Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Next Sexual Revolution: mothers over 50

On the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Ronald W. Dworkin, (an MD, no relation to philosopher Ronald without a W Dworkin) argues that the ability of women to freeze their eggs will be the next dramatic change in the social landscape.
Freezing unfertilized eggs gives women a way out of a complicated cultural maze. Decades ago, the lives of men and women diverged at adolescence. Men prepared for careers while women prepared for domestic life. Today, many young men and women go through high school, college and professional school often mistakenly assuming no differences in their respective trajectories.

Our culture encourages women to pursue high-powered careers. Many women must pursue at least some kind of career: With the divorce rate over 50%, women can no longer rely on the integrity of the family unit to support them. The culture paints a rosy image about career and family. Then biological truth breaks through, by which time these women have lost a decade of their best childbearing years.

Women who opt to freeze their unfertilized eggs will gain those years back -- and more -- giving them the freedom to leisurely follow the male career trajectory. No more late night panicking. No more marrying a man you don't love "just to have the baby." No more lurching from Harvard to the mommy track.

True, if these women still decide not to have children when they hit their 40s or 50s, having grown accustomed to freedom, then the population in Western countries will not rise but plummet further. Yet most middle-aged people know that many careers can be pretty dull, without much chance to create. Following rules and procedures until midnight in a law firm may seem acceptable when you're 25, but not when you're 50. Armed with this insight, money and perfect eggs -- and with an expected life span of 86 years -- many women will likely choose to create a family.

But what kind of family? Women in their 30s are reluctant to use banked sperm to get pregnant, in part because they still hope to meet someone, because they can't support themselves as single mothers, or because they fear being judged by their peers.

A woman in her 50s probably has less hope of finding a man who wants to start a family than a woman in her 30s. And so a 50-year-old woman, without serious marital options, loaded with money and eggs, and far too wizened to worry about what other people say, might just go ahead and call that sperm bank if she wants a family. Or maybe she'll marry a 70-year-old man, who thinks that if women can be mothers into their 50s and 60s, why can't he be a father too?

He is completely correct that society encourages women to pursue high-powered careers, on the same terms as men. He is also correct that the "divergence" of life paths for men and women in their twenties is something we have rebelled against and have taken dramatic, some might even say, draconian steps, to eliminate.
Completely absent from this rosy picture are considerations for men and for the children themselves. The solution he proposes is for women to continue to act like men during their fertile years, so they can be independent of men financially and ultimately even as parents. This represents a retreat from intimate human relationships.
The considerations for the children? They will be deprived of a relationship with their fathers. Everything we know about children tells us that they thrive with their own married parents. Instead of having both parents married to each other, children will have one old, and let's face it, less energetic mother. We can laugh all we want about how 60 is the new 40. But kids will run you ragged, under the best of circumstances. Are we really going to play catch with our kids, when we've got sore shoulders? Who is going to get down on the floor and play Candyland after they've had knee replacements? This is not very realistic.
We are currently taking the economic system as given and demanding that women adapt their bodies to the marketplace. Our bargain is this: we are allowed to join the workforce and have meaningful jobs, as long as we agree to chemically neuter ourselves during our fertile years. Then after we are economically established, we can torture our bodies further, over-stimulate our ovaries, possibly thaw out frozen eggs and hope we can reproduce artificially.
There is another solution. Instead of taking the economy as given and adapting our bodies around the workplace, I propose that we take women's fertility as given, and organize the economy around women's bodies.
BTW, I talked about this issue at some length in my speech in Denver, posted here.

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