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Putting Off Baby

One way for me to think about the past ten years of my life – from age 22 to age 32 – is as time spent seeing some of the world (India, Turkey, Europe, Peru, North America), adding a graduate degree, searching for a satisfying career, paying off my student loan, and finding a man with whom I can be happy. It’s been an up and down, busy time – I’ve been lost (sometimes literally but mostly on the question of what I want to do with my life), broken-hearted, and stranded in places I’d never heard of (Halifax, Nova Scotia) simply because a career-advancing job came up there.

Another way to see the last decade is as time spent “delaying childbearing.” After all, I’ve had boyfriends during that time, I’ve been using birth control, and I actually do want to be a mother. When I think about it that way – trying to find myself and the right man and advance up the “career ladder” while my biological clock is ticking – it starts to look a little frivolous, even downright irresponsible. I should have asked one of those guys to marry me. I should have been less concerned with finding a job that is mentally satisfying, that I could leave for six months and re-enter gradually when I did have a child, and that would pay me enough that we could live on a partial salary while my child is still tiny. How could I have been so self-obsessed? And won’t I be sorry when I finally do start trying to conceive and, low and behold, I’ve left it until it’s too late?

There’s a lot of chatter these days about “delaying childbearing,” and if you’re a 32-year-old single woman, it can become deafening. My doctors raise it at my annual exams – “don’t put it off much longer,” they warn (apparently there are women my age who are not aware of the fertility drop-off, although I find that hard to believe). When I visit my home in New Zealand, my friends with children aren’t interested in the articles I’ve written or the grants I’ve received; they want to know when I’m going to procreate. And references in the media abound – a recent New York Times contained the story of a woman who wished she had not waited until she was 38 to try to conceive, and two days later the Times’ science section ran a story that spoke of “the tendency to postpone motherhood” as contributing to the health risks faced by pregnant women and their babies. It is not good for babies, women, or the economy, it is argued.

While part of the message is important – women’s fertility drops, especially after 35 – there are at least three major problems with this discussion. One: not all women want to have children. Two: even for those who do, it is seldom their only life goal. Three: “delaying childbearing” implies that women who want to become mothers have been in a position to have children for a number of years but have simply been putting it off (with the further implication that we have been putting it off in favor of frivolous, self-centered goals). For many of us, this first implication is true only in the purely biological sense, in which case I’ve been delaying childbearing since age 12.

The fact is, many 30-something women are not in a good position to begin a family. I and my female friends who have made it into their 30s without having children are in school, in low-paid jobs, or in jobs for which maternity leave and subsequent part-time employment is either impossible or financially prohibitive. (If, as a recent Washington Post commentarysays, half of the women who earn more than $100,000 per year are childless, it does not follow that half of the childless women in America are high earners). We are living in rented accommodations, often with roommates. We are paying off student loans. And we are either single, or not in relationships we are sure will continue, or in relationships with men not ready or willing or able to commit to becoming supportive fathers. If becoming mothers had been our major goal these past ten years, then maybe we’d be in better positions to begin procreating, but we’ve been pursuing multiple goals (getting a graduate education, paying off the student loan, getting a mortgage, solidifying a career, getting married) – all of which, we’re told, should be achieved before we’re 40.

Having a baby should be a women’s choice. But the converse– not having a baby, turning 35 or 40 and not yet being a mother – should not be assumed to be a similarly free decision. Women making responsible choices are constrained by the men they fall in love with, the jobs they land – and the social policies of the countries in which they live. If a nation wants women to choose to have children earlier in their lives – or if it wants to make that choice attractive rather than merely doable – then it should offer more than two weeks’ paid maternity leave, it should subsidize childcare, and it should protect women’s jobs while their children are small. If it could somehow manufacture young men who want to become fathers and are able to support children, or if it could redesign itself so that women could become single mothers without condemning themselves to poverty and social censure, that would also help.

The 40-year-old woman who has a well-paid job, has little or no debt, has spent the past ten years in a loving, committed relationship with a man willing to become a father, has always wanted children herself, and yet has no children probably does exist. Maybe she can rightly be said to have spent the past decade “delaying childbearing.” But the rest of us – or at least that portion of the rest of us who want to one day become mothers (among other things) – are working hard to get into a position where we can begin a family with a partner and without plunging into poverty or forfeiting our careers. Who knows, we might need them if our marriages don’t survive, and even if they do, many households function better on two incomes and many women function better with satisfying jobs. I appreciate that people are concerned about my waning fertility – I’m concerned, too. But I wish they’d focus more on making this a society in which beginning a family were a responsible, even attractive, choice for more women (and men) of my age.

– Josephine Johnston

Published on: December 6, 2006
Published in: Human Reproduction

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