No one ever told me


Eighteen years ago, my husband won a trip for two to Bedarra Island off Queensland’s North Coast.

I was thirty years old, he was a few years older and we had been trying, without success, to get pregnant for almost a year. We hoped the ten days of peace and quiet at a luxury resort “ paid for by someone else “ would be just what the doctor ordered. We were bewildered by our lack of pregnancy as we had conceived years before, much earlier in our relationship, due to a one off contraception failure and had assumed that we had to put extra effort into avoiding pregnancy rather than the other way around. As a result, I had already been told that thirty was different, fertility-wise, from twenty.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Like many women of my generation, I had a high-powered, successful career. I was working as a copywriter for the trendiest, most awarded ad agency in Australia, one of the very first women to do so, and it was a job many of my peers would have killed for. It was a position I had set my sights on many years earlier, so I should have been riding high. Instead I was unsatisfied. More than anything, quite suddenly, I wanted a baby.

When we arrived at Bedarra we met another couple, a bit younger than we were, who were on their honeymoon. Within a few days, as is the way on exclusive island resorts, the four of us had become quite friendly.

The point of this story is that the other couple were the now well-known journalist Virginia Hausseger and her (now ex) husband Greg.

Virginia Hausseger, you may recall, caused a storm a couple of years ago when she published an impassioned Op Ed piece in The Age headlined ‘The Sins of Our Feminist Mothers.’ In it she wrote of her grief and shock at finding herself infertile at thirty eight. ‘The point is,’ she wrote, ‘that while encouraging women in the seventies and eighties to reach for the sky, none of our purple-clad, feminist mothers thought to tell us about the biological clock.’

Well, in a way, someone did. I certainly made no secret of my own frustrations across that dinner table on luxurious Bedarra Island.

The thing is, though, I am sure Virginia has no memory of our conversations. She was twenty three at the time, newly married, hungry for experience and fiercely ambitious. Babies and motherhood were the last things on her mind, just as they had been for me when I had conceived accidentally at around the same age. So, I suspect she listened politely to my lament, made the right noises and promptly forgot all about it. After all, as we say in the ad business, at that time in her life, she wasn’t in the market. To be absolutely fair, after eighteen years, I can’t remember anything in particular Virginia said to me either. Egotists that we are, it is often easier to remember what we said than what someone else said.

In retrospect, I am sure our mothers and many other people, feminists and non-feminists, did try to warn us gently of the risks we were running, but it wasn’t what we wanted to hear at the time, so we just didn’t listen.

This phenomenon is something that goes on all the time, particularly I think with modern women. We are so divorced from our biology that we don’t hear what older women are saying to us. And who can blame young women, why would anyone want to know that their biology can (and often does) come back and bite them? When older women, so devalued in our society, give advice it is often seen as an attempt to stifle the ambition and energy of the young, and is ridiculed.

A friend of mine is expecting her first child and she complained to me vigorously about the pre-natal education classes she and her husband were attending. ‘Why do they have to be so negative about giving birth?’ she asked. I gently tried to explain (having eventually become pregnant and given birth twice) that the childbirth educator might simply be trying to prepare her and her partner honestly about the enormity of the experience they were about to go through. She didn’t want to hear me, however, and they have now found a midwife who is more ‘positive’ about managing the ‘discomfort’ of labour. I sincerely hope she doesn’t end up one of those shell-shocked, rubber-ring sitting wrecks I have sometimes commiserated with who lament, ‘No one ever told me.’

I am just as guilty of stopping up my ears against unpleasant information and, I am ashamed to say, quite recently too. Five or six years ago I read The Change by Germaine Greer. I remember quite enjoying it, but that’s about all I remember. A few years later, as I began to hurtle at breakneck speed towards fifty, my periods went haywire. Suddenly I was flooding all over the place, or the period would seem to stop, only to start again in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. I’d get no period for ten weeks, then two in a month. Having always had remarkably well-behaved periods up to this point, I went into shock. ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ I moaned. Then I re-read The Change and there it all was, in black and white. I had been told. I just hadn’t heard it, hadn’t paid attention, because the menopause seemed a long way off and not relevant to me.

Interestingly, the greater the shock, the greater the lesson. While we may find it hard to listen to warnings about the future, once we’ve been there and experienced it ourselves (pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, menopause, whatever), we never forget. So when politicians and pundits pontificate about abortion, fertility, IVF, childcare etc, they do so at their peril. They should remember they are not just talking to the women directly effected, they are also talking to women of all ages who have been there and done that.

Virginia Hausseger has recently turned her pain and rage at her unexpected childlessness into a book: Wonder Woman, The Myth of Having It All. It’s rather a good book on the subject, a compassionate, even-handed, honest exploration of the horrible crunch modern women face between motherhood and career. She is particularly good at putting paid to the idea that having kids is some kind of lifestyle choice. One of her interviewees raised my hackles considerably by calling childbearing and rearing a hobby!

When I finished the book, my first thought was that I must give it to my daughters to read. After all, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. I want them to know about the choices that may be made for them if they put off thinking about them too long.

And then I thought better of it. My daughters are still teenagers. There is no way at this point in their lives they will be able to hear what Virginia has to say.

However, it might come in handy in about ten years or so.

‘The Sins of Our Feminist Mothers’, Virginia Hausseger, The Age, 23 July 2002.

Wonder Woman, The Myth of Having It All, Virginia Hausseger, Allen & Unwin, 2005

The Change, Women, Ageing and the Menopause, Germaine Greer, Penguin Books, 1992

‘The Books on Women and Work Just Keep on Coming’, Catherine Fox, AFR BOSS, appearing 10 June 2005

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.