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We know this already

January 1, 2011

Today! (Yesterday! It’s midnight! Happy New Year!) From the Guardian:

The message that ages 20 to 35 are the best for a woman to have a child should be taught in schools alongside education about teenage pregnancies and contraception, the leader of the UK’s maternity doctors has said.

Firstly, as a recipient of UK National Curriculum sex education between about 1999 and 2005: it was a) pretty shit, and b) so terrified of being titillating that it took refuge in mind-numbing dullness; only the unintentionally-traumatising bits stuck. (To this day, I wince at the sight of a Teletubby.) They did at least mention contraception, though: J (RoUKNCSE 1997-2002) went to a Catholic comprehensive, and informs me that their “sex ed” course never mentioned contraception at all, not even in the context of “Don’t use it.”

So there’s that. Sex ed in this country has to get a lot better at the fundamentals before even looking into complicated life issues like when to have children. I also think that, in the grand category of potentially complicated life issues, it’d do a lot better to cover things like sexualities-other-than-hetero, the differences between sex, sexuality and gender, trans and intersex issues, and the basic principles of affirmative consent before even getting on to anything about children other than how to prevent them. Parenting advice in sex ed class sounds like . . . well, it sounds like the state pushing a particular lifestyle model (you will grow up and have children at the appointed time!) on its children to me, and I don’t like that.

Secondly, I think they are missing the point, once again, in a fairly spectacular manner. Information campaigns are fine for getting the word out to people who don’t know what’s safe or best, but worse than useless when people do know, and are still judging it in their best interests to do otherwise. They fuel resentment and they increase popular perception of the government as wildly out of touch with the concerns of actual people – which, to be fair, is true.

Teenage pregnancy is sufficiently vilified (including the annual tabloid shriekathon and broadsheet tut-tutting when it turns out that, once again, the UK has placed unusually high in the teenage-pregnancy table) that I suspect everyone in the country knows it’s generally not the best of ideas, not least because of the shaming that will immediately ensue. Teenage parents are stereotyped as feckless, stupid, uneducated, a drain on the system; it’s assumed that they will, inevitably, be incompetent, neglectful or abusive parents. (As if propensities to incompetence, neglect or abuse were confined to teenagers.)

And yet teenagers still get pregnant and carry to term, which should give us pause. When that’s the least worst option, something is wrong. It might be a lack of other routes out of poverty and into adulthood. It might be a lack of affection and care to the point where a baby seems like the only chance of getting someone to love you unconditionally. It might be a lack of access to sex education and contraception before the fact, or a lack of access to abortion after it. In practice, it’s all of those.

ETA: And everyone should go and read Seamus’ comment gently (more gently than I deserved, I think) pointing out me falling into precisely the same hole I was trying to point out, as it were, and concentrating solely on the negative reasons why teenagers become parents, as if none of them do it happily and willingly – whether planning the pregnancy itself or deciding to run with an unexpected one. Many do. And trying to examine why so many people, myself evidently included, are so uncomfortable with the notion of teenagers sorting out their own priorities and making their own Serious Life Decisions™, including deciding that early parenthood is the thing for them, is a whole other kettle of fish. But in short, and in supplement and correction to the above paragraph: better information, better support and less stigma around young parents would ease the burden, both on individual teens and on society, whatever the reason they have children.[/edit]

At the other end of the scale there’s the equal amounts of media flailing about women who have children late – again to a degree of saturation that’s hard to avoid. Once again, women having children at a perhaps-unadvisable time is treated as the problem in itself, rather than a symptom. If the medical risks of waiting until 35+ are well known, and they are, again – why do people do it? What wrongnesses are in place to make this the least worst option?

For instance, the misogyny directed at women who dare to wait until their career is on a solid footing before pregnancy is breathtaking: they’re stereotyped as ruthless careerists or, bizarrely, somehow killing the romance of parenthood by wanting to ensure their child’s future is financially secure. (Because being born into uncertainty is so amazing . . .) Perhaps if it weren’t such a guaranteed career-killer to drop out of the workplace for several months, or several years, to raise children, more parents would have them earlier. (And this leads into a whole other can of worms about the hideous capitalist work-culture here in the West.)

And then there’s the way that the aforementioned medical risks get used practically as a battering ram. Now, informed is armed. Everyone should know the risks when undertaking stuff. But on the one hand there’s pointing out the higher risk of, say, Down’s syndrome, in children of older mothers and noting that the expense of accommodations, potential stress, etc., may be a complicating factor in a decision, and then there’s treating having a Down’s child as if it were A Horrible Tragedy of Unimaginable Proportions and something that you couldn’t possibly ever risk ever. This comes up in almost every mainstream discussion about later pregnancies, and nobody ever seems to pause to consider what this is, in effect, saying to actual people with Down’s and their families. “It is a horrible tragedy that you exist” is not something anybody ever wants to hear.

(And maybe parenting children with disabilities would be less likely to be expensive, stressful and life-changing if assistance were readily available for things like accessible housing, accessible schooling, specialist medical care, and so on.)

I find it hard to believe that there’s anyone of childbearing age in this country who hasn’t absorbed the messages about why very young mothers and middle-aged first-time mothers are foolish/irresponsible/evil, because they’re all over the newspapers, all over the television, all over the Internet, all around us. And that’s why this proposed campaign to add it to the sex-ed curriculum will likely not do very much: people know this already, and yet our birth statistics look the way they do.

(The average age of UK first-time mothers is hovering around 29, by the way. The vast majority of first pregnancies fall within that 20-35 bracket.)

Shaming people won’t and can’t cure problems of the system, and it is wrongheaded, and also wishful thinking, in the extreme to even contemplate that it will. It’s like thinking that painting over chickenpox spots will make the chickenpox go away.

ETA: I guess the moral of this whole post as revised is that merely providing someone with information a la public health advisories won’t guarantee that they do what those public health advisories think is the best thing. It seems to be a vice of all of those of us advocating better access to information to assume that people given better access to information will then agree with us. Sometimes that’s how it works. And sometimes it isn’t.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    January 1, 2011 6:31 pm

    Happy New Year!

    Now. This comment is going to be a respectful disagreement with almost everything you’ve said in this post.

    First, I thought the National Curriculum sex ed. was pretty good. It could have done a little more to tell us how not to be bad at sex, but that’s something you learn by practice, and school couldn’t really have provided that. Maybe the difference is in the way our respective teachers handled what they had to work with.

    Moving on from that rather trifling point, what you’re actually taking issue with here is a doctor saying that schoolchildren ought to be told that 20-35 is the healthiest age range for bearing children, a fact that you acknowledge is true. You then interpret this as “the state pushing a particular lifestyle model (you will grow up and have children at the appointed time!)”. What’s your basis for that? How is disseminating a true medical fact repressive because it’s about motherhood?

    It pissed me off, when I was a smoker, to have to buy cigarette packets with warnings that I was harming myself and others, but I would never have blamed the government for the tar that was lining my bronchi, or argued that they should have kept schtum about it for my sake. Did I already know about it? Of course I did. But things bear repeating when they’re important.

    Something else you said here elevated my dander, too:

    And yet teenagers still get pregnant and carry to term, which should give us pause. When that’s the least worst option, something is wrong. It might be a lack of other routes out of poverty and into adulthood. It might be a lack of affection and care to the point where a baby seems like the only chance of getting someone to love you unconditionally. It might be a lack of access to sex education and contraception before the fact, or a lack of access to abortion after it.

    It might be a teenager having the ability to love and raise a child, and choosing to do so. It might be the gap between being able to say abortion is a reasonable thing that should be available, and being able to actually put an end to that life growing in your womb. It might be that not every teenager wants to make a big financial success out of their life before embarking on what, for many people, myself included, is the most fundamental goal they have. You talk in the previous paragraph about “shaming” being directed at teenage mothers; your proposed reasons why teenage mothers give birth boil down to “They’re poor; they’re desperate; they’re ignorant.”

    Dr Falconer’s responsibility is not to reform society, but to offer it help and advice on its reproductive health. Even so, he does acknowledge the existence of “all sorts of societal pressures” that are pushing people to have children later, practically inviting discussions of how to resolve these pressures. For you to focus on his statement as some kind of demonisation of women who choose to have children later is, I would say, pretty wide of the mark.

  2. January 2, 2011 5:21 pm

    A Happy New Year to you too! WordPress has gifted me with a slew of penis-enlargement spambots as a Christmas present, how nice. Sorry, that has nothing to do with anything. Anyway. Huzzah for respectful disagreement! (Which usually means pointing out all the ways I haven’t properly thought things through, but I’m grateful for that.)

    It’s probably more telling than I originally thought that I don’t actually remember much from sex-ed – dullness can, as you say, be as much to with the actual teacher’s delivery than with the content of the material. Our classes were taken by a biology teacher, which may have contributed. (Perhaps training dedicated sex-ed teachers would help? I doubt a single school would be able to support one full-time, unless it was enormous, but one person could cover several schools in the same area.)

    I don’t know about the lifestyle thing. I think I overstated that, but in consonance with the general heteronormative slant of school and, well, everything really, I think it’s bothersome. Also, I’m fairly sure both menarche and menopause, and the fertility curve between those points, already get covered, so it sounded to me like they were envisioning something more pointed and more value-judgey than simply passing across the information; but I don’t know that.

    (Can I note in passing that “elevated my dander” is an excellent turn of phrase?)

    You’ve got me bang to rights on the point about teenage-mothers-by-choice, and I apologise. It was at best a stupid oversight and at worst a judgement that I should not be making, and I’m actually going to go back and edit that paragraph with words to that effect, because rereading it’s . . . pretty bad, and falling into the very hole that I was trying to point out, as it were.

    I’m sure Dr Falconer’s motives are laudable, and as you say, this is his job. What I was reacting to (or trying to react to, or more likely overreacting to) was less the content of his interview and more the way that it fits into the current context of discourse around fertility and childbearing and what-have-you, which always seems to end up in bad places. And while I do stand by the idea that some sort of information campaign saying “have kids between 20 and 35” is not going to be especially useful without much more drastic changes to the system, I accept that the health services aren’t necessarily in a position to do much else.

    Blegh. High-strung. Pissed off. Haven’t had enough sleep. Thank you for providing a voice of polite dissent, as always; it really does help in terms of figuring out where I actually stand (rather than just “something wrong here!”) and in learning to better articulate those positions (rather than just splurging hyperbole everywhere, which is something to which I am distressingly prone.)

  3. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    January 3, 2011 11:19 pm

    Blog posts and blog comments always end up looking like a drastic argument even when they’re not, because they go “Point point POINT!” “Disagree disagree DISAGREE!”, unlike normal conversations which are more like “Point -” “Disagree -” “Qualified point.” “Common ground.” So, thank you for taking my comment in the spirit in which it was intended, ie me humming and hahing and throwing in dissenting points, but essentially still liking the way you think about things. Essay vs essay can get out of hand so quickly.

    The thing is, although this essentially knocks the wind out of my assertion that my education was pretty good, I don’t think the age 35 would have occurred to me as a later bound for the best time to have children: I always thought 40 was that age.

    I like the idea of training dedicated sex-ed teachers, but I suspect it would be hard to fill the posts because people would be put off going into that line, fearing that they would be suspected of covert paedophilia. A good compromise that they do in some places is to send a nurse in: nurses might not be trained educators, but they’ve seen it all at the practical end of things, and they’re generally pretty well resigned to being told, go and do this, no you don’t get a choice.

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