Oops, I forgot to have babies!

photo of multiple babies

Crap, I knew there was something I was supposed to do last week.

Don’t you hate it when that happens? So does Vanessa Grigoriadis at New York Magazine, who is Very Concerned that the birth control pill means that women don’t realize the biological realities of baby-making… until it’s too late.

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.

Suddenly, one anxiety—Am I pregnant?—is replaced by another: Can I get pregnant? The days of gobbling down the Pill and running out to CVS at 3 a.m. for a pregnancy test recede in the distance, replaced by a new set of obsessions. The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

Um, what? I don’t think “side effect” means what you think it does.

As Lindsay Beyerstein points out, the Pill isn’t creating a collective female brain-fart where we wake up at 40 and wonder why we can’t have kids. Women are pretty aware that when they’re on the Pill, they are probably not going to get pregnant — that is the entire point. And women are pretty aware that baby-making is not a life-long ability. Blaming the Pill for women delaying childbirth takes the women themselves out of the equation. It’s not like the Pill is slipped into the water system. Women are choosing to take it and choosing to delay childbirth, and mostly to pretty positive outcomes — larger numbers of women are attending college and graduate school in the United States than ever before; there are more women in the workplace than ever before; women live longer; mothers spend more time (and more quality time) with their children than they did in the mythical 1950s heyday of the nuclear family; fathers spend more time with their children, too; and couples marry later (and couples who marry later divorce less, are more financially stable and report happier marriages). Are all of these things to the credit of the birth control pill? No. But the Pill certainly played a big role.

And yes, it is true that many women have trouble conceiving as they age. It is something that women have to think about — fertility isn’t forever, and if you want to birth your own babies, you have to make sure you fit that in . A lot of women don’t want to be pregnant until they’re in their 30s, when their fertility is declining. That’s not nothing. But it’s also not because women are under the impression that the Pill is a fountain of youth. If we’re really concerned with women’s abilities to have babies when they want, it makes zero sense to focus on birth control, which women take explicitly when they don’t want to get pregnant. Instead, maybe consider the impediments to the ability to have a family and a job; consider the American cult of motherhood that insists on total perfection before a woman is deemed capable of being a good mom, but offers women no real help in pregnancy or parenthood; consider, even, the cultural insistence that one’s life is not complete until one has a child. There are a lot of reasons why women delay child-bearing, and a lot of them are really good and logical. There are a lot of reasons why women end up heartbroken when they have trouble conceiving. It’s not because we’ve all been brain-washed by the Pill. And if we do want to give women a wider variety of reproductive options, that requires not only wide availability of medical options (including the Pill), but also major cultural shifts in how we view motherhood and womanhood.

Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.

No, it’s not anti-feminist to know about biological realities, but it is anti-feminist to suggest that women are so stupid that we don’t understand that we won’t be fertile forever. It’s definitely anti-feminist to suggest that there’s a choice to be made between either sexual freedom or parenthood, and that the price of sexual freedom is anger, regret, repeated miscarriage, financial strain and damage to careers and relationships. I think the course of human history has shown us that anger, regret, financial strain and damage to careers and relationships are also prices paid when women lack basic autonomy and freedom.

The article also focuses heavily on how “unnatural” the Pill is, because it gives you fake periods and tricks your body into thinking that you’re pregnant. It’s an argument I hear a lot about birth control, but rarely gets applied to any other aspect of our lives. Look at the entire way that most human beings live: Not natural. Vaccines? Not natural. Surgery? Not natural. If we all went the way of nature, a lot more of us would be dead, or at least living significantly less pleasant lives. But when a not-“natural” way comes about to free women from the strain of being constantly pregnant (or constantly in fear of being pregnant), we’re suddenly really concerned about nature.

None of this is to say that the Pill is 100% amazing and has zero drawbacks, or that it’s totally awesome to take daily doses of hormones, or that the “it’s unnatural” argument has no merit at all. For a lot of women, myself included, the Pill has drawbacks that are serious enough to keep us from using it. But tricking us into thinking we’ll be fertile forever isn’t one of them.

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39 comments for “Oops, I forgot to have babies!

  1. December 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    “Women are pretty aware that when they’re on the Pill, they are probably not going to get pregnant — that is the entire point. And women are pretty aware that baby-making is not a life-long ability.”

    -Well, that’s only obvious to those who don’t consider women to be completely brainless idiots in need of constant reminders of the most obvious things.

    Thank you for calling attention to this idiotic discourse of the supposed ills of female contraception.

    When will people finally get tired of controlling female bodies, I wonder?

  2. gretel
    December 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    This may be anecdotal, but my friends who are on the pill seem far more “baby crazy” than those I know (including me) who are not on it.

    And really, how does anyone in this media saturated age forget about declining fertility? I’ve had the horror of having my “aging ovaries” discussed at the dinner table by my mother, who was 40 when she had me (pre-IVF days) and didn’t seem to think anything of her “advanced” age at the time. I really think the story of declining fertility has been amplified within the last few decades so that women are worrying more about this than they used to. If anyone has any data supporting/refuting that, I’d be interested to read about it.

  3. human
    December 6, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Oh, FFS. (Literally, I guess, if you ask this idiot.) Thanks for the thorough takedown. Nice photo illustration, too. :-)

  4. Matt
    December 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Well played, Jill.

    “The biological realities of being female” is certainly one of the more reprehensible euphemisms for monthly menstruation and the perennial pregnancy scare that I’ve heard.

  5. December 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Let me just say thank God for birth control. My partner and I don’t want to have kids, ever. Based on how often she talks about how much she doesn’t regret her decision, I’m fairly sure she’s aware of what she’s doing.

  6. Kristen J.
    December 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    OMIGOD, you mean…birth control prevents pregnancy?!? I thought it softened my hair and improved my diction.

  7. Esteleth
    December 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I once had an encounter with a man who was shoving the line that I, as a woman, need to (1) find a good man (2) drop out of graduate school to become a housewife and (3) make lots of babies. I told him to shove it because (1) I’m queer, (2) I want my Ph.D., dammit and (3) babies later.
    He busted out the “unnatural” line. I have a great response to that: I was conceived through fertility treatments. If “natural” is your benchmark of acceptability, I wouldn’t exist. He responded by sneering about how old my mom must have been (i.e. don’t end up like her!) and speculating that she must have been a career woman, serially divorced, etc. I replied that she was 26-year-old housewife on her first (and to date only) marriage. I commented that she is also born-again (and was at the time). I then cheerfully noted that my mom is a wonderful lady who doesn’t give a shit that I’m queer, unmarried and childless and she sees no conflict with her faith and this attitude.
    His head exploded (which was great, but then I had to mop the floor).
    Snark aside, this incident did make very clear to me that a lot of the anti-Pill thing is flagrantly anti-feminsit and anti-woman. This guy could not wrap his mind around the idea that a woman who was his kind of lady (housewife, Christian, etc) could have fertility issues when she was below 30 because ZOMG that meant that it wasn’t all God’s doing. He also was beside himself at the idea that a devout born-again lady could be cool with having a queer kid – because that does not make sense, amirite?!

  8. December 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Okay, so we’ve given women the ability to control their fertility to a pretty good degree. And we’ve found that the structure of our society makes it pretty damn hard to raise a kid when you’re in your 20s, so women who can put it off, do.

    We could either,

    1. Change the incentives so that it’s easier for couples to choose to have kids earlier, or

    2. Freak the hell out and try to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

  9. December 6, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    OH noes! How will I cope when my body suddenly hits a fever pitch of baby lust, which over rides my entire life’s worth of no maternal feelings? I’ve been told it will hit me like an ice pick to the frontal lobe, at which point, apparently, I will weep for my foolish lack of understanding. And this is why I’m not allowed to get a tubal ligation– I am too stupid to realize that it prevents pregnancy! But the pill is no better! All the choices are wrong! I can’t cope with my own embodied existence! I’d better call Mr. Lee Hales and let him make all the choices before my fragile little lady brain melts like a fudgesicle on the freeway in July!

    shorter: Women are literally unable to comprehend their own embodied experience and existence, the poor dears.

  10. UUU
    December 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    All this talk of birthing babies is fine and all, but I think I’m more in the “adopt/foster a child” camp. I was really taken in by the “vehement movement” vhmnt.org, and think having less people on a planet with dwindling resources would be better in the long run. So what if a person wakes up at 45 years old and discovers they forgot to give birth to someone. If they really really want children in their lives, they can always volunteer to be a mentor for children (like big brother, big sister program), foster or adopt a child from their country (for me the U.S., specifically children in California, many of which well age-out of the system with very little resources upon exiting), or helping to raise the children of in their families, like nieces and nephews. Those are just a few of the options out there of having children in your life without bringing more into the world take are just as fulfilling as being a biological parent.

  11. December 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I agree with you.

    Research does show that women over-estimate how many childbearing years that they have left and may stop the pill too late because of it.

    But indeed, this is not a call for the demonizing of the BC pill or implying women are stupid. It’s an indicator that those providing the pill should be in open dialog with their female patients about their goals and how BC, or stopping BC, fits into that. Women are not stupid, but not everyone is a medical expert either. Part of being an intelligent woman is being informed, and choosing providers who keep me informed, so that I can make good decisions when I am not an expert at something.

  12. outrageandsprinkles
    December 6, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Oh damn, see, had I checked the back of my to-do list I would have seen where I wrote “have babies”.

    I am among the women that would like to wait until I am in my thirties to have kid, if I have them at all. I realize that my chances of conceiving then are slimmer than my chances of conceiving now, but I’m pretty sure my ovaries are not going to turn to dust or flee from my body. The idea that I’m just forgetting or fooling myself is pretty insulting. I understand the risks, and I also understand that my mother had three kids in her thirties, one by accident (Hi mom!).

  13. Sheelzebub
    December 6, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I have yet to have baby lust. According to my male friends, I should have had it by now, as “most women change their minds” by the time they hit my age (or hit their mid-thirties).

    People who push this “You’ll regret it” bullshit forget that there are people, like me, who have zero interest in being pregnant or being a parent.

  14. December 6, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    I probably would like to have a kid at a younger age than I am likely to (if I have one at all), but it’s not because I’m sexually liberated and carefree on the pill (because, hey, not actually on the pill! I don’t do PIV right now) – it’s because I don’t want to have a kid when I don’t have a supportive relationship to back me up (note: does not have to be a heteronormative and/or romantic/sexual relationship) and that the economic/time constraints for a single mother are pretty frickin’ stacked against me. Fuck biological realities – I’m thinking about my social and economic realities. Lots of people can and do raise kids in trying and less-than-optimal circumstances (power to them, for the record), but what is so irrational about me not seeking that out? Is having my own babies really supposed to the all-encompassing goal of my existence?

    No, wait – don’t answer that.

    But, seriously, at least a PhD seems like an attainable and affordable goal from where I stand. Motherhood? At the same time? Not so much. Academe is all the contraceptive I need.

    I sense a new trend piece…

  15. December 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    …Aaaand another thing: It always feels really gross when “The Feminism” gets dragged into these “Ladies aren’t having the babies when we think they should, are too stupid to realize how horrible it all is,” discussions– because it’s like a “by ladies we mean white ladies!” dog whistle. Is that a whiff of Aryan panic I smell, or is it just the unnatural scent of my ovaries weeping?

  16. December 6, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Really, the colluding narratives of YOUR OVARY CLOCK IS TICKING! HAVE BAYBIES! and then you have a baby, and if the slightest thing goes wrong it’s YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE BRED, YOU EVIL EVIL WOMAN! bother me. You can’t win!

  17. syfr
    December 6, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    You get people like my friends, who didn’t find each other and marry til their mid-thirties. She was just supposed to get knocked up out of wedlock, and be a single mother? (Note: single motherhood happens, and it’s not wrong or bad, but the same people who scream about women having babies older are the type to complain about single motherhood.)

    And the damage to career with motherhood in one’s 30s or 40s? Is that less than or greater than the damage to one’s career with motherhood in one’s 20s? I mean, really, we get penalized when we have a kid, no matter how old we are, and penalized when we don’t have a kid because we might have one someday.

  18. Melissa
    December 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Also, it bothers me that “too late to have biological children” automatically means “too late to have ANY children” to some people. I know that the cost of adopting is often prohibitive, but it is an option that exists in the world that seems to get totally forgotten in articles like this.

  19. Michelle
    December 6, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Gee, I just liked the stuff because it cleared up my acne. Being gay, accidental reproduction was the LAST thing on my worry-list. And now that I’ve had a hysterectomy (kept the ovaries) and I never have to worry about bleeding again, I might still go back on the birth control pill for the simple sake of clearing up my acne again.

    Oh wait, I’m sorry… I was supposed to find a man and make babies. My bad.

  20. scrumby
    December 6, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Melissa: Also, it bothers me that “too late to have biological children” automatically means “too late to have ANY children” to some people. I know that the cost of adopting is often prohibitive, but it is an option that exists in the world that seems to get totally forgotten in articles like this.  

    but if we’re all putting off breeding in our youth in favor of the emotional, social, and financial stability of our later years, then ideally we’ve tucked away enough for adoption or IVF. That’s part of the plan except wait, there is no Plan! We’re just naive idiots whose need for instant gratification applies just as much to our reproductive system as it does the barrista at Star Bucks! I want my baby now, goddammit!
    Maybe we all need the Giver’s system. I pop a few out now while I’m in my 20’s and then other people adopt them. Then when I’m say 35-45 I can apply to adopt my own. Anyone else think Vanessa Grigoriadis’ head would explode if we did this?

  21. Politicalguineapig
    December 6, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Grr. Why do all the dumb women end up at the New York Times? (And I don’t excuse Ms. Dowd or Ms. Carson- the chatty columnist act got old about a decade ago.) I suppose the article was meant to be clever, but it’s concern trolling at it’s finest.
    And really, what’s wrong with fake periods and avoiding pregnancy? I apologize to all the women who’ve had babies/are currently pregnant, but at this stage of my life I find pregnancy unbearably icky, and raising a child.. is just not feasible at this time. I also get really icked out by periods, so anything that helps me avoid them is a good thing, really.

  22. H.M.
    December 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    I just love the description “the days of gobbling down the pill”….yeeeah ok…

  23. Athenia
    December 6, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Call me when there’s a trend piece about men “forgetting” to have kids.

  24. Nyx
    December 7, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Also, it’s not like women ever take the pill for other reasons, like PCOS, endometriosis, acne, controlling bad periods… NO, IT IS ONLY FOR KEEPING THE SILLY LADYFOLK FROM HAVING BABIES LIKE NATURE INTENDED. Bleh. I don’t want children anyway, personally, but the implication that I’m too stupid to understand how biology works is insulting.

  25. Kristen J.
    December 7, 2010 at 12:41 am

    H.M.: I just love the description “the days of gobbling down the pill”….yeeeah ok… H.M.

    Exactly, so I’m going to go yank out my IUD and gobble it with a nice salad. NAMNAMNAM

  26. Leslie
    December 7, 2010 at 3:17 am

    As a few people above have pointed out, I think that this entire article is, either unconsciously or to specific purpose, glossing over the issues of adoption/fostering as an outlet for maternal/paternal instincts. There is definitely a tacit if not outright push here to devalue the idea of a child not related to the parent by blood that I think is pretty shitty of an article that speaks of a desperation to have children that, while I doubt it exists, would be perfectly fulfilled by adopting, and with less apparent heartbreak or fiscal cost. If you, the author of this concerned tale of birth control and forgotten babies, feel so badly for these women who just want to be mothers, well, you should be pimping the hell out of the foster and/or adoption system. To not do so makes it clear what your agenda is; shit raising and smug back-patting.

  27. December 7, 2010 at 9:05 am

    It’s true that you can’t win.


    That’s because I’m a woman, and women are “irresponsible” by definition.

  28. Julia
    December 7, 2010 at 9:19 am

    I’m not on Birth Control (gay sex = 100% protection from pregnancy, though not due to a lack of trying) but I’ve considered it to help balance out my wildly erratic and over-the-top periods.

    That said, I’m 24 years old and if people think I should have a baby *ANY* time in the foreseeable future…well I would direct them to speak to my oft ignored cat. FFS I couldn’t even manage the time and care needed for a dog for more than about 3 months. I can’t exactly give a baby back. This is just dumb. I want to be a Mom some day (don’t wanna be pregnant, but hey that is why there are two uteruses in this equation I guess lol) but now is NOT a good time. Tomorrow doesn’t look all that good either.

  29. December 7, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Kristen J.: OMIGOD, you mean…birth control prevents pregnancy?!? I thought it softened my hair and improved my diction.  (Quote this comment?)

    It also clears your complexion and brightens your teeth.

  30. prairielily
    December 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Natalia, you’re pregnant? I’m so out of the loop! Congratulations!

    Uh, back on topic… these fear-mongering articles are ridiculous.

  31. Sheelzebub
    December 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I will completely ignore the can’t win part of your post (though you’ve got my sympathy, for sure) to say: congratulations! I am really happy for you!

    Natalia: It’s true that you can’t win.
    That’s because I’m a woman, and women are “irresponsible” by definition.  

  32. Caroline
    December 7, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    What really bugs me about this article is the underlying assumption that it would be better if we couldn’t avoid getting pregnant unless/until we wanted to. That we’d be happier if we all got knocked up at a time not of our choosing, and just had to accept it. Because we’re too stupid to know what we really want unless it’s forced on us.

    Also I love the assumption that most people didn’t switch to Seasonale because they know deep-down it’s unnatural not to have a period every month. It couldn’t be because their insurance didn’t cover it, or it was more expensive, or they had breakthrough bleeding, or because birth-control pills have different side effects. Nope, it’s obviously because it’s just too unnatural.

    Also, biology nitpick for the original article: hormonal birth control doesn’t fool your body into thinking it’s pregnant. It fools your body into thinking it’s already ovulated. (For this article it’s a minor point, but I’ve seen many people get concerned that birth control pills will cause false positives on pregnancy tests.)

  33. December 7, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Haha, thank you guys. :) At least I didn’t “forget” to get knocked-up. My success is due to keeping a to-do list, in case ya’ll are wondering.

    I hope my medal is in the mail. I mean, the way Vanessa Grigoriadis is carrying on – I fully expect one.

  34. je
    December 8, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    As someone who IS experiencing full-on baby fever [and never been on the Pill] I still think this article is absolutely ridiculous, condescending and ignorant. It’s just more of the Fertility Police crap.

    Ladies, here are some rules:
    1) Birth control is for SLUTS who have pre-marital sex.
    2) Do NOT have sex before you are married.
    3) But if you DO, and you get pregnant, you MUST have the baby.
    4) But it’s a shame if you have a baby TOO young. What a wasted youth!
    5) Still, you better start having baby-making sex before you’re TOO old!
    6) Just make sure you’re MARRIED first.
    7) If you are over 30 and have problems getting pregnant, it’s because you were too SELF-CENTERED (aka “ambitious”) during your fertile years.
    8) Or you were TOO PICKY with men.
    9) Babies are for beautiful young straight financially stable white women with husbands.
    9a) If you can’t have a baby it must be because you refused to meet one of those categories.
    9b) If you did have a baby but you didn’t meet one of those categories, let me tell you what your problem is….

    Etc. Etc.

  35. December 8, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    @je, lolsob.

    As for me, my decision to not have children ever (and make it pretty much medically impossible in the first place) means that I have nothing of value to offer this world. I’ve been told this, unasked for, multiple times.

  36. cat
    December 8, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    “Oops, I forgot to have babies!” Shoot, I knew there was something I was forgettting to do today after I took my Torts final!

    But on a more serious note, I am one of those people who loves kids. But for the economic and social realities, I would consider having a kid now and I would consider having a large number of kids. However, I know as a practical matter that I would have to give up my education to have a child right now, and, also, considering my disabilities and that I am bisexual and genderqueer I live with a genuine fear that if I ever have a child that I will not be given a chance to raise it. I need the social power and economic safety of a high education, high paying job as a prerequisite and I also need to sit down and carefully map which parts of the country I can live, work, and travel in if I ever want to have children and not have them stolen from me. To even have a shot at safely maintaining custody of a child as someone with my disabily status gender, and sexuality, I would also have to give up any hope of living close to my family. That means not seeing the two neices I dearly love. It means my child would grow up hundreds of miles from my family. As young as I am, I can put off that decision for now, but there will likely come a point where I have to sit down and choose between having children and being able to see my family on a regular basis. At this point, I am not sure I will choose to have kids at all, which saddens me, because I know that under better circumstances, it wouldn’t even be a question.

  37. M
    December 11, 2010 at 2:00 am

    Oops, I had a hysterectomy! In my twenties! I guess I fail at womanhood.

    As Nyx brought up, there are many reasons to take hormones other than “lack of babies,” as nice as that is. Try years of endometriosis, adhesions, and uterine polyps. I really hate the fantasy that women’s reproductive systems are all nice and healthy and “natural” to begin with, and must be kept pristine and pure for potential future babies. Blegh.

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