The fouled reign of the biological clock | Moira Weigel

The Long Read: It seems like the concept of the biological clock has been with us forever. In fact, the metaphor was devised in the late 1970 s. And it has been used to reinforce sexist impressions ever since

I squandered times with x! I have never heard a straight man say this. But when a woman does, after a breakup, everyone instantly understanding what she intends. We are elevated to believe that female torsoes are time bombs. Any affair that does not work out which is to say, does not get a woman pregnant by a being committed to helping her cause their offspring draws her a little bit closer to her expiry dates. At the blow of midnight, our eggs turn into dust.

Women in many times and situates have felt distres to bear infants. But the relevant recommendations of the biological clock is a recent fabrication. It first appeared in the late 1970 s. The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman, the Washington Post proclaimed, on the front sheet of its Metro Section, on 16 March 1978. The columnist, Richard Cohen, could not have realised just how unavoidable his theme would become.

His article opened on a lunch date with a Composite Woman who is supposed to represent all women between the ages of 27 and 35. There she is, enrolling the restaurant, Cohen began. Shes the jolly one. Dark hair. Medium height. Delicately dressed. Now she is taking off her hair. Nice figure. Composite Woman has a good attitude, more: The job is just wonderful. She is feeling just wonderful. But, then her sees fall.

Is there something wrong? her year asks.

I want to have a baby, she replies.

Cohen was of the view that nearly all of the women he knew wanted to have babes, irrespective of the kinds of romantic relationships they found themselves in.

Ive proceeded around, a busy bee of a reporter, from maiden to female, he wrote. Most of them said that they could discover the clock ticking Sometimes the Composite Woman is married and sometimes “shes not”. Sometimes, horribly, “were not receiving” person in the horizon. What there is always, though, is a feeling that the clock is ticking You hear it wherever you go.

Within months, the clock was stalking career wives everywhere. Ann Kirchheimer, a personnel scribe for the Boston Globe, reported that the beneficiaries of the womens change, a first generation of liberated young girls who opted for careers, movement, liberty rather than husband, dwelling, and baby are older now and unexpectedly the ticking of the biological clock is getting louder and louder. One dame Kirchheimer interviewed, a therapist, jokingly diagnosed the affliction from which she and her other single friends were suffering as withering womb syndrome.

Americans were, at this quality, primed to pay attention to fibs about diminishing fertility. The birth rate had discontinued precipitously over the previous two decades. In 1957, the average American female had 3.5 children; by 1976, that count had dropped to 1.5. In the wake of the feminist movement, the development of effective contraceptive pill and intrauterine device, and the legalization of abortion, more and more ladies were retarding matrimony and motherhood in order to seek education and careers.

Even women who would eventually become moms were waiting longer to do so. By 1977, 36% of mothers did not have their first brat until age 30 or older. It was starting to look as if numerous wives might put off motherhood indefinitely. Would this be the mode the world dissolved? Not with the rocket but the pill?

The spate of stories about the biological clock sometimes alluded to these wide-ranging demographic trends and anxieties. But largely, they focused on mortals. The media glamourised professional women who decided to have babes while pursuing demanding professions, and reminded women who put off having infants that they would repent their diffidence afterward.( The hypothesi that the status of women might not want to become a father at any point rarely came up .)

In February 1982, the actress Jaclyn Smith, one of the stars of the Tv sequence Charlies Angels, appeared on the comprise of Time magazine. She was wearing a loose blue-blooded dress, but clutched her rounded belly firmly. The New Baby Bloom the plow speak. Career girls are opting for pregnancy, and they are doing it in style. Inside, the author John Reed reiterated a warning that was becoming increasingly familiar.

For many women, the biological clock of birthrate is flow near its purpose, Reed wrote. The ancient Pleistocene call of the moon, of salt in the blood, and genetic encoding implanted deep in the chromosomes back there beneath the blankets of culture and counterculture are attaining successful businesswomen, professionals and even the mothers of grown children stop and reconsider.

The metaphor of the biological clock announced little florid than the analogies that followed, but it evinced the same determinism. Reed cited the existence of a biological clock as proof that ladies could not project too far away from their traditional roles. He defined female life in terms of motherhood, or the failure to become a mother.

Even if girls could now compete with souls for high-paying professions, and sleep around outside marriage, these articles connoted, free love and the “womens liberation movement” had not changed the key principles of what they were. Ladies could dress up in trouser dress all they liked. In the end, their bodies would yearn for children.

This may have sounded like job descriptions. It was an order.


The story of the biological clock is a story about scientific and sexism. It instances the ways that premises about gender can influence the priorities for scientific research, and technical detections can be deployed to serve sexist deaths. We are used to thinking about analogies like the biological clock as if they were not metaphors at all, but simply neutral descriptions of facts about the human body. Yet, if we examine where the word came from, and how it came to be used, it becomes clear that the relevant recommendations of the biological clock has as much to do with culture as with nature. And its cultural capacity was to counteract the effects of womens liberation.

First, conferences about the biological clock pushed wives towards motherhood, is recommended that even if some of the gendered doubled guidelines about fornication were gnawing, there used to always be this difference: girls had to contrive their desire lives with an attention to having children before it was too late. Second, the metaphor suggested that it was only natural that women who tried to compete with people professionally, and to become mothers as well, would do so at a disadvantage.

The idea that being female is a weakness is embedded in the cause of the motto biological clock. The expression was originally coined by scientists to describe circadian rhythms, the processes that tell our torsoes when we should rise, dine, and sleep. In the 1950 s, the US air force embarked sponsoring research into how the biological clock wielded. Soon investigates were hastening to develop medications that could excrete the necessity of achieving remainder. The notion was that if we understood the body well enough, we could overcome its limits. In the 1970 s and 1980 s the meaning of the period shifted to the behavior we use it is currently: a description of female fertility. But is being female a weakness that we believe professional women should want to remedy?

At a occasion of stunning social and economic change, the ways the biological clock was talked about buttressed old feelings about gender gap. Surely, it exaggerated them, creating a sense that male and female marriages were even more different than traditionalists of the 1950 s had imagined. More and more dames were breaking into the previously male world-wide of reservoir paid labour. Nonetheless, speeches about the biological clock suggested that reproduction was an exclusively female concern.

Commentators such as Cohen and Kirchheimer reminded female readers that they would feel increasingly panicked if they put off going pregnant for too long. At the same time, they presented a situate of supposedly timeless realities about manlines that were rather new. They said that mens organizations programmed them not to miss long relationships or offspring. Free of the time pressures that dictated the ardour lives of women, gentlemen had advanced to want no-strings copulation.( In universities, at around the same duration, the new subject of evolutionary psychology was explaining that heterosexual human mating rites were a compromise between males who wanted copulation and females who wanted defence and had to rely on their nubility to get it .)

Never mind that surveys has been demonstrated that, as recently as the 1950 s, most Americans considered union and family the cornerstones of personal pleasure. Experts of the 1980 s agreed that men and women were destined to approach dating with directly resisting destinations and most varied privileges. The perpetual bachelor-at-arms was ageless. But if the career woman hoped to catch a worthwhile marriage, she had to intention her life meticulously.

By the mid-1 980 s, baby boomer females had become an infantry of clock-watchers, as the journalist Molly McKaughan called them. Her 1987 bestseller, Biological Clock, reported that women who otherwise regarded widely differing postures were all consumed by the subject of having brats. A few expressed regret for having waited too long to begin their hunt for a father. Nonetheless, most women had recognised early that they had to date strategically. Time can literally legislate a woman by, McKaughan manifested, if she waits too long. There is no literature pronouncing comparable circumstances about these womens boyfriends.

Illustration
Sketch: Nathalie Lees

To this day, evidence of exactly how much girl fertility wanes with age remains hazy. As the psychologist Jean Twenge has pointed out, many frequently cited statistics concerning female birthrate are misleading. In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, Twenge disclosed the shaky bases of many of the facts often handed down to women as gospel. After rubbing medical study databases she discovered that, for example, the often-quoted statistic that one in three women between the ages of 35 to 39 shall not be entitled get pregnant after a year of trying received from a 2004 investigate that was itself based on French delivery preserves continued from 1670 to 1830. In other terms, Twenge wrote, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a occasion before energy, antibiotics, or birthrate treatment.

Another problematic part of data on fertility is that, in general, the information we have comes from patients who inspect physicians because they are experiencing fertility difficulties. As a ensue, it is difficult to assess what is going on with the population as a whole. How numerous duos are not seeing since they are do not want to? How many are employing contraception? It is practically impossible to self-restraint for all these variables.

Despite these spreads in our lore, strong scientific manifestation has demonstrated that the quantity and excellence of the status of women eggs do diminish over duration. Countless dames, who delayed child-bearing for whatever conclude, have experienced anguish upon discovering that they cannot imagine. To this range, the anxieties of the clock watcher were well-founded. But most of the enormous person of writing about them fails to mention another, decisive happening: male fertility refuses with age too.

There are, of course, famed exceptions followers like Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso, who parent babes as septuagenarians. But the pervasive notion that male fertility is invulnerable to hour is simply inaccurate. Since the 1980 s, a large and growing person of research has shown that sperm weighs, and excellence, diminish over its first year. The children of older papas have much higher risk of autism and other complications than those of younger ones do. Often old-time sperm plainly flail and perish around an egg they are trying to fertilise.

These realities have been reported sometimes almost always as information of a male biological clock. The need to append the adjective male to the motto biological clock indicates at why this data has predominantly moved rejected: society communicates as if alone ladies had bodies.

According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, of duos striving therapy for subfertility in the United States, 40% have found that their own problems is being caused by the female factor, 40% of the time it is the male point, and 20% of the time they cannot tell. Women and men are found to experience fertility troubles at approximately equal proportions, but you would never know it from speaking most press coverage of the subject. Our presupposition seems to be that replication is a female responsibility first and foremost. Anything going wrong with it must be a womans fault.


Female reproductive plans are not, in fact, much like clocks. Our forms move by the month, rather than the hour or daytime; hormonal hertzs rarely continue as smoothly as a second hand. And male, as well as girl, birthrate falls with age. So why was the idea that dames, and only dames, had to race against time, so compelling? Why did talk about the biological clock catch on as widely as it did?

The answer may be more prosaic than some Pleistocene temporality particular to female organizations. At the moment when the relevant recommendations of the biological clock was taking off, a difference in their own economies were modifying how handiwork and meter were organised. And the reasons why dames began to feel that they were hastening against day had less to do with some mysterious biological pressure than the fact that they were beginning to enter the professional workplace, while continuing to do the majority of members of the unpaid domestic effort. In other words, they were busier they literally had less season than ever before.

The kinds of nine-to-five errands that had been common for most of the 20 th century segmented life into two kinds of occasion: on the clock, and off the clock. In the 1950 s and 1960 s, task played on the clock was thought of principally as male. Women ran in the home a cavity that society defined as off the clock and external to the economy. What they did there looked less like labour than like love.

The family wage that a mortal deserved was supposed to be sufficient to subsidise his wifes unpaid attempts. In the 1970 s, nonetheless, payment stagnation meant that fewer and fewer lineages could render to have only one making partner. The dismantling of social services applied farther pressure on families. White educated feminists celebrated the new opportunities for women to break into the male personnel. But the exodus of housewives from suburban dwellings was driven by financial demand, as well as the desire for liberation.

Workplaces did not change their etiquettes to make it easier for women to replace. The arise was that females had to constantly play catch-up, if they required the combination of career and family that their male colleagues experienced. They had to find a way to manage the very different requisitions of family life and corporate schedules, and any jetlag they might detect as a result of living between them. Tick, tock.

In 1989, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined an speech for the phenomenon of working women continuing to do the majority of housework. She announced it the second displacement. Around a decade afterwards, she observed that numerous females took on an additional third shift as well. This involved governing the ardours that going through your 1st and 2nd switching inspired the intense tenderness of shame and resentment that females began to feel as they realised that having everything there is often merely necessitated doing everything.

The interminable debate about the biological clock helped constitute the difficulties of poising working and living sound like a pathology that afflicted individual females, rather than a large-scale social question.( Recall the psychiatrist and friends with withering womb syndrome .)

This overshadowed the truth that the real conflict concerned social priorities. A country such as the US, which mandates almost no parental leave and supports no support for childcare, shapes it was not possible to for women who elect to become mothers to participate evenly in the economy. The biological clock hysteria, with its image of a time bomb lodged in each and every womans ovaries, moved each wife personally responsible for dealing here that handicap.

Many career dames bought it. At least, they did not organise to demand better maternity leave or government subsidised childcare. Instead, they listened to experts who told them what experts ever tell females: There is something atrociously wrong with you! But luckily, there is also something new and costly that you can buy to fixings it.


Doctors mastered the first procedure for in vitro fertilisation( IVF) only months before columnists started clamouring about the biological clock.On 25 July 1978, the worlds firstly test-tube babe, Louise Brown, was bear in Oldham general hospital in England. Baby Louise briefly became a world-wide fame. But if a marketing crew had been trying to come up with an advertising campaign to sell a broader person of women on IVF, they could hardly have done better than the flood of floors about the biological clock that the Washington Post article by Richard Cohen started.

IVF had been designed to solve a specific medical difficulty. The mother of Louise Brown had been unable to conceive because of a blockage in her fallopian tubing. By 1981, nonetheless, investigates figured out how to use hormones to induce the ovaries of any woman to exhaust numerous eggs at once. Rather than relying on the natural menstrual cycle, doctors began extracting as much genetic information as they could from their patients. Soon, they were selling IVF to women who had no fallopian tube difficulties at all.

In 1983, medical doctors Sevgi Aral and Willard Cates, both at the Center for Disease Control in Washington DC, produced an clause announcing the opening up of an infertility outbreak. It was widely read and cited. As pertain spread, the assisted reproductive engineering manufacture originated for responding to the brand-new ask. By the mid 1980 s, clinics offering IVF treatments were opening across the US. By the 1990 s, agencies offering egg gift and gestational surrogacy followed, as did ICSI( intracytoplasmic sperm insertion, a method of administering sperm directly into an egg to fertilise it ).

IVF facilitated numerous girls to see but it was not an easy lodge. It is an expensive procedure.In the US, as of 2015, the average cost of a fresh IVF cycle( a cycle exploiting freshly gathered eggs) is $12,400, plus $ 3-5, 000 for drugs. Numerous cases undergo more than one cycle while trying to get pregnant, and few health insurance programmes comprise all of it. In the UK, the average expense straddles from 4,000 to 8,000 per hertz and not all women can get it on the NHS. IVF is also an invasive procedure. It comes with significant physical and psychological threats. There are countless investigates that detail how disorderly and debilitating numerous wives find it.

There have been few considers of how IVF hormone cares alter womens forms in the long term. In October 2015, investigates at UCL released a study tracking more than 255,000 British women who had received IVF treatment from 1991 to 2010. They found that these women were 37% more likely than members of a see group to develop ovarian cancer. Whether this is because the IVF made the cancer, or their fertility problems were the result of an underlying condition that led undiagnosed, is impossible to know. Neither potential is good.

And hitherto, our culture so takes for granted that girls will suffer in order to become pregnant, and these methods are so profitable that few researchers are invested in investigating alternatives. Even if a duet is having trouble envisioning because of male cause questions, the female spouse still has to undergo IVF.

Reproductive engineerings are often was regarded as means to circumvent their own bodies biology. But there is a significant hazard that after the expenditure and affliction of IVF, the procedure exactly wont run. The most recent report by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, is presented in 2012, is demonstrated that the success rates of any afforded IVF cycle are low-grade. For women over 42, the likelihood that a hertz will be translated into their carrying a newborn to period is 3. 9 %.

If a woman has been counting on these procedures to start their own families, discovering that she cannot do so can be ravaging. The notion that miracle engineerings subsist is all very well increase her sense that the downfall is her own.

Illustration
Portrait: Nathalie Lees

Like any manufacture, the assisted reproductive technology industry seeks to expand and to capture new sells. Survey have shown that since the bend of the millennium development goals, girls are growing concerned about their fertility at younger and younger ages. In 2002, the Core for Disease Control and Preventions National Survey of Family Growth reported that in the US the number of 22 to 29 -year-olds who had received fertility treatment had redoubled over the previous seven years, to 23%. In 2006, Conceive, a magazine based in Orlando, Florida, whose slogan is Were the experts at get pregnant, noticed … … that 46% of its readers were younger than 30.

Over the past decade, the assisted reproductive engineering manufacture has begun selling expensive interventions to growing numbers of people who may not needed here. Egg freezing in particular has been sold to career women as a chance to be proactive. In 2014, the company FertilityAuthority propelled a startup announced Eggbanxx, which provides access to a network of physicians who perform egg-freezing procedures. It aims to expand the market to appeal to women who are not yet having any birthrate problems. We will be like Uber, but for egg freezing, Gina Bartasi, the companys CEO told the Washington Post in the spring of 2015.

In contrast to the language of stocks and of endows that we use to talk about sperm and egg donation, policy is the analogy that reigns discussions of egg freezing. Clinics that volunteer the care often use the language of high busines in their ads. They joke about frozen assets and pronounce sincerely about the knowledge of hedging against peril. Egg freezing is not just a selection but policy options, in the sense that Wall Street merchants use that term. When she freezes her eggs, a woman repays a certain amount of money in the US this beginning at around $15,000, plus annual storage expenses in order to be able to get her eggs back later.

Like IVF, egg freezing was initially developed for a specific purpose: young girl cancer patients who had to undergo chemotherapy choose to freeze their eggs before doing so. But in recent years, clinics have started offering the experimental medication as an option for healthy women, more. Indeed, they encourage women to freeze their eggs as early as possible.

Asking dames to pay for an expensive elective procedure, which is still classified as experimental, years before they ever need it, does not sound like “the worlds largest” solid business hypothesi. And yet, the logic of egg frost has convinced some of Americas most successful firms. In 2012, when Google, Facebook, and Citibank announced that they were considering covering up to $20,000 of the costs of egg freezing as a health benefit for girl employees, many beings touted this move as a miracle sterilize for the gender inequality that continues to plague corporate workplaces. A Time magazine cover story on the subject was indicated that Egg Freezing Will Be the Great Equalizer.

In the media, women who freeze their eggs tend to say that doing so has drawn them seem entitled. Yet the sources in these narratives often seem to be less worried about clambering the career ladder than about the difficulties of knowing adore as their biological clock clicks louder and louder in the background.

In 2011, Vogue profiled a 35 -year-old, willowy media company manager, which has recently frozen her eggs. She stressed the benefits that doing so would bring her while dating. Leah knew she was coming dangerously close to the age when eligible souls might scour her attentions for hopelessnes, that unseemly my-clock-is-ticking vibe. Freezing my eggs is my little secret, she articulates. I want to feel theres a backup plan.

In 2013, the reporter Sarah Elizabeth Richards wrote Motherhood: Rescheduled. This volume follows five females through the egg-freezing process. The writer said today she herself is overjoyed at the pressure that having said and done takes off her love life. Egg freezing relieved my stabs of dejection for frittering away my 20 s with a follower I didnt wishes to children with, and for squandering more times in my 30 s with a being who wasnt sure he even craved infants. It took away the castigate influence to try a new copulate and facilitated me find love again at age 42. This represents egg freezing sound little like a tool for workplace equality than an expensive is meant to prolong the quest for Prince Charming.

The go-getting women who are quoth as ads for egg freezing often use the language of select and self-empowerment. In rehearse, however, egg freezing pushes dames to admitted gendered anticipations about relationship and breeding. The more the necessary procedures grows normalised, the more the relevant recommendations is reinforced that females should take on the work and financial onu of managing reproduction. It is easy to imagine opportunities becoming obligations: that in a company that renders egg freezing as health benefits, the status of women who does not are choosing to freeze her eggs will be perceived as unserious about her career. This seems like a strange organize of empowerment: spend tens of thousands of dollars in order to attain your time detect more comfortable.Or, so that it was possible to ascent a profession ladder that will not bend, even slightly, to gratify female workers in their reproduction years.

The American workforce is now more than half girl. In the UK, more than 67% of women nurse full-time chores outside their dwellings. Payed a pick between policy changes suppose, better healthcare and maternity leave policies and a duration freezing technology, do we really think that freezing hour is the more realistic specify for health problems that workplace conventions justification ladies?

It is easy to see why individual ladies might want to freeze their eggs. But freezing rarely solves a number of problems. On the contrary, it prolongs the existence of a problem.

The role of the biological clock has been to make it seem naturally occurring indeed inevitable that additional burdens of simulating “the worlds” drop almost entirely on girls. “Theres” moral as well as practical suggests to this idea: if you do not plan your life just right, you deserve to end up hopeless and alone.

This fiction that it is female nature to take full responsibility for breeding residences an enormous encumbrance on dames. And it strains nostalgic relationships among women and men. The mind that men and women who hope sexual and nostalgic relations with one another are hardwired to want resisting circumstances is not good for anyone. Would it not be more straightforward simply be recognised that both men and women have figures that age and that most humans share basic lusts for affection, intimacy, and respect?

Main Illustration: Nathalie Lees

Moira Weigels book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating , from which this essay is adapted, will be issued on 17 May .

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