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.

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Photo: Naomi White

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.