Bringing Up Baby: Motherhood as the Dream Deferred
Last month, New York Magazine published a cover story entitled "Parents of a Certain Age: Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?" The title invites the reader to answer the question with a "yes" or a "no." The author, veteran journalist Lisa Miller, says "no," yet the antagonistic framing invites controversy against the older moms she seeks to defend, as does the sensationalist cover image (shown here) of a decidedly naked, decidedly older pregnant woman.
Miller opens with the story of Ann Maloney, a wealthy psychiatrist. As Miller explains it, Maloney had "deferred motherhood" for the "typical reasons," which include "establishing her practice and building a national reputation." Maloney became pregnant at 48 using a donor egg, and she gave birth to her second child via donor egg at 52.
Miller spends several pages delineating the arguments against donor-enabled pregnancy—health risks to mom and baby, bioethical arguments, vague beliefs that these pregnancies are downright creepy—and then, halfway through, she does an about-face and reveals that none of these arguments are valid because biology is not destiny. According to Miller, "Nature is a historically terrible arbiter of personal choice. American states used to legislate against interracial couples on the basis that miscegenation was "unnatural." Some conservatives continue to fight gay marriage and gay parenthood on the grounds that homosexuality is "unnatural."
It sounds like a good point, but it's a deceptive and faulty analogy. Miscegenation and homosexuality do not require medical procedures in order to exist. Claims about the relative "naturalness" of homosexuality are explicitly cultural value judgments. Not so with in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and gamete donation. Surrogacy costs up to $110,000 and is often not covered by insurance. Surrogacy is made possible by technology. Menopause is real. And yet Miller paraphrases one of her sources as saying that "menopause, the definitive end of a woman's natural fertility, can be regarded as an evolutionary relic." This is a startling mistruth. She then makes confusing claims about why the evolutionary "survival benefit" of menopause is no longer relevant because life expectancies are now longer. (She was grappling with an evolutionary theory sometimes called the "grandmother hypothesis," but either didn't understand it or wasn't given the space to explain what she meant.)
In point of fact, our extended life spans have no bearing on menopause, and just because older moms might live to see their children grow up doesn't affect the difficulty of becoming pregnant in the first place. And Miller's belief that long life expectancies legitimize older motherhood directly contradicts her other belief that nature is a terrible arbiter of personal choice.
The ultimate problem with the article is that it implicitly supports a class system here in the United States that renders older motherhood a class privilege. By glossing over the constraints of menopause, she also glosses over the women who can't afford to overcome its restrictions. Miller writes that "the woman who devotes her first decades of adulthood to her career is expected to then waive her maternal impulses." She goes on to explain that older moms tend to be wealthy and have stable careers, which is good for their children. She concludes that the "decision to put work before childbearing for some period of time is not "a lifestyle choice" but a necessity," and that in opposition to younger moms, older moms "can chaperone the field trip without job anxiety; financially secure, they can take an extended parental leave when the baby comes."
Wait... what? Let's be clear. Women who desire kids and successful careers must put childbearing on hold. Yes, this is often true. Kudos for pointing that out. But the solution is financially and emotionally draining biotechnology? I know this is radical, but mightn't the solution be economic and reproductive justice?
The financial burden of motherhood is not an inevitability. It results from unfair policy and trenchant sexism. Take a moment to ponder these numbers from the MomsRising.org website:
- In a Harvard study of over 170 countries, the U.S. was one of only four nations without any form of paid leave for new mothers. The others were Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.
- Women without children make 90 cents to a man's dollar, but mothers make just 73 cents, and single mothers make even less, about 60 cents to a man's dollar.
That women in the US must trade childbearing for economic independence is a tragedy. It speaks to profoundly anti-women and anti-mother work, economic, and legal policy. The myriad Mommy Wars are framed as the product of female cattiness when they're actually the product of unjust policies that pit "working" moms against "stay-at-home" moms against women who don't have and/or don't want children. That such a pronounced financial rift exists between women with children and women without children is indefensible.
In Miller's article, there is a background assumption of acceptance. Indeed, I've found that media coverage of in vitro fertilization, gamete donation, and even adoption panders to the sensationalist element, while thoughtful analyses of the economic trappings of motherhood neared extinction sometime in the mid '90s. Miller's article raised public awareness about the small but growing numbers of menopausal women who become pregnant with donor eggs, and that's great, but presenting this as a romanticized "dream deferred" scenario for the wealthy while also implying there are no longer time limits on this particular dream seems negligent. It's also unfortunate that this article elected the sophomoric tactic of debating whether older pregnant women merit acceptance. I fear this type of coverage rakes the fire for the new mommy wars: Older working moms versus younger working moms.
I am not making an argument against surrogacy and donor pregnancy. For women who delayed childbearing in order to pursue other dreams, these ever-improving techniques can be a salvation. Yet failing to consider the context does a great disservice to women who delay motherhood when they prefer not to. Miller doesn't mention women who can't afford these procedures, or women who spend years trying in vitro fertilization or other techniques with no result. She also ignores women who delay motherhood for reasons that have nothing to do with the desire to accumulate wealth.
Portrayals of older moms in other media likewise fail to portray the financial and personal woes that can result from the necessity to delay motherhood. On television, adoption is the quick-fix for infertility problems, and the recent slew of rich mom reality shows on Bravo creates the façade of smooth sailing for older moms. The apparent ease and hipness of older motherhood stands in juxtaposition to media treatment of young moms, who, as diseased burdens to society, must be shamed, or at the very least chastised. When it comes to value judgments about motherhood, it all depends on who's having the children, and if there's one group of moms that our culture wholeheartedly embraces, it's moms who can afford it.
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