Sunday, March 3, 2013

Turning 35 and the quandaries of reproductive "choice"

This piece was initially featured in a zine from the "Campaign for Women's Reproductive Rights Melbourne" published in March 2013. For further information on the group or how to obtain a copy of the Zine which features a number of other pieces on Reproductive Rights, please check out their page on Facebook, or via Twitter @CWRRmelbourne

Turning 35 for me is now not even two months away, and with the amount of things attached to this age when you're a woman, I'm both excited and apprehensive. You see, I remember sitting around when we were teenagers at high school, talking about sex as teenagers do. We had been told, for example, that whilst our male classmates were currently hitting their sexual peak, women hit theirs in their mid-30s. I'm fairly certain that a good portion of that knowledge is complete fallacy that may or may not have had something to do with discouraging teenage girls from having sex by perpetuating myths that they simply wouldn't enjoy it until they were much older, but I'm no sexologist. One thing that I do know is that 35 was always explained to us pretty much as “ground zero” as far as a woman's fertility goes. From here onwards biological findings state that it decreases at a much more rapid rate making it more and more difficult to conceive, even with assistance. Additionally, there is more of a chance that the egg a woman beyond 35 ovulates will have autosomal abnormalities so the chances of having a miscarriage are higher.



I've never given having children a serious amount of thought, and all of a sudden, as I get closer and closer to this magic number, I'm supposed to be taking the whole idea a lot more seriously and I don't even know where to begin. I've always been ambivalent about having children, and whilst I have been told by far too many people that I have a natural nurturing side, I haven't necessarily felt a need to channel that nurturing in to children of my own. Yet at this point in time I am feeling an extraordinary amount of pressure to become less ambivalent about child-bearing, whether it's from society wondering what the hell a 35 year old woman is doing showing no signs of settling down, or family who have taken it upon themselves to make comments on my childlessness. Honestly, as part of an Indigenous Australian family I thought I may be buffered from this a bit due to the fact that culturally I'm already a mother, and a grandmother, but apparently I am missing out on something huge, or so I've been told, and I won't be complete if I don't have children. Yep, even with kinship at play, it still seems to be rather unthinkable that an Aboriginal woman hasn't given having her own children much thought.



Additionally, I have been pregnant once, and am already down a fallopian tube because of it (so knock another 20% off my soon to be plummeting fertility). That traumatic experience gave me a bit of a reality check about the less publicised side of pregnancy; what can, and occasionally does, go wrong. Plus it left me, at a most critical junction of my life (as I had just left a long-term relationship only 3 weeks earlier), completely and utterly powerless to make any sort of choice at all on my pregnancy. I couldn't choose to continue on and face the task of being a sole parent head on, nor could I choose to terminate and just rebuild my life as a single woman. The choice was gone. Honestly, I would have hoped that those family members and friends who knew that I went through this would perhaps lay off the “when are you having a baby” talk, but they haven't and if anything it has made them seek “solutions” for me just in case. Everything from sperm donation to IVF have been suggested. If anything, I think my history makes it all the more urgent in their minds.



If the concept of reproductive choice was already incredibly strong in me as a feminist woman, it became amplified from that point onwards. The absence of choice makes the concept of having a choice available so much stronger. And it also makes me so much more protective of women's bodily autonomy and the right to choice in so many different ways. I remember back when Tony Abbott was Health Minister in the Howard Government and how he tried to block RU486 being available in this country (and Senator Kerry Nettle's tshirt emblazoned with the words “Get your rosaries off my ovaries!”) and the thought that this man, who holds such antiquated views of women in general, might be Prime Minister later this year chills me to the bone. Let's also not forget the pro-life pregnancy counselling line Abbott set up with the help of a few religious organisations in order to try and “offer assistance” to women who were considering terminating a pregnancy. What can we expect next in the attack on women's bodily autonomy under an Abbott Government? I hope we don't find out but unfortunately I think we will.



Becoming more aware of “choice” and in just how many ways it operates and is precarious when it comes to women's reproduction has opened up so many lines of enquiry for me. Speaking to some of my friends who have gone through childbirth has uncovered some horror stories. I have been told by some, for example, of how they have felt pressured by their Obstetricians into having a caesarian section or an inducement in order to have the baby born to a schedule when it was medically not necessary. I have been told that when in the delivery room, whilst in the most comfortable position they can find for them and the child they're giving birth to, women have been told by doctors to move or lie down, mainly because it is more convenient from a medical point of view for them to be in a different position. I have heard of women being told they are being “irresponsible” because they wish to give birth at home rather than in a hospital. Something as natural as childbirth has been so heavily regulated and if soon-to-be mothers challenge those regulations they are often criticised. Who can forget the media criticism Dannii Minogue received when she attempted a home birth but ended up having to go into hospital due to complications? As a more knowledgeable friend of mine stated, the media kept on referring to Minogue's “failed” home delivery when what was actually the case was that Minogue had a successful birth plan that took into account issues should they arise. So I long ago decided that should I ever decide birthing babies is for me, then it's home birth, in a pool and surrounded by a bunch of my friends who have been through it. Their stories of regulated birth have been enough for me to wish to emancipate myself from that scene completely.



This regulation of childbearing took a whole new meaning for me last year when the QLD government removed access to altruistic surrogacy for gay couples, singles and heterosexual de facto couples in new relationships. The “right” to access surrogacy is something I openly question, but the right of women to offer surrogacy is something I support. Yet the entire argument at this time seemed to be overrun by the “right to access” side of the debate so we saw endless statements from the Government, from the Australian Christian Lobby and other right-aligned religious groups in support of these changes, and from queer lobby groups opposing the changes as they were hit the hardest because they were excluded from access completely (a heterosexual defacto couple could arguably just wait longer to access the programme whilst a single heterosexual person could have a change in relationship status). Yet what was not all over the media were any responses from women's groups demanding their right to bodily autonomy which would include the ability to make a choice to offer surrogacy and to choose the circumstances under which they offer it and to whom. This is not to say that women were not responding to these changes but rather, despite it being their bodies that are being regulated by laws such as this, their voices were not deemed important enough by the government or the media to be heard. Why is it that not only are governments so very able to make laws regulating women's bodies without any consultation with women's lobby groups at all, but that the argument for or against these laws again excludes women's voices? Are women mere producers of the next generation in this circumstance or are we just a bit more important than that?



Finally, and to change the frame completely, being closer to the magical number of 35 has made me more aware of the stigma that is attached for women who opt out of contributing to the numbers of the next generation. For example, it has made me just that little bit more passionate and vocal when I see criticism directed towards our female Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her choice to not have children. Yes, there have been the rather unfortunate babblings of twits such as Bill Heffernan accusing Gillard of being “deliberately barren” and therefore not having a clue, but it's even the more subtle forms of misogynistic slander such as “she chose her career” that get me mad. I don't think people really question those more subtle forms of criticism but they should. Comments like that infer that there must be a choice for women, that women focussed on their careers cannot also be mothers, or that mothers will never become Prime Minister of this country because they've “chosen” motherhood. Why does this view, 30 years after the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced still seem to have so much currency in this country? Are women not as entitled to choose to not have children as men, or to balance careers and family like men do? Do people still feel that the nurturing side of mothering is not compatible with strong leadership? Why is it, particularly in an environment where we have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General AND a female Head of the Commonwealth, one being childless and the other two being mothers, that these stupid ideas persist? I think it's about time that women are not judged on whether they have progeny and are instead allowed to be judged on their leadership and abilities. Men don't “choose” their careers and they don't have criticism flung at them depending on their reproductive status so it's about time women were afforded the same respect.



So as I trot towards 35 with my decreased reproductive capacity and my increased libido (apparently), what do I choose? I choose to have the full capacity to make choices over my own body as I see fit. I choose to be respected for those choices as an intelligent human being should be. I choose to not be pitied or have condescending remarks made towards me because I am not adhering to what is expected of a 35 year old woman in this society. I choose to remain ambivalent about having children or not and roll with whatever the next few years bring. I choose a supportive workplace and the ability to excel in that workplace regardless of my reproductive choices. And I choose cake. Lots of it. 

EDIT: This post was featured as a guest blog on Bob Gosford's "The Northern Myth" Crikey blog. Link here

5 comments:

  1. Brilliant. Thanks so much for this.

    I thought I might add another voice. I'm only 12 years older than you, but the funny thing is that growing up and as I approached 35, it wasn't a thing in the way that you're talking about. People never really talked about it... maybe the fertility stuff a bit, but because I'm not by any means heteronoramtive, they didn't say it to me, bless em.

    The thing about choice I loved in what you wrote here. How much people become either obsessed by it or reify it as though it is a thing, and it's so often not. And, seriously, if you can't choose to remain ambivalent, then... we really are lost. Everything I've ever done or thought in the name of advancing women has been about protecting everyone's right to be ambivalent. Sincerely. The whole plan, life plan, calendar plan, age that you reach something (fertility summit, banging libido etc) just seems like the same kind of nonsense that wants to make you, me and every other woman the same as... well... every other woman. And it's wrong.

    Stay ambivalent. Stay strong.

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  2. Wow, I had not thought about the problems with the surrogacy debate being framed around the "right to access" surrogacy. Really just another way that society claims ownership over women's bodies.

    - Valkyrie

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  3. I have thought a lot about this from the perspective of being 31 and wanting to have children... but only having met my partner a year ago, and being single for a few years before that, I'm not in a place to have children yet. The pressure from other people, from society, is immense and it adds to the stress. It is extra frustrating because in NO WAY was it a 'choice' on my behalf to be 31 and without kids. It's just how my life damn well happened, and I would be a lot more fine with that if people would stop bugging me about it or acting like I 'chose' this and I should just deal with it. And you just know if either you or I rushed out and got pregnant, we'd be irresponsible.

    In short: I sympathise.

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  4. You must have had your birthday by now... happy birthday.
    I wanted to add something to your comments on Julia Gillard. I agree that her choices about having or not having children, should not be judged any more than any woman's should be. However, I also think that it would be all but impossible to be a mother and a Prime Minister, in our current society. Mothering is incredibly hard work, incredibly draining. I speak as a mother of a 3.5 year old, and a six month old. I am exhausted, and I have been for years. Of course, my children will grow up, become more independent and (presumably) I will at some point have more time to focus on other things. But I just cannot see how anyone could do as I have done, and still put in the work that one would need to put in, in order to be Prime Minister by the age of 48, like Julia Gillard was. Margaret Thatcher did it, but she only had one pregnancy (twins), and access to nannies and childcare from day dot. Not every woman has or wants these circumstances.
    The wider point is that the time and resources put into birthing and raising children are not valued. This devaluation (undervaluation?) functions to isolate women and men who raise children from other centres of power - there is no effort made to integrate family life into public life, and to acknowledge that those who are caring, also have something to offer to the wider public. This mainly affects women. Indeed, women are expected to have children and thus be ruled out of contention. Just look at the backlash that Julia Gillard suffered when she dared do something different. And the resignations of other strong women leaders - Natasha Stott Despoja, Nicola Roxon - because they wanted to be with their families, just reinforce how hard it is to combine the two.
    I appreciate that your blog is centering Aboriginal women's voices and not those of white women, and I hope that I have not undermined that by focusing on Gillard and white society. I would be very interested to know your take on this issue - ie, is mothering better valued in Aboriginal cultures, and do you think that within those cultures there are ways of being a mother and a public leader, that we white women could emulate? Where do we start, to change things to recognise the complexity of women's lives?
    Thanks for a great blog.

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