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The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock

The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock

by Tanya Selvaratnam


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A candid assessment of the pros and cons of delayed motherhood. Biology does not bend to feminist ideals and science does not work miracles. That is the message of this eye-opening discussion of the consequences of delayed motherhood. Part personal account, part manifesto, Selvaratnamrecounts her emotional journey through multiple miscarriages after the age of 37. Her doctor told her she still "had time," but Selvaratnamfound little reliable and often conflicting information about a mature woman's biological ability (or inability) to conceive. Beyond her personal story, the author speaks to women in similar situations around the country, as well as fertility doctors, adoption counselors, reproductive health professionals, celebrities, feminists, journalists, and sociologists. Through in-depth reporting and her own experience, Selvaratnamurges more widespread education and open discussion about delayed motherhood in the hope that long-lasting solutions can take effect. The result is a book full of valuable information that will enable women to make smarter choices about their reproductive futures and to strike a more realistic balance between science, society and personal goals.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616148454
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, a producer, an actor, and an activist. She has produced the projects of many artists and directors, including Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jed Weintrob. She has performed around the world in shows by the Wooster Group and the Builders Association, among others. Since 2008, she has been the communications and special projects officer for the Rubell Family Collection. As an activist, she has worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Third Wave Foundation, the NGO Forum on Women, and the World Health Organization. Learn more at http://tanyaturnsup.com.

Read an Excerpt



By Tanya Selvaratnam

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Tanya Selvaratnam
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-846-1



Most women my age have a story to tell about miscarriage or infertility—their own or a friend's.

I got married at thirty-seven and was pregnant two months later. I think most women probably remember the exact moment they knew they were pregnant. I know I do. My husband, Jay, and I were in Budapest, working on a show that he directed and I produced. We were taking a break at the Szechenyi Baths, the largest medicinal baths in all of Europe. As I stood in the outdoor thermal bath with steam rising into the cool November air, I felt dizzy. My eyes couldn't focus. I thought, Maybe it's the steam. But later that evening, I couldn't look at a glass of wine, and the smell of cigarette smoke made me ill.

Then my period didn't come. Sitting next to Jay on the flight home, I looked at him differently. He wasn't just my husband and collaborator; he was the father of our child. When we got back to New York, we went to see my ob/gyn, and there, on the ultrasound screen, was a fetus. My doctor said it was around eight weeks old. Jay and I listened to the heartbeat together and gazed at the screen at what looked like a real baby. We saw the tiny thing bounce a little, and we thought we saw it wave.

I immediately told everyone. I was beaming and convinced I was showing already. I was excited to tell my mother because for once I was doing what she wanted—I had finally gotten married and was going to have a child. She was in Sri Lanka, where I was born, when I broke the news. She asked if she could tell her family, and I said yes. At a holiday dinner, she stood up and announced, "There's going to be a new member of the family." My aunts and uncles—her seven siblings—were horrified because they thought she meant that she was marrying again (my father had passed away in 1994). They were relieved and overjoyed to find out that I was going to have a baby.

A few weeks later, Jay left the country for a month to teach an acting workshop in Salzburg. It was fine for him to be away, or so I thought, in those early stages of my pregnancy. I had friends to lean on and arranged for one to take me to my first trimester screening. I'm not usually prone to anxiety, but I was shaking with nerves the night before the visit. My teeth chattered, even though the heat was on. I felt paralyzed and couldn't call anyone. My brain was buzzing. I drank a cup of warm milk to calm myself down and eventually drifted into sleep.

My friend dropped me off at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, which has since closed. The waiting room had a lumpy, dark-pink carpet and chairs with burgundy floral upholstery. In a surreal moment, Thom Filicia from the television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy walked by. He was touring the hospital with the staff and talking about redecorating. I smiled and hoped the place would be redone by the time I had my baby.

In the ultrasound room, I had a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. I saw a tiny spot of blood on my underpants but didn't think anything of it. I sat in the reclining chair until the doctor arrived. As he put the scanner on my belly, I felt something was wrong because he was quiet and avoiding my eyes. Then he said, "I'm so sorry. There's no heartbeat." He called my ob/gyn, who told me to come to her office right away.

When I got on the 2/3 subway at 14th Street, I thought, I can get through this. Being in contact with other people, strangers on the subway, forced me to hold it together. What point would there be to breaking down and crying in front of them?

Almost twenty years before—when I went to have an abortion, walking into a clinic past protesters holding bloody baby dolls and crudely made posters of embryos, with two friends on either side of me locking their arms into mine for support—I couldn't have predicted the journey I would take when I tried to have a child. I didn't feel good about having an abortion, but at that time, my studies were more important. Also, I wasn't in the right place in my life to have a child. I wasn't in a steady relationship, and I was too young.

As I progressed through my twenties, finding a partner and having a child were not priorities. That was the path of my mother's generation, which my peers and I sought to avoid. Our mothers even encouraged us to be different from them. As Isolde Brielmaier, an art curator based between Savannah, Georgia, and New York City who had a child at the age of thirty-nine, said, "My mother had both me and my brother while she was in her late teens and early twenties, so she really encouraged me to live life to the fullest and focus on my own dreams and development before thinking about having children." Laura Dawn, a Brooklyn-based creative director, said, "My mother frequently told me kids would 'ruin my life' and encouraged me to get an education and get out of Iowa."

Almost every woman I spent time with was focusing on everything but settling down. I had one close friend from high school and one from college who were in their twenties when they had children. Today, they are still in the minority among my good friends. I always loved kids and hoped to have them one day, but first I wanted to have a career and earn my own money. I didn't want to have kids without the right partner, and it took me until my mid-thirties to find that person.

According to a Pew study that was conducted in 2008, approximately 18 percent of women in America do not have children by the end of their childbearing years. That year, there were 1.9 million childless women between the ages of forty and forty-four, compared with 580,000 in 1976. A few years earlier CNN reported an "epidemic of childlessness" sparked in part by women adopting a "male model of single-mindedness" when it came to their careers. I wouldn't say that I was single-mindedly focused on my career. In my case, it had as much to do with circumstance—I wasn't focused on identifying a partner; I didn't put myself in situations where I was likely to meet one; and he didn't magically appear.

I frequently performed with two theater companies that toured around the world, so I was never at home for long stretches of time. As a result, I spent my late twenties and early thirties having a series of short-term relationships, none of which lasted more than a few months. In my thirties, I began to long for stability. I was tired of being on the road, so I started producing films and events. But I never met the right guy.

Only after Jay and I got together, when I was thirty-five, did I seriously think about starting a family. We didn't, however, have the most romantic beginning. We met in November 2006 when a friend who worked at the theater where Jay was directing a show dragged me to a bar on East 7th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan. She wanted to introduce us, I thought, for work reasons because we were in the same field. As the night wore on and people got drunker, we all wanted to dance. Because you couldn't do that anymore in most New York bars—since former mayor Rudy Giuliani passed the cabaret laws, which prohibited dancing in bars without a license—we went to the theater and danced on Jay's set. He loved to dance as much as I did, and suddenly he went from being a director to a handsome man. I thought he looked like a mix of Beaker from The Muppets and a young Orson Welles. Throwing caution to the wind, we spent the night together. The next morning, there was no awkwardness. We shared a towel and toothbrush and were instantly comfortable with each other. But he had to leave for Cambridge, where he was a professor. We walked under the Williamsburg Bridge to where it would be easy to hail a cab. When he stooped a little from his tall height and looked into my eyes, I was hooked.

I didn't see him again for three months because he was out of the country directing a show. When he got back, our occasional e-mail exchanges became more frequent. In June 2007, I started seeing him more and more while he developed a show in New York. Every time I saw him felt better than the time before—which I took as a sign that this relationship might stick. By August 2007, I was referring to him as my boyfriend.

December 14, 2007, was a cold night, and we tried to hail a cab after leaving a holiday party near Union Square, but the M14D bus came quicker. The M14D takes a peculiar route: it goes all the way east on 14th Street, then it snakes its way through Alphabet City until it reaches FDR Drive and takes a right on Delancey Street. I often take it to get to my apartment on the Lower East Side, and looking out the window, I can see the transition from the prosperous neighborhoods west of Third Avenue to the projects along the East River. Most people who take that bus live in one of these projects. They're usually old, or they have kids. On this particular bus, even though it was close to midnight, a child around three years old was awake, making amusing noises and faces in our direction. Jay and I were entranced. He was the cutest kid we had ever seen. We started talking about how much we liked kids and how we'd like to have them, but we wanted to get married first. By the end of that bus ride, we were engaged.

I love telling people I got engaged on the M14D bus.

Around that time, Jay and I had also started working together. It was a big step because I had never collaborated with a director I was dating. Every time I worked with Jay, I said it would be my last time. We had different approaches. He worked best from chaos; I needed everything in order. We exasperated each other; we fought. But then the work turned out beautifully, and we would decide to work together again. We got a huge rush from what we did together. Producing fills my brain 24/7 with other people's stuff, but when the show or film is complete, I have a great product to share with the world.

A friend's father, after seeing one of our shows, said that I was Giulietta to Jay's Fellini. He had actually known the famous Italian director and his muse, so it meant something to hear this remark. He also said, "Giulietta was tough, too." I wondered if he was implying that I was tough. Later, I looked up Fellini and Giulietta. She was his wife and the star of four of his films. She had one miscarriage, and their son died two weeks after being born. After that, she was told she couldn't have children. The couple stayed together until Fellini died in 1993, and Giulietta died five months later.

When I emerged from the subway near my doctor's office after finding out I had miscarried, I called my friend who had dropped me off at St. Vincent's. She lived close by and arrived within fifteen minutes. I had been numb in the interlude between hearing the news and seeing her; I had been inured by contact with strangers on a train, but as soon as I saw her face, I broke down. I felt loss in a way I had never experienced before, and now someone who knew me could help me understand. It turned out that she had had a miscarriage, too, before going on to have three kids—I hadn't known that about her. My friend sat with me in the room as the doctor explained what had happened and what I needed to do. The doctor told me that I should have a D&C (dilation and curettage) to remove the fetus and surrounding tissue. In that moment, when I was emotionally a disaster, my doctor offered a clinical analysis and a game plan.

I am by nature a can-do kind of person. It's what makes me good at my job as a producer. I focus on the tasks at hand, anticipating what others might need. I strip the emotion out of action so that I don't get too worked up and can keep everyone around me calm, feeling like they are well taken care of. It's a skill I perfected at an early age—the ability to assess a situation rationally and store emotions away.

I have a vivid memory from my childhood of holding a stuffed white bunny with pink ears and crying as I watched my father and mother fight. This recurred many times during my parents' marriage, although my bunny was eventually retired. As I got older, I got bolder and intervened, sometimes actually standing in between my parents. Life felt disjointed and surreal—there was conflict at home, but no one else saw it. It wasn't conflict all the time; mostly it was quiet, with each of us doing our own thing in our own worlds in the same house. Also, my father was a good dad. He and I would talk a lot after he got home from work at Long Beach Community Hospital, where he was a psychiatrist. We had similar interests: in books, science, and music. I admired him because he was totally self-made, a poster boy for the American dream who had put himself through medical school and provided for his family.

But there were times when I told him off for the way he treated my mother, and once I called him a bastard to his face. Those memories pain me now because I deeply loved him, but I felt I had to stick up for my mother. There was no way to rationalize his physical violence toward her. She gave everything to him and her family, and she deserved the world.

My parents were stuck in an unhappy marriage. They hadn't chosen each other; the marriage had been arranged by their mothers, who knew each other through the Catholic Church. As individuals, my parents were kind, attractive, and generous, but together they were sometimes toxic.

For most of my growing up, I shunned the idea of settling down. I didn't have a good example to aspire to.

Telling my mother about my miscarriage was almost more difficult than having the miscarriage. I knew that she would take it even harder than I did. She had wanted a grandchild so badly; it was a point of pride for her to tell her friends and relatives. Now she had to tell them the bad news. When I called her, I spoke steadily, but she couldn't see the tears running down my face. I told her, "I had a miscarriage, but it's okay." My mother caught her breath, then said, "What?" After a pause, during which I heard her choke up, she asked, "What did the doctor say?" I said, "What could she say?" Later, I found out that after we hung up she sat on her bed and sobbed.

My husband had been in rehearsal in Salzburg when I got the news, so my mother found out before he did. I didn't want to disrupt his rehearsal. Later, I texted him, "Call me," and within a minute, my phone rang. "It didn't go so well." "Why? What happened?" "There wasn't a heartbeat." "Oh, sweetie. I'm so sorry." It felt cruel to have to talk about this with him on the phone.

It took me a while to get over the shame of telling people I was no longer pregnant. I had thought I was good to go. I had seen the baby, and it had waved. I had already started imagining what it would look like, how I would always focus on making it feel loved and part of a happy home. I thought Jay and I would be great parents. What kind of a child would come from an Iowan farm boy and a Sri Lankan city girl? What amazing things would a child from two creative, passionate parents do? On the one hand, I was uncertain about bringing a child into this world—how it would alter our creative, peripatetic lifestyle. Other times, I thought about what a friend once told me: that having a child helps you forget about the world.

During the follow-up after the D&C, my ob/gyn tried to console me. "You have time," she said. And I believed her, even though in the back of my mind, I knew my window of time was shrinking. I didn't worry too much because it seemed like most women I knew were having kids later. I was thirty-seven and had many friends who were having babies naturally at forty, forty-one, forty-three. I thought I could be like them.

As Barbara Ehrenreich, the feminist author and activist, has so wisely written, we prefer positive spin to more difficult narratives. We live for our aspirations, focusing on what is possible and going for it rather than what is probably not possible. In my case, I held up as examples the friends of mine who were successful in having children in their forties, rather than the many more who were not. I didn't know much about the inner lives of those who were childless, and they didn't talk about it.

After my miscarriage in January 2009, it took three months for my period to return. By October, almost the same time as the year before, I was pregnant again. I proceeded more cautiously this time, telling only my closest friends during the first trimester, not getting my hopes up. I was also mostly away from the social whirl of New York because I was spending more time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had transferred all my medical care there because I now had insurance through Jay's teaching position. My doctor wanted to monitor me closely because I had had a miscarriage, so I had ultrasounds scheduled two weeks apart. The first one was fine. It was too early to detect a heartbeat, but there was a sac and fetal pole. My husband was again out of the country for work, so I was alone. Teaching and directing workshops in Austria was his regular gig, and he made good money from it. Sometimes I went with him, but I chose not to go for the second year in a row because I was pregnant, again.


Excerpted from THE BIG LIE by Tanya Selvaratnam. Copyright © 2014 Tanya Selvaratnam. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 11

1 A Would-Be Mother's Lament 13

2 What Is the Big Lie? 35

3 What the Experts Wish You Knew 53

4 Decisions, Decisions 79

5 The limits of Evolution 95

6 Baby Madness and the Media 117

7 The Roller Coaster 131

8 The Global Landscape of Infertility 159

9 Friends with Kids and Friends Without 185

10 The Power of Optimism 209

11 Action Items for the Future 225

Epilogue 247

Suggested Resources 249

Acknowledgments 267

Notes and Sources 269

Bibliography 315

Index 349

About the Author 368

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