get pregnant on your own after
And yet, do they
owe us anything? They have the right, just as we do, to be
private about who and where and when they conceived…
What do you think? Do you think these older celeb moms owe us any
form of honesty about how difficult it is to conceive later on in life, or don’t
they owe us anything?
Well, my answer to that question would be "Hell, no." The mere fact that you are a famous singer/actress/whatever does not mean that it somehow becomes your job to educate the public on fertility issues, and the mere fact that the poor sods never actually get any privacy does not mean that they are not technically as entitled to it as anyone else. The details of how they build their families are their business, and whether they choose to share that information or not is up to them. (Oh, and the answer to Tertia’s other question – the one I didn’t quote – is that, no, I’m not infertile. Or at least I wasn’t when I last tried to get pregnant, although I should point out that since then I’ve passed that magic age of 35 at which a woman’s eggs all start to implode and so this may, for all I know, no longer be true.)
But I’ve got a question of my own here. Is what Tertia says really true? I don’t mean about the decline of fertility in later life: I know that’s true. I mean, is it really true that substantial numbers of women are unaware of this fact?
I know it’s widely believed that this is the case. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been reading articles in popular women’s magazines at regular intervals on the general theme of how women are foolishly leaving childbearing until their biological clocks have run down, all because they’re blithely ignorant of the risks. I’ve yet to see anyone present any evidence that this is the widespread problem they claim it is – after all, when you can dig up one or two examples of women who made this mistake and are willing to tell their stories, why bother with any actual figures? But I’ve seen the claim itself made more times than I could count.
Which means, presumably, that millions of other women have also read those articles. With the number of people telling us what a major problem it is that women don’t know that there’s a time limit on our fertility, I wouldn’t have thought there could be that many women left who are oblivious to the fact that there is a time limit on our fertility. The term ‘biological clock’ has become a cliché, for goodness’ sake. Oh, I have no doubt at all that there are some women out there who really don’t have a clue that getting pregnant at 40 is likely to be far more difficult than it would have been at 20. But does anyone actually have any hard data on the proportion of women in, say, the mid-twenties to mid-thirties age range who are postponing childbearing based purely on the belief that, la-la-la-la-la, they have all the time in the world? I certainly haven’t seen any figures. And, in the absence of figures, perhaps journalists could stop assuming that this supposed ignorance is the huge problem they keep saying it is.
Of course, there are plenty of women who postpone childbearing for other reasons. What I’m doubting here is whether there are really that many women for whom "Well, it’s not as though I’m going to have any major problem getting pregnant no matter how late I leave it" is a major factor influencing their reproductive decisions. I suspect it’s much more common for people to postpone childbearing for the same reason I did – because they felt that their lives were not currently at a stage where having children would be a responsible and appropriate decision for them.
Personally, I made the decision that I shouldn’t have children until I had the emotional maturity and financial stability to take on responsibility for a dependent life, plus a prospective father with whom I could see myself being happy to share the job, and my life, on the sort of long-term basis that would be necessary. It’s a choice that was spoken of disapprovingly in a BMJ editorial almost a year ago: "[T]he availability of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) may lull women into infertility while they wait for a suitable partner", wrote Bewley, Davies, and Braude. (By the way, if you’re having trouble with that link, try it again after September 17th – on-line BMJs are only available to members until a year after publication, but should be available to the general public after that.) What they’re silent about is what, precisely, they’re suggesting should be the appropriate alternative to waiting for a suitable partner. Unsuitable partner? Sperm bank and single parenthood? Both of those have quite enough potential disadvantages that I preferred to take my chances on waiting for Mr Right.
I wasn’t ‘lulled into’ postponing childbearing by the belief that IVF was a fine-and-dandy backup plan (in fact, I was fairly sure that if it turned out I couldn’t get pregnant then I’d want to adopt rather than go down the road of fertility treatment) or that my ovaries were going to stay young forever. I postponed childbearing, despite feeling desperately impatient for a baby and anything but ‘lulled’, because I didn’t feel that the mere fact that I wanted a baby gave me some sort of automatic right to have one without considering the consequences for the baby. (And, for that matter, the other person involved in conceiving it.) I believed (and still believe) that my parental responsibilities began before conception and included considering not just whether I wanted a baby, but whether I was in a situation to give it the good start in life that I wanted to give it. I knew I was risking heartbreak by doing things this way; and I also knew that that really wasn’t the most important issue, because it wasn’t all about me.
All of which is why I find the ‘Postponing pregnancy? Why, they clearly don’t have a clue about basic biology. What fools these women be!’ articles intensely irritating. When you are trying to stick to life choices you believe to be responsible and ethical despite knowing that there’s a very real chance they might ultimately result in an unhappy ending for you, it is somewhat galling to see yourself portrayed in media stereotypes as making those choices out of ignorance. I do realise that ‘Postponing pregnancy? Why, they’re clearly making sensible and well-thought-out decisions after careful weighing of the pros and cons of different alternatives. How responsible these women be!’ doesn’t have quite the same immediately apparent potential for attention-grabbing headlines, but it’s an image I’d like to see journalists portraying more often.