Monday, August 24, 2009

Leaving it too late

What does liberalism tell women? It tells women that individual autonomy is the highest good. What matters is the pursuit of one's independence.

Lucy Edge followed the liberal principle. She spent her 20s and 30s in pursuit of financial independence through a career. Love, marriage and motherhood could wait:

I suppose it is little wonder that it took me until the age of 41 to find the right man ... I'd spent most of my life dedicated to building my career.

By 24, I was a strategist at a leading ad agency. I drove a Golf convertible, wore red wool suits with gilt buttons, and thought I was Paula Hamilton from the iconic TV advert. I remained very single, but I told myself - and my concerned mum - that the mews house and engagement ring would come later.

My life didn't revolve around marriage and children. My friends and I were taking our time. We were big kids in shoulder pads, and life was about working, shopping, drinking and having fun.

When I stopped to think about it (which was never for very long), I could never imagine myself in my mother's shoes.

At 22, she'd had me to look after, whereas at the same age I was staying late at the office to check my secretary's typing or prepare for a meeting. At 30, when she spent her evenings cooking for a family, I was living on cigarettes and canapes.

Busy chasing financial independence, I let my most fertile years slip by, never allowing myself to doubt that the love and babies bit would take care of itself. And so I lost the chance to have a baby I didn't even know I wanted until it was too late.

In my 20s there'd been a lightness of touch in my office affairs (the odd kiss and cuddle behind the filing cabinet), but by my 30s my relationships were tinged with desperation.

I hadn't found him, and I was worried. Yet, I refused to prioritise the man-hunt - the idea seemed so old-fashioned.

Here we have a very typical pattern followed by the middle-class women of my generation. Love, marriage and motherhood weren't rejected, they were delayed and de-prioritised. What mattered was living a single girl lifestyle (working, shopping, drinking and having fun), living for the moment, and achieving autonomy and independence.

But finally at age 41 Lucy was ready to settle. She's a pretty woman who was able to find a loyal husband. But she hadn't counted on fertility issues:

Of course, we knew that women over 40 stood less chance of getting pregnant, but we had no idea that they might fail altogether.

I suppose it's a sign of the times that we believed we could have whatever we wanted. We wanted a baby and if we failed to conceive naturally, then IVF was our back-up.

It was the first time in my life I'd ever given motherhood any serious thought, and the yearning hit me like a thunderbolt.

I had spent the whole of my adult life as a London career girl, married to my advertising agency job, with no time or inclination to settle down.

Yet as soon as David, who has his own events marketing company, and I started trying for a baby, my whole perspective changed. I held my belly protectively and imagined myself walking down the Finchley Road heavily pregnant.

I looked at baby food in the supermarket aisles and noticed women with their children. I imagined the warming smell of my baby's head, the tiny fingers and perfect fingernails. I imagined having a small hand to hold as I walked down the street.

My world opened up with possibility.

"We believed we could have whatever we wanted". This idea sounds dumb, but remember that liberalism tells people that they have a right to self-create in whatever direction they choose, so liberal moderns have to either hopefully believe that there are no limits or else accept that liberalism itself is unworkable.

Note too just how radical the effects of liberal modernism are when it comes to the lives of women: Lucy claims that she hadn't seriously thought about motherhood until her early 40s. This is historically very odd; in most cultures motherhood is a core aspect of the lives of women.

Sadly there were to be no children for Lucy and David:

And yet you are not getting pregnant,' the doctor said, just as I was preparing to celebrate. 'The most likely explanation is age. When a woman reaches her 40s, we have to recognise that we're working with older eggs, and I am afraid their quality declines over time. The question is what we do next.'

What she said next shook me. A woman of 43 or 44 has a 13 per cent chance of getting pregnant through IVF and a 70 per cent chance of miscarriage. 'So Lucy, your net chance of delivering a baby with IVF is around four per cent. I'm really sorry.'

But all that was academic when it came to finding an IVF clinic. A second round of tests revealed that, in just six months, my hormone levels had changed, my fertility had dropped, meaning no clinic was prepared to take me on.

The odds of success were so slim that it was, they claimed, unethical to take my money.

She responded with anger to her loss:

I was angry - with anyone who had fallen pregnant accidentally, anyone who didn't realise how lucky they were to have a child.

I was angry at the ad agency for keeping me in the office throughout my childbearing years, and at the tobacco companies who had sold me the cigarettes I'd smoked throughout my 20s, and at the government for never having had a public health campaign on the subject of increasing age and decreasing fertility.

But, deep down, I knew I had no one to blame but myself. I had never stopped to think about the bigger picture.

Look at the consequences of all this. Lucy Edge sacrificed everything for an office job she eventually quit anyway. Neither she nor her husband will ever have children, so they won't be contributing any well-raised children to society. Lucy didn't take love or marriage seriously in her 20s, so she contributed to the demoralisation of the young men of her generation.

Autonomy as the sole, overriding good didn't work out so well. It changed the priorities of the general culture. Society took seriously the issue of female careerism, but relegated motherhood to the realm of "it will take care of itself at some indeterminate time in the future".

There's no balance in this. We have to move away from the reductive idea of autonomy as the organising principle of society, so that other important goods, such as love, marriage and motherhood, can be given due weight.


  1. "I knew I had no one to blame but myself"

    I suppose it is nice that she is taking some modicum of responsibility for her actions. I note with some chagrin that was after she had taken her frustrations out on everyone around her before finally settling on the inevitable conclusion that she was to blame for her choices.

    I also note that she doesn't step back to the "bigger picture" and identify the cultural memes that led her to devalue family, marriage, and children until the expiration date came and went on her fertility. Can't criticize feminism or the like...cuts too close to the quick, to the core identity of self.

    I doubt her husband wants (more) children anyway. Which is why he married a 41 yo. So I doubt he's crying much on his account.

    "We have to move away from the reductive idea of autonomy as the organising principle of society,"

    I don't disagree, but what do you propose as an alternative? Feminism and the idea of autonomy has become the hegemon in Anglophone culture.

  2. I agree with EW. It is troubling that she doesn't seem to hold feminists accountable for leading her down the wrong path.

    and at the government for never having had a public health campaign on the subject of increasing age and decreasing fertility.
    Such an advertising blitz but NOW shot them down. The public service announcement planned would let women know that fertility declines so if they want to children they ought to consider it sooner rather than later. It was not encouraging anyone to put aside other plans.

    The feminists went absolutely insane and complained that it was misogynistic to tell women the truth. This reveals them as anti-natalists more than pro-woman as you wrote, motherhood is generally the most important part of a woman's life.

  3. Another one bites the dust.

  4. You can't sell something to someone who does not want it.

    Lucy's error was in thinking she could push her fertility longer than she could. She WANTED the career, the money, the glamor, and let's be honest, the sex with exciting, dominant, Alpha guys like "Don Draper" from Mad Men. That is what she wanted. She got it. Like everything else, a trade-off.

    So now she is ticked off. But most other women of her type and her age will make the same choice. In Tehran, Algeria, Tunisia, and Japan as well as Britain and the UK. This is why the birth rate is falling below replacement in all those places.

    I don't know culturally if this can be fought against, other than the example of female celebs having kids before or just after thirty. Like it or not, Jessica Alba, Ashlee Simpson, and Sarah Michelle Gellar are probably more important culturally than any logical argument conservatives can put together.

  5. Excellent comments, thanks.

    EW, I had a similar thought. Yes, she's a cut above some others in accepting that she made the wrong choices. But she doesn't take it to the next level and identify the political and social forces pushing her toward these choices - unlike, say, Virginia Haussegger.

    I agree too that feminism and the idea of autonomy have become hegemonic. I don't have any quick fixes to this. One of the major problems when I first got involved in politics was that people who didn't like the dominant left-liberalism of the time simply switched over to a right-liberalism (autonomy, free markets, and an emphasis on procedural equality rather than substantive equality).

    Much of what I wrote was intended to get beyond a debate between left and right liberalism and to draw things back to first principles.

    The other thing we can do is to clearly connect the most obvious symptoms of decline to the hegemonic beliefs.

    I do think there is an important audience of young men facing unnecessary obstacles in their attempts to form a family.

    There are certainly future options, but these depend on continuing to extend our political reach.

  6. Liesel, you're right. There was an attempt in 2002 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to run an advertising campaign warning women not to leave childbearing too late. The Society wanted to put up adverts with the simple message "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children".

    The campaign was cancelled because of objections by the National Organization for Women (NOW).

  7. Whiskey, a good point about the influence of celebrities. And yes, there are non-Western countries where family formation has also been disrupted (Japan is the one I'm most familiar with).

  8. Mark,

    These women hold out for other aspect as well. They reject many men in delusion of snatching an alpha male. The dominant,romantic,loving,successful,baby-diaper changing man who gets her wet and excited.

    Now once you have such astronomical epxectations, you end up bitter and lonely.

  9. another great article.

    Thankfully I think that the younger generation, particularly those who dont go to university, have a good chance of experiencing the feminist poison early and rejecting it.

    Such was the way with my girlfriend, and with quite a few other girls my age.

    There was a "primary teaching" classroom in a university in Northern Melbourne [a class of course almost totally filled with young women] where the feminazi groups were allowed by college charter to spruik their wares. I was encouraged to learn they were sullenly and silently rejected, and that such scenes are becoming frequently more common.

    The heart of the cancer is dying, all that is needed now is to treat the symptoms [difficult I know].

  10. " what do you propose as an alternative? Feminism and the idea of autonomy has become the hegemon"

    Religious fanaticism stressing patriarchal natalism.

    It's simple.

    Start a religion or join an existing compatible cult - e.g. the Amish, the Mormons, Islam.

    Preach - and practice - patriarchy. Demand natalism - i.e. the arrangement of society to maximize viable births.

    Whenever someone says something like, "Sex is fun" or "gays have rights" or "women shouldn't start breeding at 18," scream "BLASPHEMY" and get the whole cult to follow your intolerance.

    Intolerance, sadly, is the only means by which humans will breed in the world today. The tolerant will die out.

  11. Some of the comments here suggest a theory that is way off course. Specifically, people seem to attribute everything from falling birth rates, to promiscuity, to delayed procreation on feminism, as if women are frantically pulling out Germaine Greer texts every day to advise them on how to think. The reality of the matter is that feminism, beyond seeking some equality before the law, has minimal influence, even in the west, and especially in places such as Tunisia or Tehran, mentioned above. To the extent that today's young women read feminists at all, you may find that much of the literature is actually quite supportive of motherhood and so forth. There is no monolithic feminism that derides mothers, and never could be. The origins of the sorts of social phenomena you describe are clearly elsewhere.

  12. THR - Of course women don't consult Germaine Greer to guide their lives. They don't have to. People do not have to consult Marx, Freud or Dewey for their thoughts to be heavily influenced by these men's ideas. Like these other modes of thought, Feminism is by now, built in to our culture. It is, so to speak, in the water supply.

    It is the recognition and rejection of such paradigms that requires an act of will such as consulting a particular text or adopting a stance of opposition. All people today are heavily warped by our culture to behave in ways which, viewed from a traditional perspective, or even from a non-theistic, pro-cultural survival standpoint, are perverse in the extreme. Yet, it seems, our academic, commercial and popular cultures are all structured for no other purpose than the promotion of such behavior.

  13. MH, an excellent reply.

    There's one thing I'd add. I think it's true that the changes to family life aren't solely a product of liberalism and feminism.

    Family formation has been disrupted in Japan and this must be due in part to the effects of city life, plentiful office work, contraception, and the absence of a religious framework.

    However, there is also much evidence that feminism has played a major role in what has happened in the West. For example, if you track the rise of first wave feminism from the 1860s through to the 1930s you find a consistent decline in fertility rates in Western countries. In the period between feminism the fertility rate recovers. Then it declines again during the period of second and third wave feminism.

    I don't know how anyone could have been amongst young middle-class university educated women in the early to mid 1990s and still claim that feminism had minimal influence. I was there. Feminism had an oppressive influence.

    The high schools, particularly the academic private girls' schools, weren't much better. Feminism was drilled into the girls. How could this not have an effect on impressionable young women?

    Finally, it's not true that feminism is supportive of motherhood. The underlying principle of feminism is that women create meaning in their lives through a struggle for autonomy against men. This makes competitive careers the main game, with motherhood being looked down on almost as dropping out.

    It's true that many women do nonetheless become mothers and some justify this within the terms of feminism as an exercise of personal autonomy (choice) - but it's clear where feminism is leading society at the public level.

  14. Falling birthrates aren't just about liberalism, they seem to be happening in all developed countries, liberal or otherwise

    Feminism is relatively weak in nationalist Japan, yet Japan has even lower birthrates than many liberal western countries

    Among the lower middle classes some of the big factors seem to be:

    -escalating property prices relative to wages, or in Eastern Europe a serious housing shortage
    -rising student debt and over selling the benefits of education
    -the debt culture in general - live for today and pay tomorrow
    -increased job instability and the need to move around to stay in work - making a family a serious burden for someone trying to establish themselves financially
    -an increasing amount of tax dollars going towards paying pensions and subsidising single mothers and the underclass (money that could otherwise be spent raising families).
    An Americanised kid-centric culture in which unrealistic expectations are placed on parents in regard to providing educational, and recreational opportunities and nutritional requirements for their children -
    -declining standards of behaviour among children (thanks to liberal parenting and too many divorces) putting more people off having them.

  15. Strewth, how many more of these dumb females are out there. They are actually starting to form a line. They did a study on IVillage a few month ago via an online questionnaire about fertility etc. and out of 12,000 females, only 13% got the question about peak fertility age correct. The question asked was - Peak year for fertility, the majority answered 40 plus but in actual fact it is 27 years of age and even I knew that. Talk about ignorance..