Interview with Tanya Selvaratnam, author of “The Big Lie”

Girls’ Globe interviews Tanya Selvaratnam, author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock (released in January 2014). For our review of the book, click here.
Image courtesy of Tanya Selvaratnam. Photo by Naomi White.

1. Has there been any backlash for sharing such personal details of your own life in the book and have you regretted sharing those experiences?

I was nervous about revealing some of my mistakes and struggles. I was especially worried about my family and the Sri Lankan community because Sri Lankans don’t share this kind of stuff. But I gave the book to my mother, brother, and sister-in-law to read before I finalized the text, and their approval gave me confidence. I knew that offering the personal narrative would make the book more relatable. Now that it’s out, I have zero regrets and have been heartened by reactions. The book seems to be helping a lot of people.

There have been negative comments about some of the arguments, but from people who are making assumptions about it without reading it. Some people think that no one is unaware of fertility issues, others think fertility treatments should not be covered by insurance and people who think it’s an elite white women’s problem. Some think I blame feminism for the problems associated with delaying motherhood. These people are wrong on all accounts, and I hope they read the book so that we can actually have a debate.

2. The book discusses controversies between feminism and biological realities – how could feminists better serve women in a way that continues to promote their choices, independence and careers, while also acknowledging biological realities?

When I was growing up, the liberating messages of feminism dovetailed with advances in reproductive science to create an atmosphere in which women felt their fertility was more within their control. It’s not that feminism told us not to become mothers; it’s that it told us all the things we could do aside from being mothers. It was exhilarating, actually.

Surveys by Yale University School of Medicine, RESOLVE (the national infertility association), Fertility Centers of Illinois and others show that women are shockingly unaware of the statistics about their fertility. Feminist discourse can more fully incorporate the reality of women’s fertility alongside encouraging women to “lean in,” focus on their educations and careers, and rise to the top. The movement would be doing a great service to the next generations of women so that they don’t suffer from lack of knowledge.

Women can and should proactively consider their goals for motherhood. Moreover, the feminist movement has always been at the front lines of advocacy for better conditions for women and is critical to championing measures such as overhauling sex education, expanding insurance coverage, mandating parental leave, subsidizing child care, etc.

3. What would be your advice to women in their late twenties/early thirties who don’t have children yet but know they want to have them eventually?

  1. Even if you don’t want kids now, you might want them in the future. Take steps now to make sure you’re prepared for that day if it comes.
  2. You can take an AMH test to check your ovarian reserve. It’s more reliable than FSH testing.
  3. You can explore freezing your eggs, but be aware that it is expensive and not a guaranteed method to give you a child when you’re ready.
  4. Consider the various paths to parenthood: adoption, single parenthood, etc.
  5. Don’t get stuck by what society and others expect of you. Put yourself boldly into the future you envision for yourself.

I write about these in the last chapter called Action Items for the Future, and have created a toolkit that is free and downloadable on my website In the toolkit, I include conversation starters, discussion topics, and resources for women of different age groups.

4. What has the reaction from other women been to “The Big Lie”?

I just finished a west coast book tour and was moved by how many women told me their own stories. Although every woman is different, I think there is at least some aspect of my story that rings true for anyone. I was also glad to see men at some of the events. They want to talk about these issues, too. I feel a community developing around the book, and that has been the most gratifying outcome.

5. What can women do for themselves and to each other to break “The Big Lie” – how can we support each other in ensuring that women are making informed decisions at the right time, for the right reasons?

Share your stories. Know your fertility. Strategize for your goals. Advocate for a better future. These are some of my suggested action items.

We are constantly pitching ourselves against the judgment of others, and this sets us up for disappointment or failure. Embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people build families, and embrace the variety of choices that people make—whether they have kids or not. Lastly, knowledge is power – we should be spreading it in a comprehensive, meaningful way to the next generations. They shouldn’t be getting this information from news stories, Google, and TV shows. They should be getting it from their educators and doctors.

6. Over the past years, there has been a lot of buzz about the fact that data and facts relating to declining female fertility have often been exaggerated, and in reality women’s fertility starts declining much later than many women believe – but according to “The Big Lie”, women believe they can delay motherhood and bend limits of biology until it’s too late. Do western societies swing the pendulum too far in both directions, resulting in women being confused and frustrated more than informed – and how do you think this could be avoided?

There are many persistent myths, distortions, and incomplete presentations about the impact of age on fertility.

There was an Atlantic article by Jean Twenge, in which she explained that some data about women’s fertility declining in their 30s is based on studies from France 200 years ago. Twenge, who is a psychologist and was fortunate to have her own children between ages 35 and 40, asserts that if a woman has regular sex for a year, her chances of conceiving in her late 30s are not drastically lower than her chances in her late 20s. (But acknowledges that the longer you wait, the more you are rolling the dice.)

There have been recent studies on the links between advanced maternal age and infertility which specify the impact very carefully by age group (just saying “after 35” is way too vague). Also, it is important to know that many people took issue with some of Twenge’s claims, including Cardiff University fertility researcher Jackie Boivin and Miriam Zoll, author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies. As Zoll states: “One of the studies Twenge cited (Dunson) was titled “Infertility Increases With Age in Men and Women,” and two of the studies (Colombo and Rothman) excluded women with fertility problems. About 45% had had children previously–indicating that this was a known fertile sample at baseline for at least half the study group. One of the studies is best known for concluding that fertility peaks at age 30, and fertility at 40 is half that at age 30. Given this information, it is perplexing, to say the least, that Twenge extrapolated the opposite conclusions than the authors of the studies did.”

No one is saying it’s impossible to get pregnant after 35; you’re just pushing against tougher and tougher odds. And as I say above, claiming that it’s totally possible to get pregnant “after 35” is too vague. What about miscarriage rates among older women? What about your chances at 38? At 40? Etc. And what about ART success rates at various and specific ages?

It’s important to balance the optimistic scenarios with the heartbreaking ones. Part of the problem is that our society, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written about so eloquently, prefers the positive spin to the reality. These problems can be countered by more people coming forward with their stories, more research being conducted on men’s and women’s fertility, and more articles being written responsibly.

 7. You touch upon the “having it all” debate in the book. What is your opinion on that? Can women have it all, should we, and what does “having it all” mean to you?

First, I know too many women who are “doing it all” to think about “having it all.” Second, we never talk about men “having it all” and I would love to see more articles looking at this concept from the male perspective.

The phrase “Work/Life Balance” is also often used in discussions about women’s choices. I believe true balance is unattainable, but we can achieve moments of balance. And we have to ask for what we need.

Many countries have figured out how to build a more benevolent society when it comes to supporting parents. Measures include guaranteed parental leave for longer periods of time for BOTH the mother and father; free daycare centers; lower fertility treatment costs; more regulation of fertility treatments; etc. These measures are not socialist; they are fair. Some people think that instituting some of these will just cost the taxpayer, the employer, and the government, but they are mistaken or at least exaggerate the costs. For example, although only 15 states mandate some form of coverage for fertility treatments, research has shown that the increase in insurance premiums with fertility treatment coverage included would be as little as $10-120 per year.

Helping people make better choices now will lead to less money and productivity lost later. We need to look at the issues globally and examine models that work. Investing in these models can lead to a better and less stressed-out environment in which we can pursue having children.

Featured image courtesy of Tanya Selvaratnam; photo by Chiara Clemente.

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Category: Health
Tagged with: Biological clock    feminism    fertility    Infertility    Motherhood    Reproductive Health    Tanya Selvaratnam    The Big Lie