This is a follow-up to a post from a last week. That post (as you’ll see if you go back to it) was a long delayed response to a Fresh Air interview entitled “The Grayest Generation.” It’s an interview with Judith Shulevitz who wrote an article in The New Republic about older parenthood. Shulevitz is concerned because, as it says on the NPR website:
the growing trend toward later parenthood since 1970 coincides with a rise in neurocognitive and developmental disorders among children.
Notably Shulevitz is concerned not only with maternal age but also paternal age. While the biological clock may not work quite the same way for men–they don’t face the same issues of declining fertility–older male genetic parents may be more likely to produce children with neurocognitive disorders. Thus the trend for women to defer child-bearing (which I strongly suspect also means that men deferring child-producing) may have some serious consequences.
But handily enough, the ART industry stands ready with an answer: Freeze your own (young healthy) gametes for later use. This may address the issues Shulevitz identifies because it isn’t actually the age of the people raising the child that she’s concerned with, it’s the age the people who produced the gametes were at the time the gametes were produced. Gametes taken from a twenty year old and frozen for twenty years are in essence still twenty and so are in better condition than are gametes taken from the same person she/he is forty. At least, this is the idea. Thus it appears that being able to freeze gametes allows people to choose to defer childbearing and still have genetically related children without running the risks occasioned by the use of their own older gametes.
I want to think about what this means particularly for women. Surely it means that women can have it all. First you freeze your eggs. Then you can get your career established in your twenties/thirties (and I am thinking here of a career in law since I teach law school, but it could be another profession) knowing that your eggs are frozen and waiting for when you are ready to have children. It allows women to choose to freely choose to defer parenthood and to make their mark in the workplace first.
But you know, I’m deeply skeptical of the claim that one can have it all. And I find myself wondering if young women beginning a career in law or in other professions really do have new choices given the recent advances in technology. (It has only become possible to reliably freeze/thaw eggs recently.)
Here’s what I worry about. Can young women choose to have children when they’re young? Or, now that they can safely defer parenthood, do they pretty much have to do that? Won’t employers–at least some of them–think about it this way: If a young women can safely defer parenthood to get her career started and she chooses not to, then doesn’t that choice show that she’s not really committed to that career? Because if she really were committed to the career, she defer having children. It’s all about priorities, right? So maybe we shouldn’t hire women having kids young.
Notice the role technology plays here. Once you might explain that although you loved your work, you had to have while you were still young because 1) if you didn’t have them young you might not have them at all and 2) the rate of birth defects rises with maternal age. Now those “excuses” don’t work any more. You can safely choose to wait till you’re forty-five so you can be held responsible for the decision not to do so.
And so I cannot help but wonder if the “choice” offered is an illusion. A woman serious about her career cannot choose to have children in her twenties.
I don’t really think the problem is the technology, of course. It’s the workplace. So much about the organization of labor and childcare in the US is hostile to working parents. Think about paid family leave–something which clearly enables people to have jobs and children. You’ll find it virtually everywhere in the world, but not here. Far too many people here have to choose between fully involved parenthood and rewarding work. Until we insist that people should be entitled to have both, all the new technology will just fit right into the old patterns of false choices.