Seriously–and just in time for Mother’s Day! Listen here, or read the story. “Fertility seems to peak at about age 22, says Marcel Cedars, director of reproductive endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. After that, it gradually declines, and past the age of 35, pregnancy is much harder to achieve.”
The whole story is so utterly idiotic that I don’t have the time or energy to cover it all. Let’s focus on the fact that it is framed as a comparison of women’s reproductive lives in prehistorical hunter-gatherer societies and today, skipping at least 7,000 years of recorded human history as though we walked out of our caves in 1960 and started popping the pill:
Women may want to have the option of delaying motherhood. But Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist, says biologically we’re programmed to do what our prehuman ancestors did when they climbed down from the trees millions of years ago: reproduce.
Girls in hunter-gatherer societies probably did not reach puberty until 16 or 17, Fisher says. “They couldn’t get pregnant. They were very thin. They got a great deal of exercise. It’s thought that we were probably built to have about 10 years of practice at sex and love without the cost and risks of pregnancy.
“Women are no longer marrying the boy they met in high school,” Fisher says. “They’re concerned with getting a career before they marry. This takes time.”
But this is time on the biological clock that cannot be recaptured.
Commenter ej called out this idiocy a few weeks ago, but let’s take a whack at it again. (And I’ll even leave alone this rhapsodic nostalgia for family life among the cavemen. How many of those 22-year old Lucies lost their babies and their lives giving birth the “natural” way, not to mention the senseless deaths from minor infections, toothaches, or tetanus? Give Historiann the most invasive, most anesthetized, evidence-based allopathic medicine, please!) The funny thing is that this concern trolling about older mothers only started happening in the mid-twentieth century, not coincidentally with the invention of the pill, the revolutionary birth control technology that didn’t require the cooperation or consent of a male partner and which guaranteed the enticing prospect of years of “practice at sex and love without the cost and risks of pregnancy.” (Never mind that, as Stephanie Coontz argued conclusively in The Way We Never Were, ch. 2, women only married “the boy they met in high school” ca. 1946-1960 anyway, in an era distinct in all of American history for its extremely low age at first marriage.)
Yes, friends, the “discovery” of the “problem” of “older mothers” didn’t happen until women could postpone a first pregnancy indefinitely. Women in colonial and nineteenth-century America regularly gave birth in their 30s and well into their 40s, and through the eighteenth century ”older mothers” were even celebrated as evidence of a woman’s health and vigor. They key difference is that most of these women had of course started having children in their twenties. Funny how that works, isn’t it? When women can make the decision themselves, without consulting a male partner or relying on his cooperation in family planning, we see the invention of the “geriatric primip” (or the even more horrifyingly vivid ”advanced maternal age”) as women over the age of 30 are referred to when they’re giving birth to a first child.
Pregnancy becomes less likely over time as a woman ages, but the question is, compared to what? Moreover, why is the timing and experience of motherhood always framed as a problem that only women face? A 22-year old who is an obese diabetic, or whose fallopian tubes were scarred by disease, probably has a lower chance of conceiving than a healthy 30 or 35-year old. But, taking into account all of the contributing variables to a woman’s fertility would be really, really, hard, and it might suggest that women are all different, when it’s so much easier to assume that women are all alike and all have the same urge to become mothers, so let’s just give them simplistic advice like don’t delay childbearing past age 22.
I’ll say it again, in the event you’re a 24-year old who’s fearful that she’s over the hill: All of Historiannn’s friends who wanted children had their children in their mid-30s and early 40s (anecdotal sample size approximately 25). Everyone is happy and healthy. I’ve got only one friend who did IVF, and two friends who took ovluation-enhancing drugs (but nothing more invasive or expensive). I’ve also got friends who don’t have children, and have perfectly interesting and fulfilling lives. None of this is to say that infertility doesn’t exist, or that it’s not painful and heartbreaking for those who want children. But, let’s take a look at the reality of situation, which is that there is no “crisis of infertility,” and that children are not in jeopardy if their mothers are 35 or 40 and in the paid workforce. Rather, it’s children whose mothers are young, undereducated, and unemployed, who are at a much greater risk of not having health insurance, of living in an abusive environment, and poverty.