Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The window of opportunity

Other than the fact that criticizing the Pill is a fast-track way for a contrarian to rile up feminists, I fail to see the point of this "exposé" on hormonal contraceptives. Are the oh-so-sophisticated, Pill-popping ladies really unaware of the drop in female fertility that comes with aging? Unaware maybe it's not a bad idea to go off the Pill a while before trying to get pregnant, to get a sense of one's baseline fertility? Is it supposed to come as a shock to women that the Pill prevents them getting pregnant during their fertile years? Isn't that kind of the point?

To address the NYMag piece's main point - women miss the chance to have babies because the Pill lets this happen... On a more general level, is any life led with such an eye towards potential future regrets? As in, however much a 33-year-old woman who finds out her fertility peaked early might think she wishes she'd been knocked up at 17, what of the 17-year-old she once was, who lived, no less rationally, in complete and utter fear of getting pregnant? Who, when she finally opted to sleep with her boyfriend, insisted they use every known method of contraception all at once? Are we to take the views of the woman at 33 as her true feelings, the ones of the girl at 17 as some kind of childish illusion? Failing to take consequences into account may be a flaw of the young, but revisionist histories of one's youth and the reasons decisions were made in the first place are just as screwed up. This is just a variant of the discussion around "settling" - women who find themselves single at 40 may wonder what they were thinking, dumping that perfectly good boyfriend at 25. If, at 25, they failed to consider how they'd feel at 40, they are also, at 40, selectively ignoring negative aspects of that earlier relationship.

The unfortunate fact of female sexuality in our society is that too-young is very quickly followed by too-old - to conceive, or even to attract many men in the first place. 'You're not allowed to date, young lady' (from conservatives) or 'You're too young to settle down' (from liberals) segues almost instantaneously into 'What, no boyfriend?' The elusive window-of-opportunity - not the Pill, not the tendency of 20-somethings in crappy relationships to end those relationships - is the problem.

Solutions? Since the biological clock is unlikely to budge, it's clear we have to look, at least in part, at the younger end of the spectrum. As it stands, all long-term romantic commitments begun prior to age 30 are viewed as having rushed into things. Without reverting to a system where women are stigmatized for not having settled down by 21, we could shift to one in which 23-year-old couples wouldn't be treated like experimenting middle-schoolers. I wouldn't suggest encouraging those who wouldn't do so otherwise to marry or similar at 20. I would suggest removing the stigma that says that to be well-educated and impressive and so on, you have to find 'that special someone' at 29-and-a-half, marry at 31, and reproduce before (horrors!) 35. I'd instead encourage the happy couples 18-25 that exist anyway not to end their relationships simply because 'there's so much more to experience.' I mean, if you're in a relationship at any age and you feel there's so much more to experience, that's not a great sign about the relationship. But if all is well, the social pressure to explore other options isn't terribly beneficial.

If this change occurred, while there'd still be plenty of women trying to have kids for the first time at 40, there'd be more having their first child with their husband of several years, whom they'd dated several years prior to that, at 25. A certain number of women who'd resented having gone the 'explore other options' route unnecessarily would have reproduced. This is, at any rate, the only way I could think of to address the 'crisis' of coastal-elite female fertility that is about increasing women's freedom, rather than the reverse.


Miss Self-Important said...

This is a socially conservative sentiment.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It isn't not socially conservative, but note that I'm not saying anyone should go off the Pill. (These 20-year-old brides, if they want to wait till 24 to procreate, may need it.) And I'm not saying there should be tax breaks or other pro-natalist measures taken to encourage younger parents.

It's not exactly socially liberal, either, although it's about a kind of liberation - from... I don't want to say helicopter parenting, exactly, but from a kind of parenting that has liberal and conservative incarnations, that's about telling children they're not ready for the dangers (if conservative) or limitations (if liberal) of adulthood until OMG they're 40 and still living at home, how'd that happen? Ideally, I'd like to see more tolerance of 25-year-olds settling down, but also more tolerance of 40-year-olds not doing so if they don't feel like it. Young women who've found the right dude (or dudette) and are ready should go for it, just as somewhat older women shouldn't feel that the end of their fertile years approaching means that they need to rethink their lifelong lack of interest in procreating because tick, tick, tick. I mean, there's obviously a natural inclination for 22-year-olds to want to see what else is out there, and for those without much time left to do so to have children if they'd always figured they would but hadn't gotten around to it. But everybody's different - there's nothing to be gained by encouraging 20-something homebodies to play the field, or in telling 40-somethings whose life choices thus far suggest their primary concern isn't marrying and procreating that they'd better get on that.

The reason I focused on the younger end of the spectrum, aside from having been 20 but not 40, is... what I especially don't like about the current system is the panic that inevitably ensues if women have exactly five minutes to switch from too-young-for-that mode to husband-landing-time. There's not much that can be done on the older end, because much of the panic is about biological reality, not just social pressure. It's no great feminist achievement if rather than panicking about singledom at 21, women can now do so at 30, with that many possible childbearing years lost, but with the imperative to marry and reproduce still strong. In theory, anyone can do anything, but in reality - reality now projected via Facebook - Class of Whatever Year settles down in unison, and those who stray from that moment in either direction are viewed suspiciously. I'd like to think that more flexibility on the younger end would allow for more all around, but who knows.

Flavia said...

I'm also struck by how rarely these admonitions to make babies now, youngsters! Or you'll regret it! come from anyone not herself in that panicky 30-40 age range, or still worried about her own diminishing fertility or allegedly lost opportunities.

Some of those women will, in fact, conceive through one means or another. Some of them will adopt. Some of them will never have children of their own. But I'm pretty sure I've never read an essay by 50- or 60-something woman lamenting never having had biological children.

People make their peace with whatever happens, or they find satisfying workarounds. And for once I'd really like to see that article, the one that says hey, you know what? if children are a priority for you, you'll find a way to have children in your life (as foster kids, nieces, nephews, whatever) no matter what. And if you don't wind up having kids--even if you thought you wanted them--your life will almost certainly be just fine, though different from what you imagined.

PG said...

Even if one went with Toni Morrison's idea that we ought to have a more communitarian society in which women have their babies in their best child-bearing years (18-25) and then the village raises the child while Mom finishes her education and begins a career, the Pill (or abortion) would still be necessary to limit the total number of children one has while being sexually active before menopause.

But what is socially conservative about calling for not only the legal freedom to do what you want with your body, but also social freedom from "pressure"? To ask that people withhold even their expressions of disapproval for non-mainstream choices is getting into pretty liberal "let's celebrate diversity!" territory.

As it stands, all long-term romantic commitments begun prior to age 30 are viewed as having rushed into things.

I think that's true only in a relatively narrow subset of American society. In most of flyover country, even among educated people, being a 30-year-old woman without a ring on your finger garners more pity than approval. Getting married at 27 (to a guy I met at 23) put me at about the average for my Virginia college class, and a bit late for my Texas high school one. The people who showed up to the 10 year high school reunion without having been married were definitely the oddities, whereas the ones who'd already married and divorced were more common.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Good point.


"I think that's true only in a relatively narrow subset of American society."

Absolutely. But it's the segment of society that's said to have profited most from the sexual revolution, that's said to produce the stable families made possible by companionate marriage, delayed marriage, etc. There's regional variation - perhaps among educated people in the South, 27 means what 30 does to their equivalents in NY - but the point is less the precise age when the window of opportunity begins, but that the transition from too-young to past-it happens over the course of five minutes.

Britta said...

I'm also not convinced fertility declines all that much. My ancestors were having babies well into their 40s and 50s, long before in vitro (not that everyone can, but if 90% of the women in my family were having kids up to and often past 45, it can't be all that rare). I've also heard that the second highest rate of abortion and unplanned pregnancies is actually among women 35-45, who assumed they didn't have to worry any more. Anecdotally (I mean, in addition to my ancestors), I know tons of women who've had kids in the 35-45 range, but they're not writing NY Times op-eds and Salon essays.

Also, how do you know a woman who has trouble conceiving at 38 wouldn't have also had trouble at 28, or 18? Unless we're talking about a woman who had kids in her 20s and now can't have more at 40, there's no way to control for age related infertility and fertility caused by other things. I'm sure fertility declines a bit, but I'm not convinced that every woman who can't get pregnant at 35 could at 20.

PG said...

Also, how do you know a woman who has trouble conceiving at 38 wouldn't have also had trouble at 28, or 18?

I think this is being assumed on a population basis; that is, if 95% of women were able to conceive easily back when most women were getting knocked up before 30, then people conclude that infertility is a rare problem for young women. But it's certainly arguable that the increased infertility in our population could be caused partly by other factors that are concurrent with the Pill, such as pollution, altered diets, radiation exposure, massively increased use of antibacterial and antibiotic chemicals... it's just that until there's a well-evidenced causation link between infertility and some other aspect of Our Times, the blame will go on aging.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Isn't the issue that, of women who do try to get pregnant, those who end up needing fertility specialists tend to be older than those who don't?

This is my unscientific guess - there are always reports about the age at which the clock really starts ticking, and I assume this is the result of some survey or other.

Xenos said...

If we want to encourage responsible, long-range thinking young women to start motherhood in their early 20s, then we ought to incentivise them with a social safety net that makes such a decision less risky and foolhardy. Likewise, we ought to support their need to stay in or get back into the workforce in their late 20s.

Women are smart. Let's treat them that way.

Anonymous said...

"I'd instead encourage the happy couples 18-25 that exist anyway not to end their relationships simply because 'there's so much more to experience.'"

I agree 100% with this sentiment. My wife and I got married when I was 24 (she was 27). I at least had a LOT of pressure, even from my more conservative mom who married at 21, to not settle down because I needed "more experience." But as my then-fiance said: "more experience for what? experience to realize what a mistake it was for us to not get married?" Today is our 5th anniversary by the way, so it can work out. So I do agree that there needs to be less of this schizophrenic social pressure on how people "should" behave in their romantic lives.

On a more sociological level, however, I think part of the problem is that it is much harder these days to define just when two adults are "adults". Way back when, when a man could get a decent living on a high school education to have a wife and kids at home, the legal age of marriage pretty much worked. But honestly nowadays we have an extended period of post-adolescence that makes it harder to tell socially when one is a real "indepdendent, experienced" adult ready to make a commitment to another adult. No good answers on this one though...

Anonymous said...

I could be "Anonymous" (previous comment), only 25 years later. My wife and I were engaged when I was 25 and she was 28. A mutual friend of ours took me aside and told me I was making a mistake: too young. We've been married for 26 years.

Now I have a 23-year-old son (in a committed relationship) and a 20-year-old daughter (not). What do I tell my son and his girlfriend based on my own experience? As it turns out, I don't really know what to tell them, but increasingly I am sympathetic with Phoebe's instinct: let them gravitate to their own conclusion without pressure either way. The fact is, I don't know whether they're right for each other or not, but there's no reason that they can't be very happy if they decide to marry and have kids. And if they make that decision, I will support them and help them resist the temptation to think that they're missing something indispensable. As Wendell Berry wisely said, "in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result that we choose without knowing what it is."

I have certainly had plenty of moments in 26 years in which I keenly felt the loss of the opportunity to "have other experiences." But in retrospect, I don't see how a broader range of experiences in my 30s would have led to a happier state now. It's foolish to spend your life regretting your choices. Phoebe is right that we shouldn't be priming young people to regret theirs.

Jean Hannah Edelstein said...

Hi Phoebe,
A thought-provoking piece, addressing issues that I think about frequently, as my last serious relationship - with a lovely person - ended when I was 23, largely because he wanted to pursue his education in a city that would have meant it would be at the expense of my then-budding career. It was very sad and perhaps if we had met now, when we were 29, the outcome would have been different. Then again, maybe we wouldn't have because we have both changed a lot (in a positive way) during our 20s and are now both happy (as far as I know) with other partners.

In any case, one thing that you haven't really addressed the question of who looks after the baby. The educated young women you're talking about who delay having children - and their partners - may be committed to their relationships, but few have the resources (especially when burdened with vast student debt) nor the inclination to take time out for child-rearing. I think this may be as much of a disincentive to the women that you're writing about as the social pressures that you discuss in your original post. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

toadmommy said...

I've always found it interesting that most statistics on infertility rates in older women come from....infertility clinics. That's like judging the mental health of a population based primarily on the assessment of the inmates at a mental hospital. I have yet to see much data based on pregnancy rates in over-40 women in a healthy population that were also **having frequent intercourse during the fertile parts of their cycle**. (Call me crazy, but I'm guessing that women who have been married for 10+ years are not having nearly as much sex as they did when they were younger.) Not saying that there is no decline in fertility as women age -- just that I think the data we base all this panic on might not be quite as solid as we assume it is.

Britta said...

I think toadmommy makes a good point. I didn't realize that is where most infertility data comes from, but it would certainly be biased.

Also, my guess is, infertile 23 year olds probably don't rush to a fertility clinic the way infertile 40 year olds do, since they might be more willing to give it time. (E.g. a 23 trying for 5 years would only be 28, but a 40 probably doesn't want to wait until 45 but rather get pregnant right away), which would also skew the data.

Unknown said...

toadmommy, the data coming from fertility clinics *is* based on "pregnancy rates in over-40 women in a healthy population that were also **having frequent intercourse during the fertile parts of their cycle**". you don't go to a fertility clinic until you've spent bare-minimum 6 months, and in many cases up to several years, charting your ovulation and humping like crazy the 3-4 days a month you can actually get pregnant. now yes, you could argue that many 40-somethings married 10+ years are not having tons of sex, but the ones that want kids *are*, and they are a perfectly acceptable random sample of 40-something women, know what I mean?

and the fact of age-related fertility decline is indisputable-- fertility researchers do all manner of studies on women who are *not* fertility-clinic customers, and the decline in fertility can be evaluated by several easily measured criteria (antral follicle count, FSH testing, etc, etc). studies are starting to show age-based declines as early as age 27, and absolutely the percentages of the population able to get pregnant quickly (and more importantly, successfully) drops at 33, again at 35, enormously around 40, and falls totally off the cliff after 43-45. the previous commenter's family members getting pregnant well into their 40s are statistically rare.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Lots to get through here. I'll start with Jean Hannah Edelstein's comment. Who raises the kids? This has not yet been sorted out for those who are first-time parents at 40. If both parents work, things get complicated. To be clear, I'm not suggesting (as, for example, a natalist might) that we revamp how society works so as to encourage making the most of all the fertile years, to create support systems that encourage pregnancy at 17, etc. I'm thinking more along the lines of settling down being within the realm of possibility a few years out of college. Once you're past the stage at which getting pregnant would be a disaster - which is to say, if you're out of school, supporting yourself, and in a committed relationship - the difficulties aren't so different at 25 than at 40.

This will take us in a slightly different direction, but I think (backed up, alas, by anecdotal evidence) that the idea that a woman must "sacrifice" if she finds a serious boyfriend too young comes in part from genuine sacrifices (like the possible move you describe), but also in part from fears expressed on our behalf by women of an earlier generation. Women, that is, who, based on their own experiences, associate monogamous heterosexual coupling with a woman having to give up her career, even if no move is required. Women of my own generation, meanwhile, have had to reassure those of our mothers' generation that an interest in having a boyfriend is not, in most cases, an interest in quitting school or work.

Dave said...

Did you see Luce at PhD Octopus' comment on this?

I think your suggestions seem reasonable, except they sort of encourage women to date older (wealthier) men, and men to date younger women. Which happens anyway all the time. But it sucks a little if you want to date someone around your own age.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I think your suggestions seem reasonable, except they sort of encourage women to date older (wealthier) men, and men to date younger women. "

How so? I'm encouraging the existing couples that form in college or shortly thereafter to stay together if they're happy, rather than (as is so often the case) to break up because their friends and families think they're just babies at 24 or whatever. I'm not saying single 24-year-old women should heed the ticking clock and find husbands - that advice would point them towards older men, but it's not the advice I'm giving.

Britta said...


"and they are a perfectly acceptable random sample of 40-something women, know what I mean?"

Except, women seeking fertility treatments are by definition not a random sample when it comes to evaluating fertility in older women.

The average age of final child for women in Victorian Britain was 39, which shows that when women do not choose to control their fertility that much, children into one's late 30s and early 40s is even statistically rare. By the Victorian era women were already practicing birth control and child mortality had dropped, so I would not be surprised if women in earlier generations would continue having children even later. Thus, drop in fertility rates may not actually result in that much of an impaired ability to reproduce. I.e., whether or not it takes you 2 months or 6 months to get pregnant ultimately does not affect whether or not you have a child.

Britta said...

I meant, is NOT even statistically that rare.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Let's see...

I'm not sure how much the fertility angle - which I realize was how I framed this post! - matters for what I'm suggesting. Even if women are no more fertile, on average, at 23 than at 40, I'd still think it makes sense to allow more "traditionalism" from the young, and more social rebellion from the middle-aged. What interests me isn't so much seeing the ages for marriage and kids go down, as seeing relationships that are going well not be stopped artificially by a "you're too young" better-suited for 14-year-olds than 24-year-olds. I think, however, that earlier marriage and childbearing probably would follow from this change.

Karen said...

The line I loved best in this post is "we could shift to [a system] in which 23-year-old couples wouldn't be treated like experimenting middle-schoolers." Hear, hear!

When my husband and I got engaged during my senior year at an elite midwestern liberal arts college, most of my classmates and professors were flabbergasted. (Politely so -- this was the Midwest, after all.) Still, the hand-wringing over all I would miss by getting married so soon was rampant. But as I observed to my friends, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with J (and he with me), so what sense did it make to begin that forever at some distant, future date?

Later this month, we will celebrate our 24th anniversary. We were lucky that, by marrying early, we were able to spend several years childless doing the things (grad school, travel, many nights listening to loud music in smoky clubs) that we enjoyed doing, without the pressure to reproduce minutes after signing the marriage license. Those young married years really cemented our relationship and helped us face the pressures of (still) young parenthood much better than if we'd had to dive straight into it. (Of course, "had to" only applies to couples who want children, as we knew we did.) Now, our eldest son has started college, and the other will start high school soon. We're facing our so-called empty nest (if we're lucky) years at a time when we're still young enough to do things like change careers if we want to, or move someplace completely different, or travel even further afield. Our lives haven't been perfect -- I suppose my earning potential was suppressed somewhat by having my children in my late 20s-early 30s than if I had waited -- but early-ish marriage still worked very well for us.