Pushing Babies: The Assault on Childless Women

This article was updated at 1:38 pm February 10th, 2010 to insert a link to data referenced in the body of the text.

Childless women of all ages are under assault in
America.    If you’re a
teenager, you’re pushed toward motherhood by “moralizers” bent on denying you
information about, and access to, birth control. If you’re a women 35 and older, you’ve been subject to a
decade of news stories set to the ominous sound of a ticking clock and bent on
creating fertility anxiety—if you wait, you’ll be too late. And lately the anxiety peddlers have
been expanding their targeted danger zone to include women in their late 20s
and early 30s. Women lose 90 per cent of ‘eggs’ by 30,” ABC
and others
informed us recently, and the message was more of the same: get busy!

We have abstinence-only ed to thank for the recent upswing
in the teen birth rate
, a job assisted by the glamorization
of teen moms
in the media and of babies, babies, babies in the tabloids and
the reality TV shows. Of course the glamour fades fast, and teen moms face big
problems such as plummeting high school graduation rates for the moms and,
later, for their kids, a higher likelihood of poverty and less hope of a
long-term relationship with or support from dad.  Those are personal problems for the girls and their
families, but they’re also national problems as our hope for a globally
competitive, educated work force goes south.  Education reform not linked to real birth control
information doesn’t just leave kids behind, it actively sets them and all of us

And sure, older women need to know that fertility declines
with age. But what are the actual
fertility rates of women in each age range? And why is it that increasing
numbers of women choose to delay in the first place? What is lost when they
don’t? Instead of facts and
understanding of the causes and effects of delay, we get a lot of
sentimentality aimed at getting you to start your family now.

When you consider that 2007 saw an upturn in the birthrate
in every age category between 10 and 45 as US births hit an
all-time high, there’s a clear disconnect between the high rates of birth for
women 35 plus and the claims of the anxiety peddlers.  Women seeking full fertility facts should know that the only
rigorous study of natural fertility rates (conducted in the 1950s from data
collected over years prior) indicated that the infertility rate was 3.5 percent at 25, 7 percent
at 30, 11 percent at 35, 33 percent at 40, 50 percent at 41 and 87 percent at 45. (Click here for more on the 1950s data).  Of course individuals differ, no
one group is generalizable to all other groups, and data from the first half of
the twentieth century wouldn’t reflect fertility degradation that may have occurred from STDs, stress or
pollution.  But indications are
that health and medical advances have improved, not undermined,
our natural fertility rates within these age bands.  However you understand the relation of this study to the
present moment, the rate of decline is nothing like what is suggested by a
story with the headline “women lose 90% of eggs by 30,” implying a similar
percentage likelihood of infertility.

In addition, IVF, egg donation, adoption and egg freezing
have expanded women’s options after their natural fertility declines. But while
these often work, they are expensive and unpredictable.   And, hard though it may be to
imagine in our baby-wild world, many women are happy without kids.   They’d be even more likely to be
happy if they weren’t being reminded all the time of how unhappy they should
be.  But instead of a real look at
women’s life options, we get a sentimental, inaccurate and incomplete narrative.

As for that report
on 30-year-olds’ remaining eggs – though the report implies that low egg
reserve means a low fertility rate, a closer look at the data makes clear that there is no link.  The abstract only cites figures for 30-
and 40-year-olds (12 and 3 percent, respectively), but the full report makes
clear that women of all ages have a
hugely diminished reserve when compared (as they are here) to the number of
eggs a female fetus has at 20 weeks past conception!  According to these figures, 25-year-olds have 22 percent,
20-year-olds a mere 37 percent, 15-year-olds only 52 percent, 10-year-olds only
70 percent and 5-year-olds about 87 percent of the number of eggs they had
in the womb.   Since few women
are infertile at 30, apparently 12
percent is all you

What’s left out
of all these stories is why women wait
. To get an education. To earn a decent wage so
they can afford good childcare and have enough clout to negotiate a flexible
schedule that they wouldn’t otherwise get. To find the right partner for the
long term. To mature and maybe see the world.  All of these are good reasons.  And in fact the average age at first birth of
college-educated US women of all races is 30. 

It is when those reasons for waiting are ignored that everybody
loses.  The lack of good childcare
systems and flexible schedules means many college-educated women who become
mothers, like teen moms, are locked into limited career paths that ensure
long-term low wages and a limited voice in business and public policy creation
(while 50 percent of middle managers are women, just 17 percent of Congress is
and 3 percent of CEOs).  Women and
their families lose out when women’s wages are low, when divorce is
inequitable, when careers are “mommy tracked.” The nation loses when the
education and insights of half its citizens go unused. 

Circularly, because the national
family-support infrastructure hasn’t changed, women have been unable to move in
sufficient numbers into positions where they could change it much.  What
progress has been made on this front has been entirely due to women’s having
delayed kids (by a few years or by many) or not had them at all
.   If women are pushed to start
their families earlier through false or incomplete information, even that
progress will erode.

Because fertility is experienced
by each woman as a very personal issue, it ends up getting very little critical
discussion, and that’s a big problem since then many women end up with bad
information on which to make life-shaping decisions.
Time for an honest exploration of the dynamics of birth timing and women’s
work, especially in our recession. 
That would be a fertile discussion.


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  • feminazi

    Thank you so much for this article! I am constantly frustrated and bewildered by all of the messages screaming at me to PROCREATE PROCREATE PROCREATE before it’s too late!!! Every time I feel it beginning to work, I look at my 35-year-old sister-in-law who just gave birth to her first child, my perfectly healthy and beautiful nephew and godson after a dream pregnancy last year after having gotten pregnant on the first month of trying. My husband and I fit perfectly in one of the groups you’ve described–although he’s 33, he’s finishing up his bachelor’s degree and I’ve got a year to go on my Master’s. I feel good knowing that we waited until we were truly ready for a child and were prepared financially and emotionally for one. I’m sure our kid will have a much better life because of it! Oh, and I also get sick of the "imperative" of having a child as well. Since we are "older" (by medical standards, I guess!) and are married without children, I get irritated by the cultural messages implying that we’re emotionally stunted or, worst of all, not a legitimate "family" all by ourselves. Just like I didn’t need a man to complete me (although I sure do like him and think I’ll keep him), we don’t need a baby to complete our "family."

  • crowepps

    I can’t think of a worse reason to have a child than to ‘prove’ to family or strangers that you’re emotionally mature or a legitimate "family", both of which are reasons that sum up — having a child about me succumbing to social pressure that I have to prove I’m a ‘real woman/real man’.

  • jesskm

    I understand that women feel social pressure to have children and that many find their lives to be happy and fulfilled without procreating. I hope that those who make that choice continue to speak out so that others do not have children “just because” it is the next thing to do.

    However, I am sensing that the author of the article feels that once a woman has a child and is “mommy-tracked” or steps out of the work force all-together that she no longer a legitimately contributing member of the greater society (or at least not to the extent that she could be).

    Just as there are multiple ways to be fulfilled and to be a family, there are multiple ways to contribute to the great social good and they do not all involve one’s career and wage earning potential (i.e. contribution to the GDP).

    For those of us who choose to contribute outside of the employment sector, waiting until we have achieved a level of clout for flexible schedules or financial security for good childcare is irrelevant. We have not damaged our “potential” by having children at a relatively younger age as our sphere of influence (generally in the volunteer realm) is more adaptive to those who are the primary caregivers of their children.

    I agree that those flexible schedules and good daycare should not only be the purview of those who have “earned” them – all families deserve to have a range of options available to them. However, please do not limit women’s (or men’s) contributions to their wages and career paths. I believe that my community would loose out much more if I, and the women like me, spent our hours in an office someplace while our children where in daycare/school instead of being the primary caretakers of our children and offering to our community the unpaid contributions that all of us together make on a long-term and regular basis.

  • crowepps

    For those of us who choose to contribute outside of the employment sector, waiting until we have achieved a level of clout for flexible schedules or financial security for good childcare is irrelevant. We have not damaged our "potential" by having children at a relatively younger age as our sphere of influence (generally in the volunteer realm) is more adaptive to those who are the primary caregivers of their children.

    This country would be a much more grim place if there were no volunteers picking up the load in all those areas where help is needed.  I agree with you that having children at a young age and staying home with them when they are young doesn’t ‘damage’ the human potential of a woman, but instead increases it.


    I’ve got to tell you, though, speaking as someone who is very familar with the process of divorce and property distributions, etc., having children when young instead of completing high school or gaining advanced education, volunteering instead of working for wages, do indeed ‘damage’ the EARNING potential of women in the long run, and that has a direct and deletrious effect on their children in the event that Mom becomes their sole support.


    If there were a 100% guarantee that your husband would never get sick, become disabled, die or just walk away, then you’d be absolutely right — but believe me, if one of those things did happen, having skills to put on the market and a history of actual paid employment pays off tremendously.


    The working mother versus stay-at-home mother paradigm is a false one — most women work for a while, stay at home for a while, work for a while, stay at home for a while, as their own and their family’s needs require.  There really aren’t that many women who have never worked, and there aren’t that many women who have always worked and never stayed home.

  • lauracarroll

    Discussion on birth timing also needs to include the decision whether to give birth at all. Many women wait and over time decide they do not want to become a parent for a variety of reasons. For many, over time their desire weans. They find other ways to "mother" in their lives that are very fulfilling to them if this is something that is important to them. As women get older and contemplate children, they should ask themselves the question–what experience am I looking for in having children? Can I get this experience another way? As women get older, many find their answer to this question does not mean having children of their own. Pronatalist values permeate so strongly, and there is so much emphasis on "when" and not nearly enough on "whether" to have children as an alternative. In addition to more discussion on the pressures of birth timing, it is also time to question the tenets of why we are such a pro-baby society in the first place.

    Laura Carroll,

    Families of Two: A Decade Later http://www.lauracarroll.com

  • beverley-smith

    Beverley Smith

    women’s and children’s rights activist

  • beverley-smith

    Women are so hard on each other. We tend to assume those who don’t do as we do are criticizing us and we assume what they must say about us is awful.

    There is pressure socially to have babies, but not much. Maybe your mom or your grandma wonder when you might have a baby but if you look at tax policy, it is hoping you don’t. In most western nations there is little financial help by way of birth or maternity bonus and many nations have cut out or cut back their family allowance. If you are raising a baby you are nearly on your own and the cost at $200,000 to raise a child to age 18 is prohibitive. Many women are choosing to not have babies not because they don’t want them but because they can’t afford them.

    Those who have no children may feel overwhelming social stigma but they are in some ways exaggerating it. Many women at home with small children may feel completely degraded as if they are now dowdy and unsexy and if they are tending the child, even taxed as if ‘not working’ so they may assume career women hate them.

    We exaggerate what we do not understand. In fact most women are very kindly disposed to both options and the very wide range of circumstance that makes having a baby or not far from a voluntary thing.

    There are not two paradigms of women with babies who deeply wanted them and women without who did not. There are many who want them desperately and are childless despite their preference. There are many who got pregnant and had babies that they had not planned and who may not have wanted them. The IVF route for the first group, or adoption, and the abortion route or adoption for the second are society’s legal and sometimes publicly funded routes.

  • paul-bradford

    And lately the anxiety peddlers have been expanding their targeted danger zone to include women in their late 20s and early 30s.


    How many women are actually being influence by ‘anxiety peddlers’?  How many girls and women are actually falling in line with the ‘pro natalists’?  I must be running in the wrong circles because the girls and women I know are making up their own minds about when and whether to start having children and when and whether to work as a mother.


    I notice some anxiety from women in their 30s who are unmarried — but that’s as much around the issue of whether they’re going to find a life partner as it is whether they’ll be physically capable of having kids.


    The ‘problem’ for women is the same problem there is for men — too many options; but I don’t see many people hankering back for a time when there were too few options. 


    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice