Can we beat the female biological clock? Our culture seems obsessed with answering this question. Silicon Valley companies looking to hire and retain top female talent are now offering egg freezing as a job benefit. IVF has long made it possible for some women to put off having children until an age when childbearing used to be unthinkable. And now a new fertility treatment called OvaPrime claims to have found a way to stimulate new egg growth in women whose store of eggs, complete at birth, is depleted.
As The Daily Beast put it, if OvaPrime becomes a success, it “could mean the end of the biological clock for women.” Americans seem obsessed with conquering that pesky clock. And we seem to have come close to succeeding. A trip to the park or a Gymboree class in the wealthy neighborhoods of America’s big cities reveals a world where it’s hard to tell the grandmothers from the mothers.
I’m not being hyperbolic. I had my first child at 26, a full decade younger than the average first-time mother at the hospital where I delivered. At our first visit to the pediatrician, my mom, who accompanied me, was mistaken for the mother of my newborn. When she expressed shock at the mistake, my pediatrician told her that the day before, she had attended a first-time mother who was 54 years old. At the time my mom was 56.
Maybe we have beaten the biological clock, or at least gotten a good leg up on it. But the question we’re not asking is: Should we?
Men and women in other countries don’t seem to think so; other nations have started promoting younger childbearing as part of routine sex education in their public schools. In Denmark, educators are as frank with students about how babies are made as they are about how hard it is to have them if you wait too long. Countries like Denmark are concerned about the long-term consequences of their plummeting birthrates (which, among other things, spells doom for their already overly burdened entitlement programs).
And Denmark isn’t alone. Several years ago, Russia declared a “Year of the Family,” offering enticements like free cars to couples who procreated. In Singapore, a recent commercial featured a well-known rapper encouraging family growth with the words, “I’m a patriotic husband, you my patriotic wife. Lemme book into ya camp and manufacture a life.”
The head of Sex and Society, a Danish non-profit that manages the nation’s sex education programs, said of Danish parents, “Most people are getting fewer [children] than they thought they could have, and fewer than they wanted.” So the nation has revamped its sex-ed curriculum to include more positive discussions of parenthood as well as encouragement to young women in particular to think about their goals for family life and how many children they want to have. “Of course we must not look into forcing young people to have children early,” the head of the non-profit organization noted, “But they must be able to decide on an informed basis.”
This is a brilliant and pro-woman approach to sex-ed, the key word here being “informed.” The message delivered relentlessly to young women in America is to wait, wait, wait to have children, all while moneyed interests in the fertility industry assure them it’s possible to delay starting a family until they are nearly menopausal. Women are actively encouraged not to think about children until they are “ready” or have achieved a certain level of professional success. But by then, a woman’s body might not be as cooperative as she hoped it would be. Even for the many women who delay childbearing and succeed in getting pregnant later in life, they might not be able to have as many children as they had originally hoped for, or face increased risks during pregnancy.
Women and men should be encouraged to think about family life from a young age. And women in particular should be well informed of the risks and challenges of delaying pregnancy and childbearing. This doesn’t mean shaming or pressuring women into having children. But it does mean that we should commit to honesty when it comes to biological realities.
Men and women are more empowered if they enter their childbearing years with information and forethought. And let’s not forget, “advanced maternal age” begins at age thirty-five. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “the biological clock” is a fact of life. Rather than try to beat it, Denmark deserves praise for helping women to enter their childbearing years equipped to make informed decisions about their reproductive futures. Maybe it’s time Americans stopped trying to fight Mother Nature and did the same.