Monday, October 12, 2009

Mothers, Babies, and Feminism

I know it’s cliché to blame your mother for your problems, but lately I’ve been doing just that.

My mother grew up in a small town in Iowa, graduated high school in 1969, and went off to junior college to study nothing in particular. In her words, “I went to college because I wasn’t engaged.” I imagine in 1969 women had more options than a decade earlier, but in a world before cable TV and the internet; culture changed much more slowly in an isolated town in Iowa than the rest of the world. She may as well have graduated high school in 1950.

So my mother continued attending her junior college and continued to not be engaged. She met and married my father at the age of nineteen. According to her, this was just in time. She was starting to become concerned that she would be an old maid.

Marriage transformed my mother from college student to housewife. Two years later she was transformed into mother. (What did she do as a housewife for two years with no children?) Five years after that she was transformed again into mother of a daughter. And finally, three years later, after a surprise baby that strained the family finances, she was transformed into a working mother of three.

This is who raised me; a working mother of three with a husband who still expected her to complete all duties of a housewife, a working mother of three who never finished college and was forced to work dead end jobs which were not intellectually challenging, a working mother of three who was quite bitter about her situation and determined that her daughters would not repeat her mistakes.

Instead of achieving her own hopes and dreams, my mother laid them at my feet and encouraged me to take them up. Marriage and motherhood were not goals to be achieved, but stumbling blocks to be avoided. I was never encouraged to have boyfriends. My mother used to say things like, “I could have [fill in blank] if I hadn’t had children so young,” or “If you decide to have children you’d better really be ready because there is no turning back.”

I was scared to get married. I was definitely scared to have children (and still am). My mother made it seem like an ending, not a beginning.

Despite her warnings I married my husband a couple weeks before my twenty eighth birthday and started trying to have children a month before I turned thirty; not terribly late in life by today’s standards.

But maybe it was already too late. Maybe if I had started earlier… Maybe…

My mother’s bitterness toward her choices influenced my choices, which have also left me bitter.

A work colleague once told me that she wished she had never gone to college. If she wasn’t successful in a career it would not make fiscal sense to send her children to daycare. She was bitter too.

My sister is approaching the age I was when I started this baby making (or no baby making) journey. She is in the thick of finishing her second master’s degree. I know she plans to have children in the future. I know she assumes as I did, that making a baby will be no problem. Sometimes I want to grab her and shake her and say, “I KNOW THE TIMING SUCKS, BUT YOU NEED TO GET STARTED!” But I don’t.

Why does it seem like fertility is at odds with feminism? I feel like there is all this pressure to achieve and succeed and gather up accomplishments, all the while assuming or hoping your fertility will be around when it is time to have a baby.

And if it isn’t?

If it isn’t society turns its nose up as if you should have known better. I’m sick of reading mainstream articles about infertility which subtly hint that it could all be avoided if women would just start having kids earlier (like in the good old days). OK. I get it. You are right. Fertility declines with age.

There is very little sympathy for the successful woman in her thirties or forties who cannot have children. We made a choice after all, a choice to wait. We shouldn’t expect to have our cake and eat it too.

So what if I had chosen to have children in my early twenties? Well, the father of my children would not be my husband. I didn’t meet my husband until I was twenty seven, an age at which my fertility was already declining. The father of my children would be a man who ended up cheating on me, getting someone else pregnant, and then wondering why I couldn’t empathize with his predicament. In my early twenties I had no idea how to be a mother. In my early twenties I had no idea how to take care of someone else. In my early twenties I could barely take care of myself; financially, emotionally, or physically.

If I had had children in my early twenties I would be my mother; unhappy, bitter, wishing I would have waited.

If I ever have a daughter will I tell her to hurry up and have babies or wait? I don’t know.

I guess you are damned if you do, damned if you don't. Sigh. Yet another post with no point, no answers, no neat summary.


Valerie said...


I swear I could have written this post WORD FOR WORD. I experienced almost the exact same predicament, only in my case it was...

"use birth control, Valerie, regardless of what the "Church" says, otherwise you'll end up with an accident." Oh, BTW...did I mention that I/me/moi was the accident?

I often heard growing up that had my mother not been encouraged to marry so young and had not gotten pregnant 3 months into marriage that she probably would have divorced my father.


So, it's my fault that you have a crappy marriage? It's my siblings and my fault that you didn't make different choices. Yup, she's bitter and now so am I.


B/c I waited...not that long to marry. I was 24. But I waited until I was that I could say we had been married 5 years and were good and ready for kiddos. That we "enjoyed" our alone time.

Well, 2 ectopics, 1 blighted ovum and 1 miscarriage later my husband and I found ourselves spending thousands of dollars on IVF/ICSI at the age of 35. who was bitter.

And the frustration didn't end with a successful cycle...why? B/c my husband has bought into the notion that b/c I had earned a 2nd bachelor degree and then a masters, I was "too educated" not to work. WTF?!!!

Last year, after 4-years of working full-time, juggling infertility, IVF, etc. I put down my foot and quit my job. I DON'T CARE THAT I'M EDUCATED...I educated myself, so that I HAVE choices!!! AAAARGH!

My sister and I have had the same conversation about advice, many many times. B/c my I am now bitter and my view of life is altered, I think I will tell my daughter to contemplate deeply her life's desires. And if she thinks, even for a moment, that mothering is on her list of accomplishments, she better do it now rather than later. After all, she will have the rest of her life to accomplish a career...a baby, not that much time.

Sorry so long, I just feel very passionately about this topic,


JB said...

I share your passion, Valerie and Megan. This is an important topic. I used to envision the IVF crowd as post-modern feminists who just waited too long and wanted to override nature because of their insistence on putting career first. And now here I am. Now I know better.

I also grew up hearing constantly about how having kids ruined my mother's life, prevented her from finishing college, etc., etc. And yet, as soon as I finished college at the ripe old age of 21, the insistent questions about when I would have her grandchildren began. Confusing.

My husband and I are both on our second marriage I am in my 30's and he in his 40's. Our previous partners did not want to be parents and would have sucked at it anyway. Once we made the leap to get married, we decided we should have kids and started trying right away. And found out what a hurdle we had to jump. Still trying. Currently failing.

I have heard some of the most insane comments lately that make me want to alternately curl up in a ball and die or punch people in the face. My well-intending mother-in-law: "If he would have known he couldn't have kids now, I wish KB had had them when he was younger." That would be, when he was with his ex-wife and before he knew me. Fabulous. My friends: "Pregnancy isn't all that great. Just adopt." Just. Okey-dokey. My husband's aunt: "Try adopting an older kid -- I hear that's easier." Thanks. And this weekend, an old classmate of my husband and sister-in-law: "Do you have kids? -- without missing a beat) -- No, well you don't look like the type who would." Because I have a PhD and wear nice jewelry when I go out?

Your post hits the nail on the head. We are in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation with no right answers. I have also debated the merits of quitting my job and staying home while we figure out the whole baby thing. From a stress angle, it makes sense. The compromise was me finding a work-from-home position that I can manage, which keeps a second income rolling into finance our umpteen attempts at ART.

With infertility, it seems there are no easy answers, only increasingly hard questions.

Thanks for this post, Megan.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post! I am with everyone else here, but with one complication - Mr. Hatter DID knock someone up at the age of 26, and refused to marry her (which was her plan all along). I came along when the baby was 1 year old and I was 23 and I ASSUMED we would have more children together one day. Due to the financial burden of raising a child, it took us a long time to be able to afford things like a ring and a wedding. He proposed 6 years later, we got married 1 year after that, when I was 30. Now we've been together 15 years - no baby. We thought it was me at first, and most people think that, as he has conceived in the past (at least, that's what we believe - there has never been a DNA test and that wouldn't matter anyway because we love our child to death), but he has fertility issues now, .and so do I. I love my stepchild very very much, but I resent the woman who conceived him in order to trap my husband. And at the same time I kick myself for not being just as selfish as her and getting pregnant whenever it suited me.

Amber said...

What an incredible post. I am 29 now and how many times I've wondered how things would have been different if I tried earlier. But now here's my situation and it kinda sucks. I still don't think I was ready then and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done anything differently. Such a well-written post!!!

Life Happens said...

We all learn from our parents, whether it's what to do or what NOT to do when we grow up. From my childhood, I've learned a lot of what NOT to do from them.

It's funny how we all use to think that we could 'plan' when we would have kids. Nothing ever goes according to plan. Hind sight is always 20/20. If we all could do it again, most of us probably wouldn't have waited. But who knew right?

Great post, as usual!

ASP said...

You could and should try to get this post published. It's one of the most well-written fertility posts I've read in forever.

The wondering will always be there but if you weren't ready to have children, you weren't ready. I know I was and am still scared shitless to have kids. My mom had me when she was 16, so I saw what being a young, uneducated, unwed mother was all about firsthand. It wasn't fair to us or my mom, but she did the best (well, kind of) she could for what resources, education level (10th grade) and help she could get and had. I don't blame her, I blame her mom for not encouraging her to get an education. So in some respect, I can see where your mom was coming from on the education front. It's always going to be a never ending battle with yourself about the choices you make regarding anything in life. I like to think that the choices I make now are the choices that are right for me at this time and I can't look back thinking, "I wish I had done this differently, etc, etc." I'm the person I am because of the choices I've made up to this point. It's what makes me- me and I have to be fine with that baby or no baby.


P.S- You should send this (what you wrote) into Fertility Authority. Seriously.

Kara's Mom said...

This debate has tormented me since I lost my firstborn to stillbirth, 16 months ago. I married at 36, thought I could get pregnant instantly without trouble. 4 years later after countless infertility treatments, I lost my baby to 'no cause' at almost 38 weeks. why did I wait? why didn't I try sooner? I waited because society encouraged us to wait - have a successful career, don't be a stay-at-home mom in your 20's, etc. and so on. Don't waste your life, was the message from the feminist left who ruled the media for my entire childhood/teen years and adulthood.
I wish I was more educated about the infertility risks. I guess I chose to be ignorant in order to support my decision to ttc later in life. If I had children earlier in life with other men I was with, I would have definitely ended up divorced, the single mom with 1, 2 or 3 kids. Unhappy, bitter, resentful. But I wouldn't be the 41-year old mother of a dead baby who can no longer conceive using her own eggs. Although married to my soul mate, I wish I would have met him sooner, started trying to get pregnant right away, etc. and so on. If I'm lucky enough to have a daughter again someday (DE, adoption, etc.) I will give her both sides of the story, and let her choose her own destiny with full knowledge of both possibilities.

Cort said...

And then there are those of us who started trying at the ripe old age of 24, and it STILL took four years to get pregnant. I have at least five friends who started young, as well. Don't beat yourself up about your age. I think fertility hits who it hits, regardless of when you start trying. And it sucks no matter what.

Anonymous said...

In my early twenties I had no idea how to take care of someone else. In my early twenties I could barely take care of myself; financially, emotionally, or physically....

Yes I was MARRIED(at 22) and pregnant at 23 for the first time...and believe me...wish I coudl go back and change it all just a little bit...

I so get your post though...its not a win win no matter how early you start or how long you wait...there is no sympathy on either end of the scale...

Milla said...

I was wondering earlier today where my own personal feminism went. I don't feel part of a movement of women any more (something that strongly motivated me personally and professionally for the last 10 years), I feel part of IF and more bound up in that identity. Another issue I admit but related.

Last week I was thinking 'if the norethisterone makes me this ill again I'm not taking it and I don't care'. It hit me that I was actually planning to come off the fertility drugs because the side-effects were making me late for work, which just isn't me. How mixed up is that? What do I want - a shot at pregnancy or a non-existent perfect punctuality record?

I have strived for my career but I sometimes wonder, about my priorities and my assumptions, just like yours. I was onced asked in a therapy session what my 'plan' was and I've never had one, in my world you planned your job and your education and the rest just happened. Except it didn't, no neat answer from me either but I know where you're coming from.

tishi said...

Totally agree with this posting,
Its like we were tricked into thinking we
could have it all....that you can have the
high powered job and have children
when you were done. Now here we all
are, coming home from our high powered
jobs to write in our blogs about fertility
problems. I feel like I was tricked, I feel
like I was tricked by feminism, which is
hard to take because I love feminism.
There has to be a happy medium, but
what is it? how is it that the time we
should be working towards our educational
goals is the same time we should be
building our can we do both?
does anyone have this answer???

Anyway, here is an AWARD for you!! I really
enjoy your blog, and especially this post!


tishi said...

That is supposed to be the Kreative Blogger award, but I can't figure out how to paste the image!!!

irrationalexuberance said...

This really resonates -- my mom, who got married at 23 and had 2 kids by 27, told my sister and I to not get married until we were at least 28 so that we could live our own lives and be able to support ourselves. I somehow don't think that she thought her older daughter would wait until she was 39 to get hitched and her younger daughter would not be married at 37. So no grandkids.

Both her kids have multiple postgrad degrees, been very successful, etc., but we also have taken no time to have a family. And now mom's advice is "you shouldn't work so hard -- you should prioritize your personal life." So what does that mean? Be driven and self-focused and successful, but only if you are also marrying and breeding? How do you balance? It's hard to know what to make of it.

Either way, we are where we are, but I am seriously telling my younger sister to get started soon.

TeeJay said...

In reality, for some, it doesn't always matter how young you are when you start trying. I was baby-making age. And here I am, 33, and still no baby. My plan was to have any babies by the time I was 30 because I wanted to be a young laid plans, right? Good always.

areyoukiddingme said...

Your post makes me feel pretty lucky. My issues (autoimmune) would probably have been the same no matter what age I had started trying. Given that I was older, educated, and feeling like I was in charge of my own health care, I was more able to demand testing and start seeking out additional help without putting myself through years of heartache and losses. I don't have to regret my choices, or the fact that I was not ready to parent before age 35.

I wish that you all had the same luxury - or that you find the turning point where your education and building of yourself benefits you in your quest to parenthood.

Anonymous said...

I don't de-lurk often, because I'm not really a part of this community and don't often feel like I have anything relevant to say.

I have a confession - I am 26 and not even married yet (engaged) and because of many of the above-mentioned reasons, I will probably not even attempt the children thing til I am in my early 30s. My mom got married at 21 (after college) and had me at 26 and my sister at 29, so I already feel 'behind.' I read infertility/adoption blogs (about 25!) because I want to be prepared in 5 years when my reproductive system fails me - how sad/pessimistic is that?

I am hoping if I am already jaded and resigned to it by then, I won't have as much heartbreak/disappointment as all of you - that I will be able to let go of the bio kid idea earlier when I still have the financial/emotional resources left to provide for the kid I may well end up adopting (I've already decided: domestic, minority, infant open adoption).

I also read because I *really* want to see you all succeed, and not just so I can feel better, but because my other secret evil prejudice is that the people who work hard for their kids make better moms. I was raised casually by an alcoholic who kept waiting for me to be old enough to do cool stuff with her, and consequently missed out on the relationship we could have had if she had been more interested in me when I was small. I am determined to be an engaged parent, however it happens (and it will!) and I am sure all of you will be as well. That's at least one plus side to the whole mess, I guess - not for you, because what you're going through sucks, but for the kid(s) that will get an attentive, interested parent instead of one who feels inconvenienced by their

Love to you all! I'm cheering for you!

LaceFace said...

I think you said it all with this post. I have determined after struggling with infertility that the grass is always greener. I used to envy my friends/coworkers with babies and now I think they envy me for my free time and independence. I think everyone wonders if they made the right choices. We'll never know!

jenicini said...

You said it so well. I'm just going to say, "exactly!"

Bluebird said...

I've often had similar thoughts but have never been able to articulate them quite so well :)

I think its interesting how, in many ways, society is starting to slide backward. For example, more women are staying home (rather than working) than we've seen in decades. In some ways I think this backward trend is good, in other ways bad.

I think our whole generation was raised being told that we can "do it all," "have it all," etc., and to definitely put a family at the end of the list chronologically. It was as if that (a family) is something we can always have, while a career won't wait. . . um, not so much.

I wonder often what I'll tell my daughter or niece one day. I *don't* think I'll tell her that she can "have it all" because, for me at least, that idea has created an incredible amount of pressure. I have a good job and a ton of student loan debt, and therefore feel guilty for even having the fleeting thought that I might not be happiest dropping my child off at day care every morning.

I read a few months ago: "Women can have it all. Just not at the same time."

KS said...

I just "came out" with my struggle with infertility on my blog...stumbled on yours today. I'm so sorry to hear you're going through this as well!

TeeJay said...

I already posted a comment, but I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for an award on my blog.

Tiffanie said...

i hear ya. i often wonder if we would have been able to avoid all of the infertility treatments if we had started trying for a baby 6yrs ago right after getting married instead of deciding to wait until i had finished my Master's degree and we did some traveling. i suppose it doesn't really matter in our case b/c i know i was not ready to be a mother and would probably not have been a good one. i didn't want to resent my child for keeping me from things which is probably what would have happened 6 yrs ago.

the misfit said...

I started trying the day I got married, at 23 years old, because (among other reasons) I'm Catholic, opposed to contraception, and wanted a big family. Now I've watched people who married later, stayed on the pill for years of marriage, or gotten pregnant before they were married, get pregnant easily and take their good fortune for granted. I don't think they (or anyone) deserves infertility as a punishment, but I can't deny there are times I think that I shouldn't have to go through this, because I did it right. All I can figure is - irony can get to all of us.

I also wonder whether it's too easy to drag feminism into all of this. What I mean senior year in college, a girlfriend said that "the patriarchal/corporate world" was biased against women, because you "couldn't have it all" - a high-powered job and an involved role as a mother. By the time I got to law school, I saw clearly that men "couldn't have it all" either - you can't work 80 hours a week as an attorney and still be a decent husband and father. (At least, I don't see how.) The bottom line is there are 24 hours in every day. The ones you spend working you can't spend with your kids. The ones you spend developing your single life, career, or just looking for Mr. Right, you can't spend building your family. And the years you spend comforting yourself that you aren't having sex before you've married, you can't get knocked up and hit the "pause" button on the endo that will shortly take over your reproductive health for life. I guess everyone has some regret like that, even if they're lucky enough not to be infertile. My hope is that I'll develop the attitude to seize life by the horns forcefully enough that I never have to look back at what I could have done if I hadn't done what I did. I'd like to have seized the day, for good or ill, triumph or disaster.

Anonymous said...

This was a really wonderful post, mirroring what I think quite a few people think about. Not sure there is any right answer as we've all had such different experiences.

Being someone who had an "accident" at 19 (suffering from secondary infertility due to MFI), and also being the "accident" of a 19 year old mother, this post really hit home for me.

My mother is, and I believe always will be, quite resentful about having gotten pregnant so young. The accident, in other words "I", pretty much ruined her life. My experience was very, very different.

Having my daughter at such a young age turned out to be the only motivator I would ever need. Sure we struggled, and it's not for everyone, but I know I would never have attained the success I did, in career or life, were it not for her untimely birth.

So, I think the answer really depends on who you are. Which would you regret more? Feeling like you have fewer choices because you chose to have a child early in life or finding yourself with a successful career but struggling to have a child? Everything in life is about choices. And we never really know what the outcome is going to be. Some start right away and struggle. Others put it off for career or other things and get pregnant relatively easy. We often don't know what hand we've been dealt until the cards are presented. In the end, no matter what we choose, we can't really know what the result is going to be. :)

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So true.

B MoM said...

what very thought provoking post. I enjoyed it immensely. I'm like you...didn't get married till I was 28...didn't start trying till 29. I still say you're plenty enough young to have babies at 30 or even mid30s. I'm also glad I wasn't having babies in my early 20's like my mom (she had me at 22 and brother at 24). I think the advice you'll give to your daughter will have the unique perspective of knowing what your mom went through and what you went through and thus will be able to counsel her accordingly. She'll be lucky!

Meez said...

I'm gobbling up your blog - I'm really enjoying reading your posts - this one in particular I can relate to having gotten married at the "ripe" old age of 36... I too wonder if I would have snapped my fingers and fallen pregnant if I were 10-15 years younger - my mother always said "you'll have no problem getting pregnant" because she didn't...she was also 19. Anyway, 4 years later and 40 years old, we're onto IVF#6... but at 20 I was more like 12... Anyway off to read more posts! Glad I found you!

Bobi AKA Stacey said...

Had to comment on this. I am going back and reading this blog, as i just recently discovered the land of IF. I am 20. At 18 i was told i had PCOS, at 15 i was told i had hypothyroidism, at 12 i was told i had endometriosis.
The first time i walked into my doctors office and said I was engaged, my doctor gave me a talk.
Which pretty much said, "You rarely ovulate. You are going to have a hard time conceiving. Think about your options."
Two months later my fiance and i bought our house. And began trying. (Yes we bought a house on my 19th bday) That was back in 08. Now i am 20. And After 1 year of trying on our own, we had nothing but 2 miscarriages. I was thrilled that atleast i COULD get pregnant. I can get over one hurdle.

Now we are doing clomid, and soon metformin. We are decided that after Christmas 2010 we will do IUI.

Infertility is not for women in their 30's and 40's. My fertility will decline with age. But evn at 20, things do not look good. I am at an age where my friends have kids by accident. Most while trying to prevent pregnancy. Yet, at 20, i can get pregnant, but i cannot keep myself that way.

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