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Fertility And Feminism: ‘The Big Lie’ Book Review And Author Q&A

Cassie Paton |
May 17, 2014 | 7:00 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

"Knowledge is power," Selvaratnam says. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)
"Knowledge is power," Selvaratnam says. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)

“Biology does not bend to feminist ideals.” This is the main message from author, actor, producer and activist Tanya Selvaratnam’s new book, "The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock," which tackles motherhood through a feminist lens, while also exploring the scientific advancements and limitations of fertility treatments.

Delayed motherhood has been on the rise for decades. According to a report released by the CDC this month, the number of first-time mothers between the ages of 35 and 39 has spiked from 1.7 out of 1,000 women in 1973 to 11 out of 1,000 women in 2012. The number of first-time mothers between 40 and 44 has also doubled since 1990.

These days, more women are encouraged to put family aspirations on the back burner in favor of pursuing a career; but waiting longer to have a child, Selvaratnam points out, has a lot of risks many people don’t fully understand. And unless prompted, doctors don’t always broach the subject with younger patients who “have time.” In ‘The Big Lie,’ Selvaratnam urges women (and their partners, if applicable) who want to eventually become parents to familiarize themselves with the facts behind fertility so they can make informed decisions for themselves and don’t run out of options.

Telling Selvaratnam’s story of her own fertility issues and delving deep into research on delayed motherhood, ‘The Big Lie’ is “part memoir, part manifesto”—a fantastic read particularly for women in their reproductive years (who should then pass it on to their friends, sisters and daughters).

For as many facts, statistics and research Selvaratnam meticulously collects and presents to the reader, she also manages to tell a compelling and emotional personal story, which includes a terrifying encounter with cancer. Though you might not guess it based on the cover, the book is as entertaining and touching as it is informative and eye-opening.

So what is “the big lie”? In Selvaratnam’s own words, it’s that women “can do what they want on their own timetables.” Rather than empower them, this misguided and pervasive belief that science trumps all may hurt would-be mothers in the long-run. 

Neon Tommy’s Cassie Paton did a Q&A with Selvaratnam to discuss fertility, feminism and how women can educate and empower themselves on these issues.


NT: I'm 24 years old and, for the past five years, have always said, "Maybe I'll have kids in ten years." (I've also joked that this projected number of years never seems to decrease with age.) Reading your book, however, instilled an ever-so-slight sense of urgency about the possibility of having children that I'd never felt before. I can imagine if I were ten years older, that urgency would be much greater. Is that the intention behind ’The Big Lie’?

TS: It is one of the intentions but I don’t think the information is scary. Knowledge is power. We make decisions based on the resources at hand, but when it comes to fertility, that information is sometimes incorrect or conflicting. At the age of thirty-seven, after my first miscarriage, my doctor consoled me saying, “You have time.” In fall 2011, when I was forty, as I was recovering from a third miscarriage, my doctor said, “The biggest factor is going to be your age.” I wondered, How do we define time? Less than three years had passed.

I want to arm women, and men, with more knowledge so they can make better decisions about their futures. I also want to alleviate some of the guilt we feel about the choices we have made in the past and encourage people to embrace the multiple ways in which people live their lives, whether they have kids or not. 

Why aren't more OB/GYNs talking to their patients about fertility?

Some OB/GYNs do, and some don’t. There are many reasons for this variation. One is that OB/GYNs aren’t necessarily fertility experts. Another is that telling patients to think proactively about fertility might be viewed as an invasion of privacy. Meanwhile, we’re told to start getting mammograms at 40, colonoscopies at 50. I think spreading fertility awareness and making it specific (your chances at various ages of conceiving, miscarrying, having a successful fertility treatment, etc.) should definitely be part of OB/GYN protocol. 

In chapter seven, you include incredibly detailed accounts of your conversations with doctors about tumors, treatments and every possible outcome. How did you keep the facts straight? And how can—and should—any patient do the same?

I prepared questions in advance of meeting my doctors and took notes as they spoke. I always keep a little notebook in my bag, and often type or record notes into my smartphone, too. In addition, I did a lot of my own research and would ask my doctors for their opinions of information I was finding online or in the news. Everyone needs to be her or his own best advocate.

One quote that sticks out to me from your book is: "It's a tragedy that more career women of my generation are unable to or are choosing not to have kids, because we would be great role models for our kids." You also say it's time to "reconcile becoming a mother with also being a successful, independent woman." I think many women would like to do that but have a hard time understanding how. What are your thoughts?

In the same way that many of us think proactively about our career goals, we can think about our goals for parenthood. Do you want to be a parent? Under what circumstances? If you can’t have a child through natural delivery, would you consider adoption? Etc. Also, if you want to become a parent with a partner, you should ask that person these questions, too. Don’t be scared of the conversation. Having it can tell you a lot about how your vision of the future aligns with your partner’s.

I certainly wish I had chosen better partners when I was younger. I confess that when I was in my 20s and even early 30s, I didn’t think proactively about parenthood. Now I tell young people that even if you might not want kids now, envision a time when you might change your mind. Are you prepared for if that moment comes?

What about the Millennials who are struggling enough as it is just taking care of themselves? Is it realistic for members of my generation with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and little job security to plan for children—and possibly put their careers on the backburner in the process?

That’s been a big shift between previous generations and the Millennials: the issue of student debt and the uncertain economy in general. On top of that, having kids is expensive. According to the Department of Agriculture, it costs about $235,000 to raise a child for the first seventeen years. Even if you want to have a child, you might not see it as financially possible. 

I believe there are solutions. Recently, I was on Capitol Hill meeting with members of Congress during an Advocacy Day organized by RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. We were asking for support of various bills that increase coverage and tax credits for fertility treatments. We all have to advocate for solutions. In addition to better health insurance coverage, we need more scholarship programs, subsidized childcare, more guaranteed parental leave, etc. And we need better sex education. There’s a new documentary called “Sex(ed)” by Brenda Goodman about the history of sex education in America. I was shocked to discover that only 22 states mandate sex education, and of those 22, only 12 require that the information conveyed be medically accurate. That means some young people are being preached to about abstinence-only behavior and are being told that if they have sex before marriage, they will die. We’ve got to fix that.

At one point, you discuss feminism and pop stars' unwillingness to identify as feminists. What kinds of problems does this perpetuate? And who, if anyone, is responsible for publicly identifying as feminists to teach young girls and women that the "F-bomb" really isn't a dirty word?

We are all responsible, but we should also accept when people don’t want to call themselves feminists. I started identifying as one when I was in college. I’ve traveled a lot for work and have seen how feminism provides a foundation for demanding better access to healthcare, education, jobs, and so on around the world. I believe feminism has gotten a bad reputation because people have forgotten its achievements and are myopic about how far we have left to go. When someone says feminism is no longer necessary, I think, Tell that to the mother raising five kids who can’t get paid as much as a man to do the same job; tell that to the woman who is treated as the aggressor when she is raped; tell that to the girl who isn’t allowed to learn how to read. It’s a Big Lie that we don’t need feminism.

You might not want to call yourself a feminist; you might not identify with famous feminists; but can’t you get behind what feminism advocates? Feminism encourages a broader democratic framework that counters the fundamentalist backlash, which is a never-ending threat to women around the world every day. As long as a girl can be shot for seeking an education (as happened to Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan in October 2012), as long as a female student can be raped and killed by a group of men on a bus (as happened in India in December 2012), as long as women need to stage a driving protest to ask for their right to drive their own cars (as happened in Saudi Arabia in June 2011), as long as a woman can ask for contraception coverage and be called a slut (as happened to Sandra Fluke in the United States in March 2012), we need feminism.

What other books or resources would you recommend young women interested in the topic—particularly those who are only just beginning to embrace feminism—read?

Here are a few books I highly recommend that are also great reads:

'How to Be a Woman' by Caitlin Moran

'Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters' by Jessica Valenti

'Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future' by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

'Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem' by Gloria Steinem

'When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present' by Gail Collins

There are online resources like feminist.com and feministing.com. I also love watching the videos in the Makers series, an audio-visual archive of women’s stories at makers.com.


'The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock' is available on Amazon.com and all major retailers.

Reach Staff Reporter Cassie Paton here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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