Can We Find Another Scapegoat?


I think it’s high times we found a new catch-all scapegoat for infertility. I’m getting seriously bored with the now specious “feminisim killed my chance at motherhood” argument. Knowledge about the ticking female biological clock has been around since the late 80s, and more recently men have been warned of similar age-related biological impediments to fatherhood. Hard to claim ignorance about a now well understood fact of life: eggs and sperm have a shelf life — “a best by XX date.” That’s why I was a little surprised to read a piece in the London Times once again blaming feminism for hijacking the happily ever after ending.

The 36-year-old author of Madonna syndrome – I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking” would have been 22 — give or take a year — when mainstream media first seized on the notion of age as a factor in successful childbearing. It seems blaming feminism is easier than taking responsibility for not paying closer attention to the calendar or acknowledging that even in the best of circumstances up to 14 percent of couples have problems conceiving.

If it weren’t for feminism and the work of women 10+ years my senior demanding equal rights for equal pay and removing gender as a convenient excuse for keeping women out of certain jobs or promotions, I shudder to think what sort of special Hell would have awaited me. As a bona fide barren woman who first tried to conceive in my late 20s, my world without children sans the hard-won results of feminist efforts would have been a variation on a scene out of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — which I wrote about in an earlier post called An Unwoman’s Perspective.

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If being expert at childbearing was the only thing today’s woman had in her grasp to derive a sense of purpose or esteem from, well, that’s not a world that would be very satisfying or pleasant to live in. That’s where the Times author fails to see irony. She writes:

“I feel a great
pressure from other women of my generation, who have partners and kids, to
join their club. In their eyes I am not the trailblazer but the failure. My
friend Rita Arnold, 36, works in marketing. ‘It’s not men who judge me for
being a careerist. It’s other women. The claws come out.'”

In a real sense, she’s actually making a case for feminism and taking issue with women who perpetuate the idea that a woman’s “success” and ideal identity can only be found through the act of reproducing. To that I say: shame on those mommies who unfairly devalue their childless counterparts. I also want to give them a heads up on these facts:

percentage of American households with children has dropped from nearly
five out of ten in 1960 to slightly more than three out of ten today.
And this proportion is projected to decline further. According to
Census Bureau projections, by 2010, households with children will
account for little more than one-quarter of all households—the lowest
share in the nation’s history.”

The same trouble-making types who excel at devaluing women without children may find a boomerang effect in the not too distant future. I can almost hear their protests now.  I’m getting dizzy from the pendulum swings. Let’s do the next generation of girls a favor — is it too much to ask to keep the claws in? Better yet, let’s recognize that there’s only so much control that we can exercise over biology. The premise that we’re all breeding machines (and that that ability above all others is what makes us inherently “valuable”) has caused more than a few awkward misunderstandings, bad assumptions and serious misjudgments.

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* * * * * *exhale_cover

In the meantime, if you want to read the perspectives of some women I admire … the third issue of Exhale created and edited by the fabulous Monica is now available with some amazing art and essays available to review. You can find my latest column here.


21 Responses

  1. Christina

    February 16, 2009 12:12 am

    Ugh! I read that article, too. That woman sounded supremely immature. In her twenties she just wanted to work and drink and party — OK — we’ve all been there, it was called college. Adolescence was just prolonged for her. As zillions of people have commented on her post — lots of feminists have kids and see feminism as helping them become successful mothers, working or not. The woman is a flake, period. It’s the fact that a major news outlet gave her a platform that really bugs me. It’s an outlandish, outdated backlash mentality.

  2. Lori in Denver

    February 16, 2009 1:01 am

    One problem with the feminism/IF argument is that it presumes either/or. You must choose between self-sufficiency and fertility because you may not be able to have both.

    Settle for any guy when you’re 20. Devalue yourself and compromise to beat the shelf-life. Don’t wait to move forward on the continuum of self-actualization. Marry out of need and not want.

    Blech. That’s no choice at all.

    I agree we need another scapegoat. Or none at all.

  3. Deathstar

    February 16, 2009 5:52 am

    This woman clearly won’t take responsibility for her own choices, her own self involvement. Just how happy and fulfilled would she have been if she had married and had 3 babies by the time she was 25? Honestly!

  4. Tania

    February 16, 2009 11:41 am

    I feel mad every time people say that infertility happens because women wait too long to have children. I hear that often, said by doctors on TV. But that’s not always true. I start ttc at 29, almost 3 years ago, right after my wedding. And just 3 years after meeting my husband. I don’t think 29 it’s too late!! Just so happens that we discovered some issues… that maybe are there 5 years before… Most women in my on-line support group are under 30 when start ttc. So age is not a factor. And my boss is a career woman, 50-something, with 3 children!!! So that’s possible!! If IF is not in the way…

    • Pamela Jeanne

      February 17, 2009 11:00 pm

      I get fried when I hear the “waited too long” argument applied so universally, too. It’s an easy way of blaming the person involved and conveniently side-stepping the reality of conditions that cause infertility. I guess some people find not thinking easier than having to contemplate a more complex set of reasons why some people can’t have children.

      • Bea

        March 1, 2009 12:41 am

        Absolutely – it’s always easier to blame the person. Saves you having to feel genuine sympathy for them. Speaking as part of a couple who started in our mid-20’s, I couldn’t agree more.


  5. Shinejil

    February 16, 2009 4:01 pm

    This article just shows us how far we still have to go. I did not want a child at 23 because I had lots of other things I wanted to do that conflicted with my ideas about proper childcare. I also didn’t find the right partner until I was 30.

    Why does it have to be a choice between career and childbearing? Only because men (at least in hetero couples) still don’t step up to the plate in the gross majority of families. The fact that women still do just as much housework as they did in 1960 along with working outside the home is proof thereof (there was a fairly recent study on the subject reported in the NYT).

    It makes more sense to blame the Easter Bunny for the shit luck that is IF than it does to rail against feminists. Without them, none of us would have access to education, the courts, equal pay, or the ballot box. We should never forget that.

  6. Star

    February 16, 2009 4:40 pm

    I hate to be the contrarian here, but I really relate to what this woman is saying and find very little about it that’s offensive (the comment about men wanting their women soft and compliant bc. of their genes excepted — that took it a bit too far). I don’t think she’s trying to devalue women who don’t have children or say that that’s the only thing that should give women a sense of purpose; my understanding of her argument is that women are led to believe that they can have babies into their 40s and should pursue a career before they have children, then wake up at 37 and find themselves with a difficult time finding a partner and, for those who do find a partner and also want children, then face the pressure of the clock to start trying for children right away and potentially having a hard time. I read her very differently from some previous commenters — I understood her to say that if you meet someone great at age 22 or 25 or 28, don’t be deterred from pursuing a partnership or family at that time because you can pursue a career in your 40s, but it’s much more difficult to have children then. Yes, clearly she missed the memo that went out from the media when she was in her 20s on the biological limits of reproductive age, but with the continued headlines about celebrity women in their 40s having babies (and the concomitant reluctance of many of them to admit that having unlimited funds for IVF/donor eggs made this possible), I can’t say it’s too hard to have missed the more accurate information that is available. I have two former coworkers, both 40, who feel very regretful that they did not try to have a child earlier in their lives and feel that they were told to pursue their careers to their detriment. So these feelings are out there.

    As for feminism and Madonna as scapegoats, yes, it’s a bit simplistic to reduce the complexities of this cultural phenomenon to one person or one word. And certainly women take for granted the very real ways in which feminism has improved their lives. Unfortunately, though, the Linda Hirshmans of the second wave seem to be the most pervasive face of feminism, and there is no doubt in my mind that that subgroup of feminists absolutely do devalue children and caretaking in favor of the pursuit of professional success. It is near impossible for women locked in that mindset to accept that many women (and many men!) value their partners and family life more highly than paid work. Moreover, the most pervasive form of sex discrimination in the workplace these days is against women with children or women who become pregnant for this very reason — all workers are expected to prioritize their employment above all else and not have substantial commitments outside of the workplace. (Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience as well as EEOC statistics). So the “pressure to join the club” thing may be, in part, a desire to make the club larger so that there will be less discrimination against it.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      February 16, 2009 5:27 pm

      There are quite a few ideas competing for time and attention in the Madonna syndrome piece, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation. It was the argument behind the headline that I found objectionable. It’s misleading.

      I wasn’t suggesting that the author herself was devaluing women without children but rather that there’s a subset of mothers (and society) who tear down those without children as a means of validating a life with children. That’s not only unfair it’s not right since some women (and men) didn’t have a choice in the first place. Age isn’t always the inhibitor; a host of other conditions interfere with childbearing.

      I agree that there’s pressure to conform and that there are a lot of misconceptions (pun intended) about what fertility medicine can actually do (regardless of age or condition). That’s regrettable. That’s why it’s important to be informed and to eliminate red herrings.

  7. Ms Heathen

    February 16, 2009 5:21 pm

    As Christina has already said, The Times article represents the worst kind of backlash against the feminist project. Not only that, but it seems to me that Zoe Lewis has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of second-wave feminism, which never suggested that women should choose a career over motherhood. Rather, they campaigned for the support that would enable them to work while bringing up their children. I personally feel a huge debt to that generation of women whose actions were directly responsible for establishing equal pay legislation here in the UK – my own experiences in the workplace would have been dramatically different without their example. Yet, some thirty five years down the line, it seems that many of the things that 70s feminism was calling for – whether that be equal division of labour within the home or for adequate and affordable childcare – have still to be achieved.

  8. Ellen K

    February 16, 2009 5:39 pm

    Experiencing infertility has only strengthened my feminist views, but I know a few women who have more than willingly (so it seems) embraced the “I am my reproductive potential” ideology. Those are the women who will have the hardest time coping with infertility or moving forward, IMO.

    I do agree with Star that the media oversells the idea of no-limits reproduction, which confuses the reality. And yet the extreme emphasis on the female body as both problem and cure is very troubling. Our diagnosis is mostly male factor (low morph), but I felt that our physicians tiptoed around that for the sake of the male ego. And as a result my husband still claims to not understand “what the big problem was.”

    Even NPR is guilty of mixing the message; a couple of years ago it aired a positive story on women freezing their eggs “just in case,” and several of my friends seriously considered doing this despite having absolutely no indication of future infertility (and having no ability to pay for either egg retrieval, cryo storage, and the necessary future IVF treatments). I had to explain how very new the technology is and that it is far from a guarantee, because NPR breezed through the lousy thaw rates.

    • myrtle

      February 18, 2009 4:09 pm

      I agree. It’s disappointing that even NPR does a poor job of presenting the issues. They do make it sound that if you try you’ll get what you want. Financially, we couldn’t afford to start IVF earlier than we did. My insurance would not cover IVF and we ended up in debt that we had to pay before proceeding to further treatment with more of the same results. Most people reactions to my status is to tell me that at least I have a career as if it was my “choice.” They have no idea the hell I’ve been through.

  9. Ashley

    February 16, 2009 5:50 pm

    Let’s add another notch to “started TTC at 22 and still had to deal with infertility.” I’ll be 25 when I have my first, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

    I suspect that the trend towards waiting is indeed causing an increase in IF issues, but the fact that they blame this on individual women blows my mind. As someone who’s been there, it is EXTREMELY difficult to be an independent adult before, say, 23 in this society (in the sense of financially, not just extended adolescence). Even after 23, housing prices have skyrocketed, jobs are harder to come by, and student loans need to be paid off all leads to a large number of people who aren’t financially stable until their late 20s at the earliest.

    So, option a, encourage the young and poor to pop out more kids, or option b, make society more amenable to families and letting younger adults have an even playing field.

    But apparently blaming feminism is the answer….

  10. loribeth

    February 16, 2009 10:56 pm

    You’re so right, Pamela. Now it’s true that some feminists, especially of earlier generations, have not been the most child & family-focused or friendly. But we still owe them a great deal.

    Articles like these are a great example of Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” theory. Not to mention that conflict tends to sell more papers. 🙁

  11. V writes

    February 16, 2009 11:09 pm

    I waited because I wanted to finish my education and get a good job. I watched my mother struggle to take care of us with neither when she found herself a single mother. I never wanted to be in that situation. I was also an emotional mess in my twenties and I would not have made a very good mother. I never did find Mr. Right so now I’m doing it on my own. I’m glad I waited, and yes it turned out to be harder than I thought, but that’s okay, because who’s to say I would not have struggled with IF in my twenties. For me feminism means control of my own destiny, and I won’t apologise for that, good bad or indifferent.

  12. chicklet

    February 17, 2009 12:06 am

    I love love love when people blame infertility on waiting too long. Was me being 30 when I started too long? Really? Because I ain’t a feminist and I didn’t wait because of my career or any other choice of that nature. I waited until it felt right with a man I loved.

  13. Geohde

    February 18, 2009 12:41 am

    Grr- my comment vanished into thin air.

    I was trying to wax lyrical about how it isn’t easy no matter how and when we attempt reproduction. My career is currently on hiatus, and it’s going to be hard to get back.

    To be honest, it’s exhausting trying to fill so many roles in life.


  14. Jess

    February 18, 2009 3:27 am

    Something frightening:

    I have only one friend that became pregnant and delivered a baby without the the aide of medications or IVF.

    And unfortunately {as far as this topic is concerned} I have many friends.

    I started trying at 22 because we knew I would have issues, but the other women in my life? They too started young {we’re all 20-30, and having babies young is the current trend}. They had no idea things would be less than perfect.

    Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I believe the data concerning infertility is outdated. And when scientists start analyzing my generation, they’re going to find some surprising numbers.

    Then, the peanut gallery will cease talking about age, feminism, and careers as a cause. And hopefully they’ll start looking into a viable solution.

  15. MLO

    February 19, 2009 4:56 am

    Actually, it was FEMINIST organizations that brought the most pressure on RESOLVE to stop their fertility awareness program.

    Honestly, I have very little respect for the feminists of the 1960s/1970s. The women who really did the real legwork were in the labor movement – not the feminist movement. Most of the feminists were rich, spoiled philosopher types. They betrayed women in the real working class with some of their priorities. (And, I know a few of their contemporaries who chose careers over family who can’t stand these women either.)

    There was a betrayal by that particular brand of feminist to what women really face. Women have been in the workforce for forever. Progress in women’s rights was more related to the labor movement than second wave feminism (as I understand that very classist group.)

    Third Wave feminism is a beast of a different color, however. There was a reawakening of the fact that women were always in the workforce and that many of the policies that the second wave group worked for damaged those poor women.

    Sorry, I for one am pissed at that particular group of feminists for the multiple betrayals they created. And, they have served a lie that many younger men believe:

    Their wives can do it all – including have children into their 40s. It wasn’t just women who were damaged by this message.

    Sorry, this is not a group I have much respect for. As a social movement, they were little more than “ladies who lunch” that got bored.

  16. Bea

    March 1, 2009 12:44 am

    Just had to agree about the “keeping the claws in” thing. Why do we do it to each other?

    It’s like that movie, Stepford Wives. You’re led to believe it’s the men making their successful wives into fifties stay-at-home perfect models, but in the end you find out it’s a woman behind the oppression after all.


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