The Young and The Feckless: Gen Y's Biological Clock Talk Taboo

J. Maureen Henderson
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I've hesitated about tackling this particular topic, but with the recent proximity of Mother's Day and the 50th anniversary of The Pill, I figured there was never going to be a better time to address it. My hesitation stems from a reluctance to drag biology into the equation and to bring up some unpleasant home truths that can't be advocated or educated away.

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The luxury (and make no mistake, it is born of privilege) of a quarter-life crisis or simply a period in one's twenties where you're unsure of how you will earn a living for the next 30 or 40 years is not equally afforded to women of child-bearing years and child-bearing inclination. While advances in birth control have given us unprecedented control over our reproductive lives, we still haven't come to the point were we can outsmart mother nature on a mass scale. Women have only a finite period in which to get pregnant and give birth to children without (barring existing fertility issues) medical intervention and these years typically coincide with the time during which we're attempting to launch and establish our careers. This is reality, people. But we're not supposed to think about these competing priorities and if we do think about them, we better never ever mention them to the menfolk (because only straight ladies want to have babies, silly!), lest we look desperate, because desperate is unattractive. There is nothing worse than unattractive, amirite?

I liken it to Nancy Friday's thoughts (though she's not the only one to raise the point) on how "good girls" of her era didn't prepare for sex. It was somehow permissible (or at least forgivable) to get swept up in the moment and just give in, not so being purposive and deliberate about deciding when and how to be sexually active. Good girls didn't plan for it. Now, it's gauche to acknowledge that you think about your fertility (other than in the capacity of preventing pregnancy), that you do in fact have a timeline in mind (especially if you want multiple children) for when you'd ideally like to get pregnant and that this enters into your career and relationship decision-making. You can either choose to be (or to play) willfully ignorant of biological constraints or to be painted as a baby-crazed ticking time bomb (see the tabloid and gossip industry treatment of one Ms. Jennifer Aniston if you need an example). Lovely.

And what about men? The prevailing ladymag wisdom is that they must be treated with kid (heh) gloves and that we must be vewy, vewy quiet (think Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits) and not scare them off by evincing a frothy-mouthed desire to get knocked up before the dessert course of the first date. Har, har. I've seen both sides of the coin. Complaints from an acquaintance about how every girl he dated wanted a ring on her finger and a baby in utero ASAP (well, he said in her "stomach," but I'll charitably give both parties the benefit of the doubt and assume he and his dates know where fetuses hang out), but I've also met my share of twenty and thirtysomething dudes who are dying to be dads. And while men have it easier in that they can father offspring until they're the age of Hugh Hefner, Larry King, Methuselah and that becoming a parent doesn't necessitate a withdrawal (even temporarily) from the workforce (and the attendant loss of career momentum), they do face the reality that they can't accomplish this goal alone (at least to the degree that women can). Unless we're talking about the Governator, they still require someone to gestate their chromosomal contribution. Not to mention that I'm sure there are few outlets and opportunities afforded to men for pining aloud about one's paternal impulses.

The issue of balancing careers and kids garnered a bit of media attention about six or seven years ago with the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life and the fact that Oprah herself devoted a show to the topic. But the tenor of the discussion focused around fear-mongering to women about how terrible they'd feel if they waited until too late to get aboard the baby express and then had to face the reality that they couldn't get pregnant. It wasn't so much about taking charge of one's fertility, but getting it before it got you.

It shouldn't be an antagonistic relationship and it shouldn't be painted as something cringeworthy and regressive to admit to that you want a family as well as a career and that you've given thought to how you're going to manage both of these goals. Just like you don't suddenly get swept up into becoming a sexually-actualized person, striking a balance between future motherhood and career success doesn't just happen. It requires effort, planning and a careful consideration of what trade-offs you're willing to make at which life stages.

Given that Gen Y women reportedly expect to have it all, why are we not publicly (and in mixed company) acknowledging this reality? Is it because of the maddening frustration that for all of the advances feminism has given us, we are still forced to confront our basic animal biology and our inability to fully bend it to our wills? Is it that we fear it will undermine our hard-worn legitimacy as ostensible workplace equals (although the lack of wage parity undermines the whole equality thing all on its own) and throw into question our career commitment? Is it that we've bought into the laughably tired stereotype of men being skittish commitmentphobes who must be beguiled into anything that smacks of adult responsibility and shielded from the truth of female reproductive reality (Look at our subject break into a cold sweat upon hearing the word "tampon" Horrors!) at all costs? Or is it because we've been conditioned to believe that nice girls just let nature (when it comes to love, marriage and the baby carriage) take its course, even if nature doesn't necessarily have our best interests at heart?

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

right on!

Thanks for the article... It was refreshing to read something that hits so close to home. As a woman in a committed long term relationship with a woman I find this quandary even more difficult to surmount. My partner and I both work in education, so we are systemically marginalized in terms of pay equity so the sheer cost of having or adopting a baby is the second biggest factor to consider (other than finding a donor or an agency that will allow us to adopt!)

The irony is that I spent so many years taking pills trying NOT to get pregnant with a man I couldn't imagine being a good father and now society inhibits my partner and I from being what we hope to be- damn good parents!

Biological clock

As a man who is fast approaching 30 with no spouse in sight, a newly minted MDiv, and a career in the works I can sympathize with folks who are eager to have children. Babies excite me. I feel all optimistic about the world and the chances of happiness for us in this life. Every time I point out an adorable little tyke to my younger sister, though, she says to me, "What? It's just a baby." Not all of us have this urge to have children, but not talking about it certainly doesn't help.

Well if this isn't just full

Well if this isn't just full of cisgender assumptions...
Not everyone who gives birth is a woman, fyi.

Re: Well if this isn't just full

I agree and perhaps, in hindsight, I should have included language to acknowledge that giving birth is a function of possessing female anatomy vs. identifying as a woman instead of leaving that unstated. Given my own limited perspective, this piece is only meant to speak knowledgeably to the sociocultural experience of heterosexual ciswomen, with a nod to fact that the dialogue around family planning/child-bearing skews wildly heteronormative and also excludes or disregards, in large part, the perspective of males (hetero and homosexual).

Thanks for your response. I

Thanks for your response. I appreciate it.
I understand that you are writing from your own worldview. I just wanted to make the statement that there are people thinking about birth who are not part of that specific woman-identified, female-assigned-at-birth grouping.

Curmudgeon chiming in here

I'm sorry, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to have a conversation (or a blog post) without the endless qualifications and reassurances that yes, I was thinking about you and you, and you too. It's tiresome to write and it's tiresome to read through, and it's just plain tiresome. It's hard to have an honest conversation when you keep stumbling over the qualifiers. And let's face, we can't include all 6 billion of us in every single sentence! Can't we just assume that Bitch is a progressive, open-minded, inclusive publication and so are its writers?

Ahh there just using Identity Politics

isn't that what Feminism is based on?

which brings us to...

It's also why we have no sense of humor...

Personally, i don't feel slighted about being left out of the motherhood thing seeing as myself and the other transmen I know look on childbirth with unmitigated horror especially in regards to what it would say about our bodies. I'm content to leave the baby-making to the women.

Good to know that you don't

Good to know that you don't feel slighted. It's entirely irrelevant though, as you don't speak for all trans men. As a trans man who HAS given birth, and who did so as a young adult BEFORE transitioning I think that people like myself are relevant to this discussion.

No, we can't just assume

No, we can't just assume that anything is progressive, open-minded, and inclusive. A good writer won't be stumbling over qualifiers because they will make a point of stating that they are writing inclusively. It's not difficult, and I do think that my point is a valid one. It was responded to by the author as such and I don't see what point you are making. Am I bothering you with my desire to be included?

Larry King

I chuckled at the biblical reference.

babies and stuff

At my first job after college, I was the youngest by 8 years in the workplace. All my colleagues had at least their Masters and usually their PhDs. Most men had children already, but not a single woman (married or not) had kids at my 30+ person firm. The men had stay at home wives to raise the children, but the women had chosen to postpone children for education and now a career.

At my current job, where women juggle children and work.....I am horrified. Breast-pumping in their cubicles, sending kids to daycare at 6 weeks when maternity leave ends. My co-worker just recently rejoiced to me how her little girl started saying full sentences. I was happy to hear it and asked what she said. My co-worker replies 'Oh, i don't remember what the day-care lady said, something about 'is mommy coming to get me'. I was really unsure how to react. No judgments for women who choose to do these things, but I am not personally interested in following a life-path that leads me to these choices.

Thankfully, these experiences focused my priorities. I realized by 25 that I don't want my workplace policies dictating my mothering practices. I've been steadily working on starting my own business with the implicit goal of being able to have a fulfilling career AND raise my kids....whenever I have them. I just turned 27 and I'm quitting my job in 2 months to start my new business. Whatever happens, I'm glad that I met this head on and didn't wait until I was frustrated at work or with my future children to make major choices.

On the Gen Y discussion here. I have a handful of late 20's friends who almost spit when they say 'children'. They see kids as life-sucking and youth-destroying. A few may never have kids for their own reasons, but for others I think this phase of their lives is about grasping the youth/beauty/sexinthecity scene. It's not cool to plan for the future, especially if you're planning on being someone different than you are now (older, less attractive, maybe a mother). Gen Y is just a little self-absorbed right now. It's unfortunate, as you say, because for women the biological clock ticks and we don't get endless years to make up our minds.

it might not be a topic of

it might not be a topic of discussion because gen y is still pretty far from being out of their childbearing years.

i don't know, i just feel like people my age are only just realizing they have to start having kids if they want them at all. it seems to me like most people who bother planning their lives out include the kids in there somewhere, usually after they have a stable job OR are 30, which it seems gen y'ers are only just (unless i don't understand where gen y starts, but it's always been my understanding that they are younger than me, and i'm 32.)

In the end, who cares?

Your friends and society at large aren't going to take care of your children or you in the aftermath of miscarriage, disease, etc. You stupid, tunnel-vision boss sure doesn't care--too busy focusing on the bottom line.

All that's left in the end is you. Make decisions for you. IMHO, deciding on children bears more of a soulful, heartful impetus. Jobs, careers, all that other crap is about money and making a living. Whoever says worrying about wanting children is a waste is out of touch with reality. That doesn't mean having kids is the be-all and end-all. But for those who do want children for the right reasons, do what you can while you're young to have them--even if it means on your own.

Actually, if there is one

Actually, if there is one thing born of privilege it is the desire to "have it all" and then be <i>able</i> to afford to not only raise children when one firmly chooses to (and not as it "just oopsy happens" as is the case with %50 of pregnancies), but be in a decent job that offers maternity leave which you can <i>factor into your planning</i> and so on and so forth, and rely upon that. Only those from certain upper levels of society with the kind of education, income, and access to health services for their needs can dabble in that kind of life-planning with any sense of making those goals realities. Also, those from higher levels of society are more likely to marry those from their own level (as well as all the regular privileges of having better access to housing, good food and education), thus resulting in higher levels of family incomes, which obviously, increases support and so on.

But hey, what would I know, I'm just a 25+ yr old luxuriating in the stress of a quater life crisis by wondering if I'll even be able to get a job in my desired career when I graduate, nevermind if said job would offer me maternity leave. I can't <i>begin</i> to imagine a future beyond the career half of the career+family pipedream, considering I'm not studying to go into an industry from the upper eschelons of society wherein these kinds of women who map out their lives 5+ years in advance get to do it from. What would I know about the poor tortured lives of those kinds of women who know they'll have the income to raise a few kids in the 'burbs and a financially supportive partner in 5 years time, and can thus map out their ovarian behaviour in great length and detail in ways that society supposedly frowns upon, according to Ms Henderson. Those <i>poor suffering darlings</i>.

And this is all putting aside the near-impossibility of finding a supportive, equal, feminist and sharing partner to the extent is required to fulfil the goals many of these women set for themselves. We've all seen feminist dating experiments, and all the research points to the roadblocks to women "having it all" has nothing to do with not being able to talk at length about when they want to be popping out kids, but the total lack of support in their careers and in their homes women receive (or don't receive) from their (mostly male) partners. "Tampons" and "Bioloical clock" doesn't scare the majority of men off half as much as "doing the cooking three times a week" and "shit-filled nappies to be changed" does, if the recent research into the continuing lack of imbalances in these women's lives is to be trusted.

I may be missing the entire point of the article, though, since I firmly believe one of the greatest taboos of society today outside of discussing female hygene and so on is actually questioning <i>how much many people actually actively want children</i> and how many just go along for the ride without any complete desire to have children and then fumble their way through parenthood because society says they have to. "For all the advances feminism has given" certain sub-sections of White, Upper/Middle-class women, actually getting people to be honest about their desires for child-rearing when pregnant - especially women, with all the pressure on them in the discourses of motherhood - is like trying to get blood from a stone. Effort, planning, and careful considerations of trade-offs aren't always on the table, when you don't have all the privileges required to make certain life-goals happen, and your own goals are at odds with your partner's.

Re: Actually, if there is one

I think you perhaps missed the facetious undertones this article was designed to convey.

As well, the idea of the quarter-life crisis - of having the space to think about a career vs. a job, to consider the self-actualization and self-fulfillment aspects of your work vs. doing whatever will pay the bills, moving from job-to-job seeking this fulfillment, going back to school for retraining and fresh start, etc. - is a luxury that isn't afforded to everyone equally across socioeconomic strata. I think we can all agree on this basic (and non-contentious) premise. OF THOSE IT IS AFFORDED TO (and only those), women of child-bearing age and desire are not positioned to reap its "benefits" (in terms of time and space to contemplate/course correct, etc.) in equal measure to men, or to those who have firmly decided not to bear children at any point in the future. If they want to balance an upwardly mobile career and a family, they need to plan both aspects accordingly (finding a partner if they're so inclined, settling on a career trajectory that will provide a measure of support, stability and something to return to should they temporarily leave the workforce to give birth, etc.) At no point, do I claim these women are society's "poor suffering darlings." They are simply one group with a specific challenge that I chose to discuss within the confines of this one article. Grand extrapolations not included.

I do agree, however, that there is precious little social space to discuss parenthood, child-rearing and a view of self as a parent that is anything less than euphoric and idealized, without raising alarm bells and/or inviting condemnations to be rained down upon your head. Perhaps someone will eventually write an article on that.

light relief

Sorry to make light of a very seriosus subject but as a classic gen X'er.........

Gen Y'ers having this conversation makes me feel very old !!!

I dont feell ike im grown up yet, how cowem you guys(Ok girls) are grwoing up before me?

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