Review: <i>The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock </i>

Posted by Amy Richards, <i>Biopolitical Times</i> guest contributor February 4, 2014
Biopolitical Times

I always knew that I would be a mother. I was lucky to have been raised by a single mother, plus I had a godmother who adopted two children. This meant that from my earliest memories, I saw parenting as an individual choice and one not dependent upon biology or societal approval.

As I inched further along in my childbearing years, this personal perspective became more of a political directive. I wanted more women to free themselves from conventional thinking about parenting. I wished this not because I was secretly plotting for a feminist utopia, but because I worried about all of the women who were “waiting” to find a perfect partner – knowing that some of them would wait too long.

Tanya Selvaratnam, both a friend and a colleague, developed a similar calling; but hers came mostly as a consequence of her own journey, which included three miscarriages and many false promises. What Selvaratnam experienced personally also became political: how could she, a smart, well-educated, feminist have fallen prey to the false assumptions that pregnancy is within almost everyone’s reach (at least those who want it) – especially those with access to a world-class health care system and some extra cash to pay for interventions if necessary? Of course what Selvaratnam learned, and shares in her new book The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, shouldn’t be anyone’s secret – even money and access can’t “get” some women what they desire most: a biological child.

The Big Lie isn’t a book about sharing personal disappointments, nor is it a book exclusively about pregnancy and biology. It’s more of a generational wake-up call – directed to those who have been raised to think that access has its privileges and that medical breakthroughs are always in humanity’s best interest. This book shames those (the media, the ART industry, politicians and patriarchs) who have preyed upon women’s vulnerabilities. But it also offers a personal cautionary tale: why have we forgotten to trust out own instincts? Selvaratnam’s goal isn’t to make women feel worse about not knowing what they should have known, but in true feminist spirit, about liberating women to think for themselves.

The best moments of the The Big Lie are when Selvaratnam buffers the statistics with her own personal experiences or supports her own feelings by quoting great feminist writers and thinkers. She uses women’s wisdom to bring forth more women’s wisdom. At times, it’s easy to forget you are reading a book, and instead to think you are hearing a good friend share her stories over a cup of tea. With humility and humanity, Selvaratnam reminds us that we are only human. She also helps readers to bring forth their own honesty: why do I really want a kid anyway – could it be because I’m supposed to want one? 

The biological facts are clear – women have a harder time conceiving and carrying a child to term after a certain age. But that matters less to the author than discerning how these facts translate into the realities of our own lives. As is, we think the facts are about other people, not us.

The biggest truth of The Big Lie is that our society’s over-focus on women’s reproductive abilities is exclusively connected to babies. In fact, it’s also about the presumption that reproducing the next generation is a woman’s main function – and thus if you fail at that, you fail at being a woman.

Rather than looking at women’s lives only when they are in the midst of debating, planning, and trying to get pregnant, Selvaratnam sees reproduction as inseparable from what happens to us when we are 9 or 90. The Big Lie isn’t that women can wait indefinitely to get pregnant, but that women should trust anyone else about whether or not to become mothers, instead of trusting themselves.

Humans are one of the few species in which ovulation is isolated to a part of life, not continuing throughout a life cycle. To me that is proof that women exist for purposes far beyond reproduction. That might be one aspect of our lives, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Amy Richards is the author of Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself and the co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism & the Future. She is the president of Soapbox: Speakers Who Speak Out, Inc. and a consultant to MAKERS: Women Who Make America.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: