The Feminist Fertility Myth

Why do women believe they can delay children for so long?

Old parent and baby.
We all know smart women in their late 30s or early 40s who are surprised at the sudden necessity to decide whether to have children

Photograph by Andriy Bandurenko/iStockphoto//Thinkstock.

Judith Shulevitz’s excellent and disturbing meditation on older parents in the New Republic raises the question of whether fertility treatments and other technologies extending women’s procreative years should be regarded as an unmitigated “feminist triumph.” 

Obviously they do equalize the playing field to a certain extent, allowing women something closer to the same free, adventurous, work-filled years as men. They partially mitigate the maddening fact that men can have babies as late as they want with the promise that women can have them later than they used to. The feminist dogmas of the last 50 years have encouraged us to fetishize “choice,” and fertility treatments undoubtedly do give women more choices. 

But one of the problems of our bourgeois, post-feminist world is the lingering sense that you can, according to the absurd cliché, “have it all”—that you should be able to have children, even if you push off that time until your late 30s or early 40s, and that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s. We tend to view basic biology as a practicality to be surmounted, something trivial and irritating that shouldn’t get in the way of the promise of a full life. It’s almost as if we are shocked that nature itself has not read The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.

We all know smart women in their late 30s or early 40s who are surprised at the sudden necessity to decide whether to have children. These are women for whom the idea of the biological clock seems to have stealthily crept up on them, women who have a sort of startled revelation that they have missed their moment to have children or that the moment is suddenly, pressingly upon them.

How does this happen to worldly, intelligent adults? Part of it is certainly the proliferation of fertility treatments, the culturally accepted idea that you can somehow manage to have beautiful children at a very late date. (Which, of course, you sometimes can and sometimes can’t.) But the other reason is that it is not fashionable to think that your choices in life should be curtailed or compromised or affected by the idea of babies. We have somehow been handed down the unreasonable expectation that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices, especially of love or adventure or career, for babies.

Because of all of this, Shulevitz’s provocative suggestion that even if we can extend fertility it may not be a good idea is a difficult conversation for women to have. She is entering the complex, moral territory of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” where all of this impressive and horizon-expanding science may have a very serious dark side; she is also hinting that our “feminist triumphs” are very wrapped up in our “feminist failings.”

Another lingering feminist problem is that the cultural suspicion of older parents is really about mothers and not fathers. No one looks twice at a father in his late 50s at school drop-off with his 5-year-old daughter, whereas a 50-year-old mother in the kindergarten class attracts a certain amount of catty interest and disapproval: She doesn’t look right to us, even though the older father looks sort of sweet.

Even though studies connecting father’s age to the rise in autism have come to public attention in recent months and Shulevitz raises the specter of other medical complications connected to paternal age, the older father is not viewed as pathetic or narcissistic or just intangibly wrong the way an older mother is. Our current tendency is to focus our anxiety about what Shulevitz calls “the graying generation,” on graying mothers, which isn’t fair.

Without judging any individual families, leaving alone for a moment the mother—in sneakers, gray roots showing, pushing a twin stroller—who has after all made her own negotiations with fate, we could perhaps benefit, à la Shulevitz, from a slightly more honest reckoning with the biological truths and how we found ourselves in thrall with late parenthood. And in the informal feminist education of future generations, we may need a little more of Margaret Fuller’s “I accept the universe” and a little less bourgeois having-it-all talk.