05 May 2011

The Biological Clock

I’ve heard the saying over and over throughout my life as an explanation or justification why some women decide to have children; “The biological clock was ticking.” There are of course reasons, good and bad for a woman to decide to have a child, but let’s get things perfectly clear, though there is a biological reason women are capable of having children, there is no biological reason that they should. Now, I fully understand that there are powerful physiological and hormonal factors that can strongly urge women to reproduce, but these do not preclude her free will. To suggest otherwise is to fall into a familiar but mistaken pattern of calling social behaviors “natural”. Merely blanketing the entire process with a tired euphemism implies that the act of having a child is not a conscious choice on the woman’s part, but merely an inevitable compulsion of time and anatomy.

Making this argument may seem absurd because I am a male and because it would appear on the surface to do little in addressing patriarchy. But I would like to point out that language is very much a part of the system. The way we talk about things reinforces and reifies ways of thinking because words conceal political and social meaning. Even a single word like “woman” or “mother” carries with it layers of assumed meaning, different perhaps for different groups or individuals, but meaning which nonetheless is conjured in the mind without having to explicitly vocalize anything but that single word. So my argument isn’t entirely superfluous, what I’m trying to say is that our language regarding women and childbearing can carry a lot of weight, either positive or subtly (and that is the worst kind) negative. I’m not trying to claim that people shouldn’t reproduce, or to deny the biological realities of women’s bodies. I have written this (with input from some of my female friends) to illustrate that we should choose our language carefully lest we carelessly perpetuate systems of domination.

Doing something because you can neglects reflection on the social, political, economic, environmental or moral consequences of one’s actions. When retail stores sell items for a limited time, or while supplies last, they are using a false notion of scarcity to compel people to purchase something. The appeal is not to a sense of necessity, but to one of fear and selfishness. If I don’t have it, someone else will get it and there won’t be any left for me. If you consume something because of the threat of scarcity, you often neglect to analyze the utility of the product, that is why the appeal is so fundamental to consumerism; it subverts, skips, or evades one’s sense of logic by appealing to a sense of danger and selfishness.

The biological clock statement does the same thing by denying women agency over their bodies in much the same way that Anti-Choice advocates attempt to deny it; by pretending there are no other reasons. As if free-will or rationality are not a traits that women possess. Certainly there are very real biological “deadlines’ like menopause and increased health risk that prevent or discourage late life childbearing. But the Biological Clock posits these as the only reason and thus makes childbearing strictly a function of time and anatomy rather than choice. The fact is that there are many reasons a woman might choose to (or not to) bear children. Failing to mention them is just lazy communication and reinforces patriarchal gender norms by glossing it with a patina of inevitability and integrality (rather than optionality) to the identity of womanhood. Simply, it conflates the “can” with the “should”. Claims that one cannot be a woman, or identify as a woman without bearing children, instantly create heirarchies of social acceptability and denies women, especially lesbians and transgender women the “privilege” to identify as women. By blaming the “Biological Clock” we invoke the same tired patriarchal claim that heterosexist-fundamentalists the world over continue to make for keeping women barefoot and pregnant and persecuting those that don’t conform; nature intended it.

Taking the biological clock stance in fact denies a woman agency over her own body in the same way that anti-abortion advocates seek to deny a woman the choice to control her own body, but it does so in a much more insidious way because it makes it without overt dogma and thus appears secular, avoiding the red-flag usually raised by religious fanaticism or extremism and thus the Biological Clock appears to be “safe” or benign.