Sunday, 18 August 2013

Those who bash women for 'delaying motherhood' are hypocrites, don't understand human reproduction

Having reached the advanced age of mid-thirties, my attention is called quite often to articles and opinion pieces in the news regarding us stubborn, career-driven harpies who refuse to reproduce until we are good and ready, only to find that after the witching year of 35, things aren't so easy. Your eggs are old, lady! Give up and get a cat. Serves you right, anyway. The Daily Fail is full of these types of pieces - 'personal interest' stories about some poor 40-year old woman who would give up all her success, designer shoes and non-essential organs if only she could go back and have a kid at 20. Or worse: a woman who did manage to have children after 35 or 40, but is now too old and decrepit to chase them up into trees or stay awake during Mommy and Me.

Now I can't be strictly sure that there are more such stories than before, (since when I was a wee sprinbok in my twenties concerned only with non-procreative sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, and that f**king career, I likely would not have noticed them anyway), but from all the apocalyptic yelling going on about it of late, it would certainly seem as if humanity is in decline: no one is having any babies, and the end is nigh, and it's all your infertile fault, thirty-something lady. Except, not so much. In the US, where much of the yelling is happening, infertility rates are on the decline, and not because more people are having fertility treatments; this latter statistic has remained flat since 2002. In the UK, adult infertility numbers are being linked more and more to male infertility, with "male factors now accounting for 30 percent of fertility problems - the same as female factors". Even in Europe, where falling fertility rates (ratio of live births in an area to the population of that area) since 2008 are being flagged as alarming, they are closely linked in the research to the economic recession. That is, countries like Spain and Greece which fared among the worst saw the sharpest decreases in fertility rates, while those with better performance recorded no change or even increases. In other words, it's less about women's 'selfish choices' (whatever those are) and more about real or perceived and/or future financial constraint. Even the Daily Fail is forced to admit the relationship between financial situation and reproductive decisions. A similar argument can be made in Latin America and the Caribbean, where fertility rates are in fact falling, though in general not yet having reached the below replacement levels of 'developed' countries. The region as a whole still reflects Bloom's 'demographic dividend' - with an economically active population that is greater than the dependent population - but this may not last much longer, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean. Still, high levels of migration in the working age population are more likely behind this than Caribbean women's refusal to have children.

And this new debate, if not presented as willful non-compliance in the business of populating the earth, is presented as emerging wisdom to fill some gap in knowledge: women have simply had the wrong information. Hey ladies, I know you thought you could wait forever and carry out your own, selfish lady-business before reproducing, but nuh uh, missy, NEW RESEARCH shows you're about to expire. As someone who has owned a uterus for over thirty years, let me say this: we know. I'm not saying that every woman everywhere is in possession of an identical body of knowledge. In fact, we know this not to be true, which is part of the reason sharing information on sexual and reproductive health and access remains important. But a high percentage of the target audience for this blame-a-thon - professional women with tertiary or advanced technical education - already. Know. They are all too aware of their declining fertility. This is one of those cases in which knowledge on its own cannot translate into action. In simpler terms: even armed with this information, what would you have them do? Certainly not run out and fall pregnant by some random, which itself attracts its own brand of she's-a-witch vilification, and is the basis of much urban legend. Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose dressmaker's neighbour's domino partner was tricked into fatherhood by some desperate thirty-something. Always something with these women - either they're 20 and poking holes in condoms to trap a cricketer (cause we all know how deep cricketers are rolling), or 30 and going off the pill so their boyfriend will marry them goddamit, or 40 and having one night stands with friends/strangers, then spiriting away their sperm. Tricky tricksters.

The thing is, every reproductive choice a woman makes at this age is criticized.
Happily child-free? You're selfish and just want to keep your flat belly and boozing ways.
Unhappily child-free? Your fault. You used to be selfish and just wanted to have your career, flat belly and boozing ways.
Child-free, single and trying to conceive? Hoor! Children are for couples. And what about your poor, fatherless child? Single mothers are everything that's wrong with the world. You're selfish and just want to have a child to love you.

Herein lies the hypocrisy. And even had they had this knowledge earlier, before it was Too Late, the same applies.

Me explico. Growing up in Barbados, getting pregnant was the worst thing you could do. Not just as a teenager, but anytime before you had secured your place as a DoctorLawyerBankmanager. I'm serious. The Worst Thing. Teenage or 'early' pregnancy was blamed for all the ills of society, directly or indirectly. Boys are under-performing in school? Teenage pregnancy (and girls' sexuality). Never mind that the boys' (teenage fathers') asses are sat in classrooms while the girls are the ones run out of school with pitchforks. The dubious problem of society losing its morals? The dubious explanation of teenage pregnancy. Drowning at Miami Beach? Teenage pregnancy. Winston Hall escaped from jail again? Teenage pregnancy. And so on. It doesn't matter what issue is at hand. Invariably, in any meeting anywhere on the island, someone is going to raise his hand confounded that we are four minutes into the session and no one has brought up the scourge of teenage pregnancy.

None of this was lost on the generation of women now in our mid-thirties. In the Caribbean, for children of the working class, education - and I'm not talking just high school I'm talking first or advanced degree - is the handful of magic beans. You had better get it and stick with it until you can prove to people that your family is officially out of the working class. So for women, pregnancy is to be avoided at all costs even into your twenties. Of course, people get pregnant in their early twenties and are not made to wear a scarlet A, but it is hoped in general that you get your papers before you get your pickney. And then there's the whole wedlock business. I noticed growing up that the least Christian of Caribbean people could utter the phrase 'out of wedlock' with the highest amount of reverence - for wedlock. The single mother business was nothing to be admired, so there's another delay. No babies yet. Get your papers, get your husband. And this is what I mean about how reproduction works. In general and for most of history, for a heterosexual woman, if you want a biological kid, you find a man. He has the rest of the genetic material required. One cannot just grow a baby by sheer force of will. So this emphasis on the selfishness and willfulness of women is just silly. Are we supposed to be selective in partner for all other purposes save for that of reproduction? It seems to me the place to be most selective.

At lunch with an older woman friend recently, I saw a man she knew say to her, in disgust: "Why don't you go and get your children? What else you waiting for?" She said, without hesitation, "I going when I leave here. Where they selling?" And that's really the point. Apart from the inappropriateness of commenting on a person's reproductive choices, have we forgotten the several variables involved? Some of which we have all actively enforced throughout that woman's life cycle and until this point? I can't help but consider that in small societies such as ours, we see women who have 'opted for' marriage and/or children by 35 as well-behaved, and we are pleased. Whether that has meant a great, old-fashioned love and family story (I know some) or settling for marriage to some less-than-adequate (in her estimation) dude so babymaking could ensue, or something else, we can more readily live with a woman who has accepted misery as a cost of motherhood, than with one who has, for whatever reason, not chosen motherhood at all.

Most readers could guess my private and public position: child-free by choice? Ok. Child-free and trying at 39? Ok. Adopting? Surrogacy? Platonic co-parenting? Whatever. Not only are the success stats not as dire as the flailing people suggest, but there are several paths to happiness.

But what strikes me is that just as a generation of women hits 35-44 and are grappling with their reproductive choices, we are now, conveniently, getting over some of our puritanism just enough to discover that in fact, 'early' pregnancy is not the worst fate that could befall a woman and society. No pregnancy is. I tell you. If it isn't one thing - and by 'thing' I mean false set of values based on nothing but ascribed to all - it's another.

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