Books June 2002

What Price Valor?

Bravura displays of reproductive technology may shortchange the children

Like many poorly argued books, Creating a Life is essentially review-proof. As soon as the author, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, begins to worry one of her weakly held positions long enough for the reviewer to take aim, she contradicts herself or flits off to the next harebrained idea. Case in point: still smarting over having been denied tenure at Barnard in the 1970s (when she was a young mother), Hewlett reports that a committee member informed her she had "allowed childbearing to dilute [her] focus." But a scant eight pages back Hewlett had informed us that "what high-achieving women need are two things that are not yet readily available: reduced-hour jobs and careers that can be interrupted." In other words, they need to allow childbearing to dilute their focus. We might track down all the book's contradictions and try to make sense of them, but that way lies madness. Better to get a bead on Hewlett's general topic of inquiry, the tendency of successful professional women to delay childbirth—because of the demands of "high-maintenance careers and needy partners"—for so long that even reproductive technology cannot help them. Hewlett seems to think that she is presenting shocking news on that front, and perhaps there are indeed legions of women who will be horrified to learn that the onset of perimenopause may not be the ideal time to start knitting booties and pricing jogging strollers. To avert the risk of age-related infertility, the radical-minded Hewlett suggests—hold on to your hats!—that women ought to have children while they are still young, and the book contains enough accounts of failed fertility procedures to make this seem like wise counsel. Fair's fair: women of a certain age who seek fertility treatments endure enough misery—physical and emotional—that it was high time someone addressed the unpleasant truth head on.

But here's the curious thing about Creating a Life: the true heroes of the book turn out to be not those women who had their children early in the game but, rather, the few winners of the late-life fertility lottery, a remarkable band of "gutsy big-hearted women" who went for broke and managed to achieve pregnancies at near-biblical ages (Hewlett herself bore a child at fifty-one, but missed the Best in Show ribbon by a full twelve years). That there is something of the freak show to these achievements—at least one of the mothers made the pages of The National Enquirer—is almost certainly what attracted the attention of the book's excitable publisher, Talk Miramax. But more interesting than these bravura displays of reproductive ingenuity—the infants were created, variously, through donor sperm, donor eggs, a third-party uterus, and (perhaps most unexpectedly) good old-fashioned nooky—is Hewlett's attitude toward them. For example, the playwright Wendy Wasserstein's famous pregnancy seems to be the very model of what Hewlett warns against: it was preceded by seven years of medical treatment, severely compromised Wasserstein's health, and necessitated a lengthy maternal hospitalization and an extremely premature cesarean delivery. The resulting baby girl weighed less than two pounds at birth and was hospitalized for ten weeks, during which she required a blood transfusion. But these miseries are presented not as cautionary tale but as triumph: Wasserstein was "remarkable and valiant" for never giving up the fight to become pregnant. Indeed, the most obvious question that such a pursuit prompts—whether it is in a child's best interest to have a mother who will be facing the challenges and travails of old age just as her offspring is entering adolescence—is never mentioned. Why? Because this is a book from the perspective of "high-achieving women," and the main impression we get of the type is that they are going to get exactly what they want, and damn the expense or the human toll. These are women who have roared through the highest echelons of the country's blue-chip law firms, investment banks, and high tech companies. One interview was conducted over lunch at the Century Club, another in the "edgy and hip" offices of an IT firm; the relatively modest salary of a third woman almost disqualified her as a "high achiever," but "she snuck in by virtue of her magna cum laude degree from Stanford University."

Hewlett does her best to make us sympathetic toward such fiercely driven women, but the comments of a young male New Yorker—meant to reveal what cads high-achieving single men can be—backfire on her. He observes, "There's a whole bunch of them where I work. They're armed to the teeth with degrees—MBAs and the like—they're real aggressive, they love to take control, and they have this fierce hunger for success and for stuff. Everything they do and everything they want is expensive." And when they want a baby (usually at an ill-considered age, because of what Hewlett calls "a society that continues to thrust cruel choices on women"), their approach is similar. Chinese orphanages present an inexhaustible—if clearly second-choice—source of product; much better to get your hands on a donor egg, although that presents "emotional challenges." Emotional challenges to the child who must cope with his unusual conception? Of course not! The challenges are entirely the mother's, for "many women yearn for their own genetic child."

Hewlett presents a raft of solutions to the problems that she says have led to all of this—most concerning new government policies that would redraft employment law so that a woman can taste the fruits of ultimate professional success yet also get down to serious business between the sheets at an earlier age. In her advocacy for changes in the law, however, Hewlett merely reveals the central, heartbreaking flaw of the contemporary feminist movement—its elitism. "If employers were hit with overtime and fringe-benefit charges every time they squeezed an extra five or ten hours out of a professional employee, they might think twice about requiring long workweeks." The key word here, of course, is "professional." For millions of working-class mothers (a majority of whom have been unhappily thrust into the labor market, owing—in large part—to the victories of the women's movement) overtime is something you do to pay the bills, not a disagreeable disruption to optimal "work/life balance." Perhaps the best assessment of the situation facing the "gutsy women" comes in the form of a wan remark by one of Hewlett's disillusioned interviewees: "It strikes me that in the real world grown-ups have hard choices."

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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