NPR concern trolls women who delay pregnancy until after age 22

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.

0 thoughts on “NPR concern trolls women who delay pregnancy until after age 22

  1. Ah, where to start? How about the fact that today, girls start menstruating at a much younger age, and doctors think its due to all the hormone-injected fast food they are eating? Instead of dropping their first egg at 12 or 13, they’re starting as young as 8. But no one’s addressing that issue outside of a handful of researchers.

    My obgyn father-in-law (a very practical man) has suggested that the curve needs to be reset. 35 today is not what 35 was when they first determined women over that age to be “high risk”. Women today are healthier, and the medical community has made serious strides in managing pregnancies. Its about time the rest of society followed the medical community on this one.

    And I would agree completely with Historiann that just because biology might suggest that fertility “peaks” at 22, that hardly takes into account the fact that 22 year-olds-today are far less equipped to handle babies than they were in the past. Financially and emotionally, many of them (though by no means all) are “high risk” in my opinion when it comes to being prepared to raise a child.


  2. I grew up in a very traditional Catholic community in Minneapolis, where people didn’t use birth control. and like you say, none of my parents friends easily had children before age 35 had any trouble after age 35. Some couples had difficulty, but age seemed to matter little. A women I know well had five healthy children after 35, but one came home from the Obstetrician nearly in tears at age 42 because the Ob/Gyn basically told her her chances of having a down syndrome child had increased dramatically and wanted her to undergo a relatively invasive procedure just to make sure her fetus was healthy.

    Furthermore, all complications she had had nothing to do with actually becoming pregnant, but occurred after her pregnancy and were a result of the number of children she had (10). I know that although this women doesn’t regret any of her choices, but she will tell you that this lifestyle isn’t for most people. However, in my experience many young Catholic girls have fallen victim to this myth of decreased fertility after age 35 and fail to grasp the reality of the situation. Unaware that many of their mothers actually did use birth control (which is very common as well), this post John Paul II generation seems completely clueless about how many children they can actually have. I recently witnessed one young fervent Catholic women state that the only way to have 10 children is to start at age 15—and the women I talked about above had her first child one month before she turned 27.


  3. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Is this what abstinence education has wrought, Mary? You need to school those young ladies in a little women’s history!

    And ej: interesting points. The decreasing age of menarche is partially a factor of a more affluent society (i.e. few girls are calorie deficient or environmentally stressed in North America and Western Europe) I think, but you’re right that that early onset puberty has been linked to obesity and hormone exposure. That arguably is a bigger issue than affluent, educated, fully-insured women’s childbearing schedule. Your father-in-law should write a book! (But, I have a feeling he’d get more publicity if he took the “get pregnant before 22 or never!” party line!)


  4. I think I am of strange generation historiann…
    Most of my friends (male and female alike) have had no reproductive education.They have asked me “Can you have sex when you’re pregnant?” and even “You don’t get pregnant every time you have unprotected sex?” just to name a few. And its not that they aren’t engage in sexual activity. Its just that they don’t have sex. In my experience, all abstinence education tells people is sex is bad, but if you do it use a condom so we don’t have to hear about it. But I doubt that comes as a surprise.


  5. That level of ignorance is just astonishing to me, Mary. Never has more quality sex ed information been so available via the web, but there’s also clearly a powerful countervailing force in all of the misinformation published on the open-source, non peer-reviewed internets. Why don’t people want to arm themselves with the facts? I don’t get it.


  6. Of course, there is also zero discussion about the fact that the world really needs people to stop having children given that we are soooo over populated as it is.

    As a gay man, I am also quite annoyed by the implicit argument that one’s value is determined by the ability/desire to have biological children.


  7. But, GayProf, you’re a man–men are valuable and worthy regardless of their status as parent or non-parent! I think in this respect motherhood is different from fatherhood, in that it’s seen as kind of a nice bonus (and evidence of studly achievement) for a man to spawn, but it’s not seen as proof of a kind of comprehensive masculinity to have a child. Women are seen as truly unnatural women if they don’t want to have children, and it’s assumed that motherhood completes them.

    The NPR article didn’t touch overpopulation at all–after all, the NPR audience is the “right” kind of people to have children, so they don’t need to question the morality of reproduction. They’re majority white, well-educated, middle-class or better (and hence more likely to be full of women 30+ who are just starting their families, or trying to start their families, instead of working-class or poor, single women who are the ones who “shouldn’t” be having children.)


  8. I totally agree that women face much more scrutiny about their reproductive choices than men. Here is a story from my former Texas institution that I share often. If I have already noted this here, try not to think less of me.

    Most (All?) of my hetero junior colleagues were busy having children (a product of the uniquely American Baby Boom that we are witnessing right now (Whatever happened to Zero Population Growth?)). The women who decided to have children were loudly condemned by senior male colleagues as “not being serious about their career.” Junior men, however, were rewarded by the very same male colleagues for being “able to balance it all” when they had children (Despite the fact that most of those junior men had a stay-at-home wife who actually did 90 percent of the childcare). The double standard was astounding and explicit. Hello, 1955. Often these two thoughts were expressed within seconds of each other.

    Still, I would argue that men feel pressure to have children as well (though it is framed differently and can occur at any life stage). Something is up when young, gay men report that they feel a compelling need to have children as part of their identity.


  9. You haven’t told that story–but sadly, that’s a story that Historiann has seen and heard again and again…whatever the women do, they’re doomed. Having a child means they’re not serious academics, but not having a child makes them a little suspicious, and child-free women are held at arm’s length too. (Although most academic departments are happy to lean on them to volunteer their time on nights and weekends for school functions and student events, because after all everyone knows that women who don’t have children have no life outside of work and don’t need for personal or family time.)

    About gay men having children: forgive me for recommending another program heard on NPR, but This American Life last week ended with a hillarious story by Dan Savage about television stereotypes of masculinity and parenting a straight boy child. You can hear it at The funniest comment I heard on the subject was by John Waters, who was aghast at the concept. As he explained it, NOT having children was one of the few perks of being gay! So he’s clearly not on board with the homo-repro crowd.


  10. Great comments by all. I want to add something about the overpopulation question. Historiann, you suggested that NPR was gearing its message toward white middle or affluent class parents who would presumably be okay to have children in their 30s because they wouldn’t be a drain on society by leaching state resources. But studies I’ve seen suggest that in terms of overpopulation it’s the white middle class we need to worry about. Their children will grow up and consume a lot more resources over their life times than their poor counterparts. They will buy bigger houses, drive less efficient cars, buy more clothes, fly all over the place, etc. So basically if we want to stop global warming, we need to keep the rich from having children.


  11. Good point, hh–I share your concerns about the environmental costs of affluence. (To be clear, I was noting the fact that no one questioned the rightness of the desire for that demographic to have children, as opposed to younger, single women who are questioned and judged all of the time.)


  12. I’m kinda okay with the general notion that evolutionary development programmed us to do certain things, but:

    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.

    WTF? I would really like to see some biological facts backing this up. I can’t even envision how one would prove that scientifically—do women become more fertile 10 years post-menarche? Do late bloomers then have a later peak? I’m also struck by the way she combines “practice at sex and love”, surely a uniquely late 20th/21st century concept, with prehistorical biological programming.


  13. Dance, I think “biological facts” were subordinated to all kinds of other agendas in that article. (On the other hand, what’s not to like about the concept of “10 years of practice sex” before one gets pregnant? That almost makes me yearn for the cavepeople times. Except for that whole lack of modern medical interventions thing.)


  14. What I thought was so lame about this story was that the example of a woman having trouble getting pregnant was of someone who tried at 38. There are 16 years between 22 and 38, and somehow it seems a bit odd. And there were no statistics to prove this was a real issue.

    It reminded me of the “odds of getting married if you are not married by age X” stories. Designed to keep women in line.


  15. I’m wondering if this is just me or whether other straight, married women without children have had this experience. When my other feminist colleagues started having babies, and invited me to baby showers, I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, “so, Heather, when are you and Wayne going to start a family?” as if we weren’t already a family. When I replied, “we’ve decided not to have children,” or a more snide, “what makes you think I want any?” I was looked at like there was something wrong with me, like I wasn’t a complete woman without a child. This is coming from both straight and lesbian women, who really should know better, right? This seems to me no different from saying to a lesbian, oh you’re not really gay, you just haven’t found the right man yet!


  16. Knitting Clio, it isn’t just you. As I inch toward menopause, people still tell me “it isn’t too late yet.” The fact that I have no significant, or even insignificant, other in my life still isn’t a deterrent. Better single motherhood than a barren life! One of these people was a woman who, until she found herself unexpectedly pregnant, was adamantly opposed to having children. Another was my mother, who told me that she herself wouldn’t have had kids if she knew that she had a choice (or at least wouldn’t have had them until at least ten or fifteen years later). A third was a single mother with three kids and a fourth on the way (on public assistance until Texas under Gov. W was so conservatvely compassionate as to kick her off). She couldn’t understand why a single graduate student living on $1000/month wouldn’t want to be pregnant. I began to wonder if, in their cases, misery just wanted company!


  17. Good points, Susan, KC and CB. I’m kind of surprised that more people, especially feminists, haven’t figured out that it’s really not polite to inquire about people’s reproductive plans outside of very close friendships or a therapist’s or physician’s office. For example, KC, it might have been the case that you had been undergoing years of emotionally painful and expensive treatments trying to get pregnant. But when you inform people that that’s not your path in life, they absolutely should desist. Besides, studies have shown that the people who report the greatest satisfaction with their marriages are people who are childless by choice.

    Maybe in a couple hundred years, people will stop associating women with children automatically because birth control technologies will have broken that assumption that if you’re a straight woman with an adult sex life, you’re going to have a child or children. But, probably not in our lifetimes.


  18. I don’t know — advances in reproductive technology and the boomlet of celebrity Moms in their 40s is just making folks ask the same dumb question until you’re nearly 50.

    I guess it’s better than being mistaken for pregnant which happened to me last summer! [I’m not fat but I’m getting a bit of a middle-age paunch]


  19. I hadn’t considered that angle! There is no respect for the middle-aged paunch now that women are giving birth in their 50s and 60s. Gone is another perk of middle-age: the right to finally let it all go to hell.


  20. I actually have a lot of friends who struggled with infertility. Some took fertility drugs or did successful rounds of IVF, some adopted, some just decided not to become parents. But there wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it, at least as far as I could discern. Some were unable to have children in their 20s, others were eventually successful in their 40s. Some are still figuring out what they want to do.

    One odd, sad story: In a family of 10, 6 were female, and 5 of them had fertility issues. The oldest got pregnant as a teenager, and gave the baby up for adoption. She married in her 20s but was unable to conceive, so she then adopted a child! You just can’t predict these things. And it’s definitely better not to ask, and especially not to pry, why certain choices were made.


  21. I’m a bit late to this conversation, but wanted to add a comment.

    I’m pleased to see Ann Bartow raised an issue missing from this conversation on the pressures women face to reproduce. That is, actual reproduction. I worked as a temp in a fertility clinic. Many of the women I met faced serious challenges conceiving and were dead set on doing so. They spent tens of thousands of dollars attempting to get pregnant and were willing to use retirement savings on future attempts. None of them wanted to hear the word “adoption.” They couldn’t see themselves as mothers unless they gave birth. And this, I think, is another oppressive aspect of the expectation – the myth that “true” mothers have experienced childbirth.


  22. Thanks Ann and DV, for weighing in. Ann, your points about the randomness of infertility are good–but no one ever talks about women in their 20s seeking treatment. (Until perhaps after this story aired, with the goalposts of motherhood moved back to AGE 22!)

    And DV: what an interesting temp assignment! I was never that lucky with my temp jobs. I’ve heard that many women seeking infertility treatments may feel pressured by a male partner who won’t accept an adopted child. Talk about a pressured existence–feeling like a failure as a woman (whether or not it’s your body’s “fault” or his, the woman’s body is the battleground), and fearing losing your relationship at the same time.

    I think we’d all be better off if in the U.S. we adopted (so to speak) the Native American tradition of “fictive kin,” and were more flexible about family. Families should be flexible units that can incorporate more than just blood kin. (The fetishization of “blood” seems to be all about patriarchy, property rights, and capitalism anyway, than about true family values.)


  23. How about looking at the FACTS?

    “How Old is Too Old to Have a Baby?
    According to the Mayo Clinic, a woman’s fertility peaks between the ages of 20 and 24. However, fertility rates remain relatively constant through the early 30s, after which they begin to decline:

    At age 30 to 35, fertility is 15 to 20 percent below maximum. From age 35 to 39, the decrease is 25 to 50 percent. From 40 to 45, the decrease is 50 to 95 percent.

    Technically, any woman who has not gone through menopause, and who does not have other reproductive problems, can become pregnant. Successful pregnancies have been reported in women as old as 59.

    Pregnancy Risks After 35
    The risk of miscarriage increases after age 35; by the early 40s, more than 50 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Many of these occur at an early stage and may not even be detected, or may be mistaken for a late period. The majority of these miscarriages are due to the chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus.”

    “At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is one in 1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is one in 214, and above age 45 the probability is one in 19.”



  24. In response to: 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.

    “Maternal age influences the chances of conceiving a baby with Down syndrome. At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is one in 1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is one in 214, and above age 45 the probability is one in 19.”


  25. Now, I’m not saying I completely agree with that article. Women should have children when they are ready. I’m just pointing out that the risks do increase with age.


  26. To begin, it is fair to say that your analysis of age and living conditions for children are quite accurate. Mothers who are older would TEND to be more educated, more responsible, and better prepared than younger mothers in the context of modern society.

    However, you miss the point of the research.

    In the context of biology, research and evidence has shown that age, above 22, and fertility are negatively correlated in a statistically significant way.

    Consider a couple of things:

    First, to call scientific research “idiocy” ruins your credibility. Science is by its nature blind and impartial. It does not consider social standards, or demographic trends of age versus quality of life. If you want to decide when to have a baby, you MUST take ALL factors into account. The research says that the chances of producing a viable offspring are at maximum at age 22. That is one piece of information.

    Instead of flaming science, it would be a better use of time and energy to educate yourself and those around you about how science works and why it is important.


  27. Dan, the “idiocy” I was calling out was the media coverage of this report. (E.g., “The whole story is so utterly idiotic that I don’t have the time or energy to cover it all.”)

    Please read the rules for commenting at this blog. Your comment is extremely condescending and ignores the point of my post, which is that historically this panic over maternal age in childbearing is an utterly new phenomenon.


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