DEBATE: Are women in the Nineties any better off now they can choose when to have a baby? Two writers argue the question
Sunday 23 August 1998
For my mother's generation, choice didn't really come into it. If you were lucky, you got married, young. You had a couple of kids and assumed the part of the perfect housewife. Maybe you were happy. Maybe you did Valium. My mother takes one look at my frantic lifestyle and pronounces herself exhausted. "You do too much. It's not good for you." But sometimes she looks wistful. "I never had your choices." She sometimes wonders whether she's done much with her life. But then for all my choices I often wonder the same thing about mine. Doesn't everyone?
"The right to choose" has become the clarion call of modern women, starting with abortion and reaching its apotheosis this week with the 32-year-old banker who wants to freeze an embryo and save it for when she has a window in her diary to have a baby.
Choice can be liberating, but it's also a trap. When I go to the supermarket to buy ready-made tomato sauce for pasta, I'm in labour-saving device mode. Only my mother and Delia Smith have time to blanch, peel, de-seed, sieve and season the real thing. Problem is that by the time I've decided between Dolmio and Lloyd Grossman's favourite, the sun-dried version, plus or minus basil, olives or peppers, I'm bewildered and petulant. Then I spot that new sauce in a carton that looks somehow fresher and more authentic (ie it goes off quicker). No preservatives, no guilt. Only now I've been in Waitrose for ten minutes and my trolley is still empty.
It's the same with women's lives. Not, perhaps, if you've no money, no education, no career and no hope. But for increasing numbers of young women choice is both a boon and a bane. And the biggest choices of all - the ones you overhear discussed in the loos at work, in trendy bars in Soho and theme pubs in Leeds, when you pick up Bridget Jones's Diary or switch on Babes in The Wood - surround the business of babies and careers, or more precisely babies versus careers. When and if to have a baby? To wait for the right man or, if none's forthcoming, to go it alone, turkey baster at the ready? To get your career on track first and prove yourself indispensable, or get the mucky business of babies over early so you can get down to the serious business of work later on? A report out this week says that women in their thirties have the healthiest babies of all. That's great news. But hey, dammit, that's when you're really making strides at work. And what about declining fertility, and supposing you can't get pregnant after all those years on the pill? That frozen embryo is beginning to make sense ...
Suppose you make your choice and do get pregnant. How about this for choice? To amnio or not? Is CVS safer? Are ultrasounds a risk? What about nuchal markers and AFPs? Am I talking another language? Not if you're pregnant, I'm not.
It gets worse at the birth - you can squat, lie back in the birthing pool, have TENS, gas and air, an epidural or elective Caesarian. Or none of this if you want to achieve instant sainthood. I'm beginning to feel nostalgic for stirrups.
So now you've got the baby and you'll be going back to work soon. You need to find a nanny, or a childminder or a nursery. Again, the choice is yours.
Oh my God, you're going to have to leave the baby with someone who may turn out to be a monster. But you wouldn't really be happy not working, would you? Mothers can be so boring. And so it goes on.
We've fought for choice. And we've won it. I cherish choice. But it's also a burden. And to help me make life's important decisions, I sometimes wish I had less of it.
Linda Kelsey is Editor-at-Large of 'M' Magazine, a new glossy magazine for modern parents
This week, doctors revealed that a couple in their thirties wish to freeze some embryos to use at a more convenient time in their careers. Do women simply have too many choices?
There is no real choice when women still have to conform, says Aminatta Forna
You had to laugh, really, at the news that a couple of City professionals had frozen an embryo in order to have a baby at a date more convenient to their careers. Roughly, the reports stated, when she would be nearly forty and had made her nest egg. Tabloid writers were piqued puce at their arrogance. But when you sit back and dissect what it was they were so angry about, one can see a wry, dry, sharp-edged humour about it all.
Frozen embryos are yesterday's news in a world of supersonic rates of technological advance. So that wasn't the issue, although some tried to pretend it was. A member of the Conservative Family Institute worried that the couple might not be so well off in a few years - which is a cause for concern for anyone planning children. Nor could the worry have been caused by the age at which she wants to reproduce - the birth of babies to post-menopausal women has become a regular event.
No, it was the idea that here was a woman who had apparently found a new way to "have it all" that gave vent to the hot gust of indignation that blew over Middle England. The presumption of a woman who dared literally to put a baby on ice while she got on with her career is the latest sign that women have too much choice - too much freedom.
Yet what does all this so-called choice amount to? It is choice without variety, like 20 different brands of vanilla ice cream. A myriad different routes to the same destination. For although the mother-to-be was presented as an ultra-modern careerist, what she was setting out to achieve was conservative. She planned to give up her career once she became a mother, just like the women of her mother's generation. The only difference is that she has the privilege of joining the workforce, which was not open to them.
Yet here again women merely have the illusion of choice. A woman's job, while treated by family revivalists as though it is a personal "choice" is already an obligation. In one in five families women are the sole or main breadwinner. And in most families, a wives' income is essential to a decent standard of living. On top of that, in 98 per cent of families, women are almost solely responsible for raising children. Meanwhile employers are largely impassive to the idea that employees have family responsibilities. So how much "choice" do women employed, particularly in overwhelmingly male environments like the City, really have?
"Having it all" was the con of the Eighties - an ethos which encouraged women to work themselves to a state of near exhaustion in order to enjoy the same privilage of work and family which men can take for granted. "Choice" is the spin of the Nineties, which allows a woman to subject herself to dubious and invasive technology in order to try to make the pieces of her life fit. Her other "choice", of course, is not to have a child at all, risk having a child with a disability by waiting until she is in her forties (for which she will be blamed) or give up her ability to support herself. What a wealth of choices! Now the laughter turns to bitterness.
Real choice occurs when fundamental structures change, not when women contort their lives around a rigid set of responsibilities, expectations and obligations. Sadly, this extraordinary story has already failed to force the real issues to a head. And doubtless, once we get used to the idea, the notion of freezing an embryo for later will be packaged and presented to future generations of women as yet another, wonderful choice.
Aminatta Forna is the author of 'Mother of all Myths' (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99)
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