As women, we are told we should become mothers, but we are also told we should pursue our passions and careers. We are told we can’t have it all, we are told we can’t do it all, but yet, somehow we are still expected to do it all: To have babies. To work. To mother, to create, to craft, to cook dinner and to bring home the bacon. And we’re supposed to do it on the timeline that happens to coincide with what’s societally acceptable. On top of that, if we’re young mothers, we are irresponsible. If we’re old mothers, we are selfish.
But the reality is that life, and biology, does not always allow for this, or any, ideal motherhood. Or sometimes, the ability to even become a mother at all. Actress, producer and writer Tanya Selvaratnam‘s book The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock (Prometheus Books, 2014) seeks to tell the truth about modern women, motherhood, and fertility. For Tanya, the “big lie” that we’re being told (and sold) by our culture is that motherhood can happen whenever you want it to. In her research and in her personal experience, that’s just not true.
Tanya’s book is a heartbreaking, eye-opening journey through the realities of today’s reproductive climate. I talked to her about feminism, our healthcare system, and what women today can do to ensure they can become mothers when the time is right.
Your book is a melding of personal experience and extensive research on everything from fertility treatments to declining birth rates. It’s also, quite clearly, a call to action for women. What was your impetus to write a book of this kind?
I got the idea for The Big Lie after my third miscarriage at the age of 40 in fall 2011. I wrote the book that I wished I could have read then. I explore many Big Lies—that we can do things on our own timetables, that we can manipulate evolution, that we don’t need feminism anymore.
Frustrated not so much by the lack of information but by the conflicting messages in the media, I set out to investigate how delaying motherhood intersects with reproductive science, feminism, evolution, popular culture, female friendships, and global economics. When I began writing, I had no idea how my personal situation would evolve, and I was unprepared for the logistical and emotional roller coaster my life would become. The book is part memoir and part manifesto. I offer my personal story to connect to while
presenting up-to-date research, interviews with experts and women around the country, action items for the future, and an extensive list of resources on fertility awareness, adoption, feminism, and more.
I haven’t yet had any children of my own (or tried to get pregnant), so in a way your book was incredibly eye-opening for me, at the same time as being incredibly terrifying. I had to read it very slowly because it brought up so many anxieties for me. I feel like that was part of your goal, to shake things up and make women uncomfortable. Is this a fair assumption?
The point I make in The Big Lie is that we need to balance the optimistic scenarios of later childbearing with the heartbreaking ones so that people are more aware of and prepared for the possible outcomes. The language of the biological clock has been around for decades, but we have to cut through the conflicting and confusing messages that are still out there. According to the US Census, the number of women ages 40 to 44 who remain childless has doubled in a generation; in 1976, it was 1 in 10; by 2006, it was 1 in 5. Women are not having kids for various reasons–some by choice, others by circumstance (biological, economic, etc.). My goal is not to induce panic but to arm women with more information so that they can make better choices. I also want to encourage readers to embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people build families (adoption, single parenthood, surrogacy, etc.) and the variety of choices people make (e.g., to have kids or not).
Although you identify as a feminist, you’re also really critical of the role feminism has played in “the big lie.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
While I am critical of the disconnect that sometimes happened between feminist messages and medical realities, I definitely don’t blame feminism. I do explore how various factors, including feminism’s early victories and advances in reproductive science, dovetailed to create an atmosphere in which women believed their timetables for motherhood were more within their controls. The language of the biological clock has been around for decades, but conflicting or misleading messages persist. In the book, I make a strong argument for why we need feminism more than ever. Some people, I think mistakenly, have taken my message about the costs of delaying motherhood as an attack on feminism, rather than as a means of figuring out what feminism can and should mean for women today. I believe it is the very role of feminists to arm women with knowledge so that they can make better choices to take control of their futures.
One of the sources you quote in your book also says that she thinks the burden for this also lies on individual women, that they should become more informed about their own bodies and about fertility. Do you agree? How do you think this can be accomplished?
I advocate for women to seek out information about the fertility basics, but I believe the more important solution is to overhaul sex education to incorporate fertility awareness alongside pregnancy and STD prevention.
A poll by RESOLVE, the national infertility association, of 1,000 women between the ages of 25 and 35 also found serious gaps in fertility awareness, with most respondents not knowing how sharply fertility declines with age. The results of a study released in January 2014 in the journal Fertility & Sterility affirm this prevalent lack of awareness. Dr. Jessica Illuzzi of Yale University School of Medicine and her team gave 1,000 women around the country of various age, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups an online survey about reproductive health knowledge. As NPR reported, the majority of women had big gaps in knowledge, especially when it came to risk factors for infertility and birth defects; only 10 percent of respondents knew the optimal time to try to get pregnant.
We should be getting comprehensive fertility knowledge from our health educators and doctors, and we should be getting it earlier, possibly during sex education.
What about our healthcare system? How can it further support women’s reproductive choices, including delayed motherhood? Should IVF and egg freezing be covered under insurance?
Currently, only 15 states mandate some form of fertility treatment coverage. As I dug deeper into the economics of and healthcare options for infertility, I was struck by how where you live and how much money you make profoundly impact your pursuit of parenthood. We have to transform the dominant thinking that fertility treatments are elective and only a problem of rich white people. Infertility and the treatment of it affect people around the world and in various socioeconomic groups.
There are a couple of measures our healthcare system can take. First, improve insurance coverage and make it more widespread. Second, incorporate fertility education into routine appointments with our Ob/Gyns. I suggest that a chart of a woman’s fertility span be posted on Ob/Gyn office walls. Third, expand research on women’s and men’s fertilities and on fertility treatments. Fourth, there should be more regulation of clinics and treatments. Infertility is big business. Recently, I read a report by Allied Market Research that revenue in the global IVF market is expected to rise from about $9 billion to more than $20 billion by the year 2020. Access, Education, Research, Oversight— these are tangible, achievable solutions and could help alleviate some of the suffering.
I was struck by a quote in your book, “I have noticed this attitude among friends who are able to have children but haven’t because they say they are not in the right place or with the right person in their lives. I personally feel if they really want to be mothers, nothing would prevent them from that goal.”
I certainly see what you mean by that, but to me, it also seems like a privileged take on motherhood because for many women, it’s just not (and will never be) that simple. Would you like to respond?
Thank you for the opportunity to respond. The context for this statement is I noticed a trend among some of my friends that was referenced in a piece in the UK magazine Red. In a survey of 3,000 women between the ages of 28 and 45, 54% described themselves as “emotionally infertile,” meaning they wanted to have children but hadn’t found a partner or their partner didn’t want to have children. I then talk about women I know who didn’t wait to have the partner or finances in place and moved forward with being single mothers through sperm donation. And I frankly state that I didn’t have the courage or determination to do what these women did, but they opened my eyes to the fact that women have options.
My point is that there are many paths to parenthood and one of the objectives of my book is to encourage people to pursue those options (surrogacy, egg donation and freezing, single parenthood, adoption, etc.) However, many of the options are costly, and wecannot separate conversations about the pursuit of parenthood from the economics of it. According to a 2012 report from the US Department of Agriculture, it costs about $235,000 to raise a child for the first seventeen years. When you factor in fertility treatments or adoption costs, etc., many people simply can’t afford to have children. I believe we have to make parenthood a more attainable goal by incorporating more fundamental fertility awareness in sex education and by providing more support through guaranteed parental leave, widespread insurance coverage for fertility treatments, subsidized childcare, etc.
You write very honestly about your three miscarriages and struggles with fertility treatments. Why do you think there’s a stigma around talking about miscarriage, especially in the mainstream media? How about infertility? What can we do to combat this?
As people discover in the book, I had the experience of being in both Fertility Center and Cancer Center waiting rooms. In the Fertility Center, people’s eyes were down. In the Cancer Center, people looked up and around. We were survivors, part of a community. When I started telling my story about infertility, I was shocked to discover how many others had stories to tell, too—if not about themselves, it was about a friend, mother, daughter, etc. A 2009 survey of infertility patients by pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough revealed that 61 percent hide the struggle to get pregnant from friends and family. I am hopeful that my book will encourage others to normalize the discourse.
I’ve received dozens of emails and read many more comments by those for whom some aspect of my story rings true. I am certainly not the only woman to have multiple miscarriages. I’m not the only woman whose marriage was a casualty of the process. And I’m not the only woman to feel like maybe I waited too long to try to have a biological child. (Nor am I the first to write about all these. There are excellent books by Peggy Orenstein, Amy Richards, Miriam Zoll, and more.)
With regard to the mainstream media, celebrities, like anyone, are under no obligation to tell us how they have their children. This is a personal and intimate endeavor. However, celebrities should be aware that when they open up about their struggles with miscarriage and infertility, as stars from Beyonce and Jay-Z to Hugh Jackman and Debora Lee Furness have, they do a great public service by destigmatizing these issues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when stars seem easily to have kids in their mid- to late-40s but don’t reveal their struggles, they mislead their fans especially in the absence of widespread accurate knowledge about fertility and baby-making in general.
What would you say to younger women who are hoping to become mothers one day?
I say to women in their 20s that if they are not ready to have a child or think they don’t
want a child, they should be aware that they might want to have a child in the future and they can take steps now to prepare for that. Egg freezing is being heavily promoted, but women should be aware that while it’s an added assurance, it’s not a guarantee. I advocate for other measures that are less arduous and costly. First, women in their 20’s should find out the fertility basics by visiting medical websites and speaking to their doctors. Knowledge is power and can help shape decisions. In addition, they should take
care of their bodies and be aware that lifestyle choices in the present can impact fertility in the future.
Women in their 20s can also think proactively about their goals. Do you want to be a mother? If so, how do you plan to accomplish it? With a partner? Could you do it on your own? Do you want a career? Do you want to have both a family and a career? How can you achieve balance? What does balance mean for you?
How about to women who are already mothers? Women who are struggling with infertility?
To women who are already mothers, I hope you are getting the support you need, and if not, I hope you find ways to get more support. I know so many women who can’t be bothered with terms like “having it all” because they are “doing it all.”
To women struggling with infertility, you are not alone. You are part of a community. You are a survivor. And I would say the same thing: I hope you are getting the support you need, and if not, I hope you find ways to get more support. All women—mothers or not—can join together to advocate for some of the solutions I describe above.
Photos courtesy of Tanya Selvatnaram, featured photo by Poppy de Villeneuve