Saturday, February 25, 2012

Our Society Has Really F*cked Up Ideas About Having Children

A few days ago, a study came out that showed half of all births to American women under 30 occur outside of marriage.  Then there was a two-person discussion with Gail Collins and David Brooks published by the New York Times titled Who Decided That This Election Should Be All About Sex?  It was an interesting read and they also talked about the aforementioned study.  Here's the most intriguing exchange:
Gail: But I know the woman-related news that most interests you is the new government data on the rise of unwed mothers. It seems likely that pretty soon most American children will be born to unmarried women. The big argument seems to be whether this is a result of the lack of good-paying blue collar jobs or a split in our society, in which the bottom third – or half or two-thirds – lead lives that are too chaotic for long-term relationships.
David: I’ve tried to argue that it’s both. It’s a spiral of economic and social influences that are impossible to untangle. As one social scientist put it, what nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder. 
Gail: There’s a really good book on this subject called “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. They concluded that low-income women saw marriage not as the beginning of their lives, but as the payoff. They intended to wait until they had put together enough resources to have a nice wedding, and then live in a good place of their own. They were also, of course, waiting to find a man who was settled and stable enough to be a good husband. 
In some ways they weren’t different from college-educated women, who tended to put off marriage until they’d gotten their careers off the ground. The difference was that the poorer women regarded marriage as a reward, but children as a necessity. They weren’t prepared to defer motherhood the way their better educated peers were. 
David: I’m so glad you mentioned that book. I’ve been hoping to plug it in a column. It is indeed really good. I do think that the life script that many low-income women envision is simply not correct, though. As you say, they see marriage as a culmination. They have kids, get a good job and make some money, and then they can afford the lovely wedding. That’s backward. For most people getting married is not the payoff after an upward climb it’s the tool to advance the upward climb.
Married people save money. Married people have more settled habits. Married men are much more stable. When people marry first they are more likely to make it later.  
I really believe we need to have a national discussion about marriage and having kids.  I'm not sure where those topics are introduced.  Perhaps in sex education?  I went to public school and in high school we heard the topic in health class.  The mechanics are interesting sure but the significance of a stable marriage and having kids at the right time are far more critical to a person's well-being that simply understanding puberty and how fertilization takes place.

It's not like the educated classes have the upper hand in understanding life priorities and fertility.  I had lunch with Afina last weekend.  She's pregnant again.  I'm thrilled!  Really.  It happened in her last pregnancy and again now where the obstetrician at the best university hospital west of the Mississippi said to her and her husband, "Was this a planned pregnancy?"  Her husband rightly replied, "You're kidding, right?"  I know the argument that planned pregnancies result in a healthier mother and in turn, a healthier baby.  That's great.  But for a doctor to presume pregnancies among highly educated women in their mid-thirties are somehow an accident is very offensive and ignorant.

Ok, maybe it's not so ignorant.  With all this HHS/contraception stuff going on, our government is sending the message that contraception is health care.  And a lot of people, millions are buying into it.  I can see the value in not having children born to unwed mothers.  But apparently a lot of people figured out, but not me, that if you marry in your thirties (and your husband in his late forties), it might be too late.  

I was asked again this week by a co-worker if we planned to have children.  My reply was that it's not so easy to get pregnant in your mid-thirties.  I could see in her eyes that, that didn't compute.  I said that the best time to start having children is in your late teens and early twenties, biologically-speaking.  She said that's what she did; got married at 17.  I asked if they started having kids right away?  Oh yes, of course.

Americans love to believe everything in life is a choice.  All you have do is really want something, work hard at it, and the goal is seized.  There is a great column which I can't find right now in the Washington Post by a doctor who writes that even for the terminally ill, we view death as an option, not life's certainty.  Families sometimes want to put their loved ones through very rigorous medical treatments to hopefully make them life longer but those treatments can sometimes mean just a more miserable death.

When people, even some of my friends, ask me if we're going to have children I know they view it as a choice.  I'm trying to start having that conversation to at least educate people that wanting children does not equal having them.  I've read some comments on blogs that if they just had enough money to afford IVF, they'd have their family.  That's very sad for me to read.  We think medical tests can tells us what's wrong 100% of the time, and medical treatments will work 100% of the time.  And that's completely wrong.

When I was 29 or 30, and dating my husband, Dr. Elizabeth said that I shouldn't really put off having kids.  That once I found the right partner, (I'll note that she didn't say I had to marry him) I should start trying to have kids.  Fair enough but I think that advice was a little late and misplaced.  Apparently the low income women under 30 get it right, biologically-speaking.  That's the best time to have kids because you're more likely to actually get pregnant.

When I was in college, the lone female executive at the company I was to start my career at, said (and this is burned in my brain), "All of my friends did it wrong.  They had kids in their twenties, at the start of their career when they had no power.  I waited until my late thirties to have kids when I could write my own ticket because I'd been at the company so long."  And she worked from home when she had her first child because she was so damn important to the company.  But there were consequences to her thoughtful decisions.  Her second pregnancy was with a severely handicapped baby.  She had an abortion and was out of the office for several weeks.  When I was talking with some of my co-workers about her absence, I'd referred to her having "a miscarriage."  My co-worker said, "You realize it wasn't a miscarriage, right."  "Yes, I'm just trying to be polite."

In retrospect, perhaps politeness was a bad decision for me.  We probably should have had the discussion that you're more likely to have an unhealthy baby when you're in your late thirties.  And make good decisions now to prevent that.  And if I ever had the chance to testify in front of some school board or heck, Congress about infertility, I'd say we need to start telling girls and women that you will have a harder time getting pregnant if you put it off for whatever reason.  At least educate people and let them make their own decisions.

I want all my friends and everyone I know that Bethenny Frankel put it best, "IT'S NOT MY CHOICE."  And it's not my choice or anybody's choice.  I want to have children but desire does not equal attainment.  When the interviewer asked, "Do you want to keep trying [after her miscarriage]?"  What the heck does that mean?  Does she or I want to keep having sex with our husbands without birth control?  Or in this case is "trying" using ART because everybody knows that ART will absolutely guarantee you a baby.  This whole thing is crazy to me.

What should we be doing to reform our society?


  1. I wish I knew. I wish we saw children as a gift and not a right that we could choose to have through whatever means, nor discard if they come at the "wrong" time or are not "perfect" in some way.

  2. Yeah...I agree...nowadays there's a notion that everyone can have kids...with ART and all. It's's a selfish's hard to sacrifice...hard to live without...I just do the best I can with my own life and pray for the others.

    I don't think reforming society will be an easy task....I don't know if there's an answer. More prayers!

  3. I agree that people believe that if they have this treatment or that treatment, they will infallibly have children. I think it's caused our society (and society's infertile subset) to view infertility in the least helpful way possible - always temporary, and, the longer it lasts, the more it can be blamed on the lack of industriousness of the couple. I think adoption makes this much worse (gives everyone a "band-aid" for childlessness that they can assume on behalf of others), and while I'm not criticizing the decision of individual couples to adopt, the prevalence of that choice causes (IMHO) increasing problems for the increasingly few of us who will truly remain childless. "Keep trying?" Seriously?

    I do think that women starting ttc at later ages can be a significant contributor to the problem in individual cases, but across the board, I don't believe it's the cause of infertility. I got married at 23 and started ttc right away. Nobody in the medical community would have advised younger. I had been IF and in treatment for years before it crossed my mind that maybe I should have started even younger. Then I ran into another blogger who started ttc when she was 18 - and spent twelve years trying. Even assuming I would be willing to walk away from the college degree and the law degree, from a job and a marriage and a way to put food on the table and a roof over my head - when should I have started? Fourteen? Fifteen? I weighed 97 pounds at that age - no dieting necessary.

    In other words - I'm not sure all, or most, or maybe even many of us got here by making decisions unwisely or prioritizing things wrong. And there are still more women who would HAPPILY have gotten married and started families at 22, but didn't find the right man for ages thereafter. Some of them are able to start having kids in their 30s with no problems, and some not. I do think it's important for women to be told that childbearing is not schedule-able and they have to respect their bodies' biology. But I think that message could be harmful for the actually infertile - those of us who were never healthy, and for whom prioritizing motherhood would have done (and did) no good.

    I have a lot of mixed feelings on this, obviously :).