Why Every Woman Should Be a Teen Mum
It's too late, I'm sorry, but your ovaries are a shriveled mass of cells that have more in common with a raisin (not even the good raisins...at 35, I bet mine look like those hardened ones that stick to the bottom tab of the Sunmaid raisin box). You wanted kids? Sucks to be you, you should have started back when you were 14. Oh...and the media is sorry that they led you astray these past few years, promising the existence of endless fertility through stories about various celebrity wonder twins without even whispering the term donor gametes. The media would like to backtrack now and warn you that it's too late! too late! too late!
The Washington Post recently discussed the Scottish study that asserts that women lose almost 90% of their ovarian reserves by age 30. After the initial panic, you might rationalize that it only takes one egg and having 12% of 300,000 eggs is still pretty damn good. Except that those remaining eggs tend to have more abnormalities than younger eggs. So again, the article points out, sucks to be you.
The Post article starts out with usual media flare to drum up excessive fear ("Whether you are aware of your incessantly ticking biological clock or not, the absolute last thing that any woman of steadily advancing childbearing age wants to hear when she flips on the morning news shows is: Women lose 90 percent of their eggs by age 30. Thirty? Life has hardly begun at 30! Gulp.") but then reminds the reader a few paragraphs later: "Before you start freaking out, it's important to remember..."
In other words, now that we have told you that it's too late and even had a reproductive endocrinologist tell you to use them or lose them, we're going to tell you not to panic.
Open statement to the media--please make a collective decision whether you want us to freak out or be blissfully unaware and we'll go along with it accordingly. But you've got to make up your mind before you give us emotional whiplash. And for the love, don't kiss us on one cheek, pointing out how much you're in sync with our needs ("It doesn't make it any easier that the media are filled with mixed messages on women's fertility") and slap us on the other with yet another article that aims to create panic.
The article itself is not news if you've eschewed the media and gotten your information straight from your doctor. While some--including mine--might be more laissez-faire than is helpful with getting the message out to patients, it is common knowledge that fertility declines with age. If you've ever experienced difficulties trying to conceive or taken an introductory women's studies health course, you've probably also encountered the idea that uterine lining thins with age, eggs develop more abnormalities, and our bodies are better equipped to have children when we're younger than when we're older. It has been a long-standing debate about where infertility ends and common-aging begins.
At the same time, what these singularly-focused articles fail to take into account is that if you're doing a good job making life decisions, you're balancing more factors than age. You're balancing your financial reality and your projected financial reality. You're balancing other life goals, other medical conditions, the needs and wants of a possible partner. Notice I didn't list things such as societal pressures or the fact your mother wants to become a grandmother. Take all the external factors away and you still have a lot of internal factors to contend with in order to parent well. After all, anyone can keep a child alive. It's an entirely different process to parent and raise the child.
Hilary Mantel, author and winner of the Man Booker Prize, recently made headlines by stating that girls should have children at age 14. That by 14, she was ready and the only reason why girls don't start reproducing is that the world is on a male timetable. The article disintegrates with quotes from the Family Education Trust, an organization that states on their website: "we believe that public policy should support the traditional family. Unfortunately, the view that people should be free to make their own choices, without having to accept any adverse consequences, dominates the public policy agenda." But prior to that, it raises an interesting idea--should we encourage girls to turn the world on its head and have babies first and educate themselves second?
In that setting a new societal norm, albeit in a different direction, is no more helpful to teens, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who are already confused by the plethora of people yelling in their general direction to get educated, get a career, have babies, get married, and for Christ's sake--don't lose your identity in the process. Yes, we differ from men in that we have the potential to create life, but the same open mindset afforded to men should be afforded to women with the understanding expressed to both groups that while certain options will be on the table indefinitely, others will not due to biology (and that rings true for more than just babymaking. Can't imagine an 80-year-old picking up ice dancing with the hopes of making the next Olympics).
So here are the facts, and do with them what you may: your fertility is not a given. If you are part of the norm and do not have any underlying fertility issues, you will still have potentially more trouble conceiving in your thirties than in your twenties. That there are medical options for working around fertility issues, but they are expensive, painful, and anxiety-inducing (anyone who says, "you can always do IVF" has never given themselves an injection into their stomach). That just because there is a woman out there who has conceived using her gametes at age 44 doesn't mean that you will also be able to do this. That many women who are pregnant in their mid-forties have used donor eggs. Oh--and we're not going to change societal mindsets with clever soundbites. Work within the frame you're given and understand every choice comes with benefits and drawbacks. And if you don't have the tools--financial or emotional--to raise a child, wait until you do because becoming a parent is a lot more than just producing a baby. Make your decisions holistically rather than treating your entire being as a giant, walking uterus and you'll do just fine with a few sniffles and tiny regrets along the way (unless you're diagnosed as infertile in which it will be more like loud sobs, but infertility--as opposed to fertility--is another kettle of fish). Understand that so many factors are outside your ultimate control. If you want to be married before you have a child, you can't control the timetable of when you fall in love. You may get factors lined up only to realize that waiting for them pushed other factors out of alignment. And all of that is simply a part of life, not a case of the sky falling.
My best advice is to take a tip from Dumbledore and his Penseive and remove all the options out of your head when trying to make difficult life decisions. Place all possibilities into a decision web and examine your choices on paper. And then own your choices and realize that every step of life is a letting go of every other possibility.
Oh, and my other advice is to get your head out of the media and don't fall prey to either their rose-tinted glasses of endless parenthood possibilities or their chicken little tendencies of shouting the fertility sky is falling. The reality is somewhere in between hope and despair.
Jezebel points out that "Mantel's argument seems to sidestep all developmental and financial logic and paint the idea of having babies at 14 as a type of sensible decision that will pay off, Lorelai Gilmore-style, once the mother hits 30 or so and decides to jump-start her own career after raising her child." And, in addition, while it's easy to imagine what your 14-year-old self was capable of from a 58-year-old vantage point, I would find the argument stronger if it was being made by a 14-year-old who could show me in that moment they were capable of parenting for the long-haul. Again, anyone can give a baby a bath, put clothes on him and a bottle in his mouth. It's quite another thing to help a five-year-old build their self-esteem or discuss ethics with an eight-year-old.
Jourdemayne has many problems with Mantel's assertions including placing the blame on male shoulders and points out, "It seems to me that the real culprit is our technological/industrial economy."
The Guardian's Deborah Orr states that Mantel's words are "simply a statement of the obvious. Why Mantel's observations have been held up over the last few days as somehow subversive or challenging is something of a mystery."
Want to know more about Mantel? Watch an interview with the author on winning the Mann Booker: