I’m in my late 30s, and over the past few years, I feel like I’ve taken a pounding from the media and elsewhere. There I was, quietly plodding away, trying to establish a career foothold, trying to save up whatever extortionate sum might constitute a mortgage, trying to sift through the opportunities to meet Mr Darcy or, more likely, Mr Dubious, and suddenly ... It seemed my eggs, to whose existence I’d hitherto given little thought, were in the national interest.
I’m trying to remember when I first became aware of this interest, and whether previous post-second wave feminism generations of women were subjected to the same level of pressure. The first example that comes to mind is Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, one of those god-awful, leaden-scripted, portentous, issues-based mini-series the ABC insists on making, featuring a quartet of 38-year-old women who make a pact to get up the duff at any cost.
This program screened about five years ago. Since then, it’s seemed a 30-something woman can hardly open a newspaper without receiving a dire warning about the perils of women who fail to go forth and multiply. Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered if the constant hype on this subject constitutes a mild form of media harassment.
This “get up the duff before it’s too late” discourse comes in a variety of forms. Such as the outright harangue: 30-something women thought they could have it all but they can’t and now they’ve forgotten to have children. They’ve spent too much time chatting with female friends, watching Sex and the City, wishing their gay friends were straight, and indulging in feckless feats of shoe-shopping when they should have been trying to snare a man and get up the duff. And so on, ad nauseum.
Or the biologically-oriented health message: women these days are out of touch with their body clocks, and have less time than they realise to procreate. And even if they’re not barren, their eggs will be off and they’ll be punished for leaving things too late with children who suffer from Downs syndrome and schizophrenia.
Then there’s the political-message-in-demographic-clothing about Australia’s declining fertility rates and ageing population: come on down, girls, and get your baby bonus before it’s too late!
And, more kindly, the discourse of public concern, such as Lesley Cannold’s “childless by circumstance” thesis: how can the modern woman find time to have a child, to have a career, or even just to find a worthwhile, child-interested partner, and so on?
I find much of this material, and the way it is presented, implicitly conservative and disempowering for women my age. To give two recent examples of this phenomenon published in the Good Weekend during the past year, both as the cover article. The first, “The baby gamble” by Joanna Briscoe, was published on April 17, 2004. The second, “So who wants to be a father?” (January 22, 2005), features an extract from Leslie Cannold’s What, No Baby?
“The baby gamble” was accompanied by a cover titled “Time, ladies”, featuring a giant egg-shaped timer with the arrow pointed at 38 (my age at the time of reading). Briscoe’s article largely accepted that we’re living in a man’s world in which greater levels of choice for women and equitable labour force participation aren’t likely. Its first mention of men’s role in the fertility drama was well into the third page, where the following quote from a woman was in bold: “Men always knew you were either at work or home; not managing both at the same time.” On reading this, I couldn’t believe that “men” were allowed to weigh into the debate in such condescending, moralising and, dare I say it, patriarchal tones. And in such large bold type.
Cannold, on the other hand, is a reputable feminist commentator, and she gives an even-handed discussion of the “childless by circumstance” dilemma. She also has to be commended for countering some of the blame-shifting (to women) that accompanies this issue. My issue is more with the Good Weekend’s framing of her material on its cover. Its by-line: “I’ll get back to you on that …How procrastinating men are derailing motherhood plans” is an improvement on “Time, ladies”, it has to be said. But the cover features a photo of a slim, coiffed, suited, pursed-lipped career woman heading on an up escalator and a fattish, bovine, rather mammary-looking woman with a nondescript hairstyle on the down side, pushing a child in one of those sporty yuppie strollers. Subtext: have a career, be childless and bitter about it, or have a child, loose your marbles and get fat. You can’t win either way.
Personally, I’m divided about the attention directed at 30-something women and the state of our eggs. On the plus side, 30-something women and their stories about the difficulties of winning the trifecta (mortgage, career and family) get brought in to public discourse. There’s some opportunity for public discussion and awareness, for women and men to air their opinions on these issues rather than to suffer in silence.
On the minus side, I can’t help wondering if much of this interest in the fate of 30-something women’s eggs issues from the current public policy debate on fertility, which is undeniably a neo-conservative one. That it’s not all about so much right-wing pointy-head angst about who’ll be there to do the white picket fence stuff. To carry the can for the welfare services that were cut with the idea that families and communities would take up the slack, particularly in the face of an ageing population. Or that perhaps it signals the re-emergence of old White Australia policy fears: that if our women don’t breed, increasing numbers of babies might be born to people with the wrong-coloured skin. (Needless to say, the ramifications of the comparative youthfulness and rising fertility rates of the Indigenous population rarely get a guernsey in these policy debates.)
Even more disturbingly, this focus on the fate of 30-something women and their eggs looks very much to me like a return to defining women strongly in relation to their fertility. It seems this issue is becoming framed as the issue for my generation, in the way that breaking free of the “feminine mystique” was for the original second wave feminists - and not necessarily by members of my generation either. From all the hype, one might be mistaken for thinking that no issue of greater importance could face a 30-something woman than whether she managed to procreate.
To be honest, I’m almost starting to look forward to my 40th birthday. I’m hoping to become totally beyond the pale then, invisible in the way older women complain of, yet free from question and scrutiny about the fates and fortunes of my eggs. Though if the focus this week on Julia Gillard and her status as a single, childless, career politician at the age of 43 is anything to go by, that’s hardly likely to be the case.