Credit: Damon Taylor/oceandesetoiles on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)--On April 1, 2013, I came across a story about 43-year-old Jennifer Lopez and her 25-year-old boyfriend Casper Smart having a baby via IVF and a surrogate, who was being paid $5 million. "Wow!" I thought. Turned out it was an April Fool's joke.
A few days later, the media reported that Halle Berry was pregnant at the age of 46 with her second child and that it was "the biggest surprise" of her life. This story was real. The first question that came to my mind was, "Is she using a donor egg?" But none of the various articles mentioned that she might be pregnant through assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs).
When we're talking about anyone--celebrity or otherwise--it's not our business how she got pregnant. This is an intimate, private decision, and we can't expect people to share that level of detail. Nonetheless, realistic media portrayals of the way pregnancies happen (or don't) when the mother is older can have a positive influence by encouraging honest conversations about delayed motherhood. Celebrity culture has a big impact on popular opinion. As Amy Richards, the feminist author who is on the board of advisors for MAKERS, an online archive of influential women's stories, said, "What people are willing to believe when it comes to celebrities is crazy!"
Baby coverage in the mainstream media has reached a fever pitch. Alessandra Stanley, the chief television critic for the New York Times, explained, "In today's 24-hour tabloid culture, signs of celebrity baby bumps, morning sickness and secret surrogacies are as closely monitored via telephoto lens and minicams as engagement rings and cosmetic surgery scars. Nothing is private anymore, and everything about celebrity parenthood is up for grabs and public exposure."
Babies a Status Symbol
We've gone from the '70s feminism of "Hey, you don't have to be a mom" to babies being a status symbol. In tabloid magazines such as Us Weekly and on TV shows like "Access Hollywood," we see stars choosing to have children whether (like Reese Witherspoon) or not (like January Jones) they have a partner. We also see more coverage about women becoming mothers when they're older. We see Kelly Preston having a baby at 48, but we don't hear if she used her own egg or a donor egg. Celebrities and the media could be more responsible with the information they spread and could be powerful allies in destigmatizing issues like infertility.
From reality TV to People magazine (which has a special section called "Moms and Babies" on its website), baby making is popular entertainment. When is this type of entertainment harmless, and when is it damaging?
During my first appointment with my doctor, Dr. Souter, when I was 40, she cautioned me about my chances of having a successful pregnancy. She said women might not have realistic expectations regarding their chances of live births because they watch Hollywood stars and older women in the public eye getting pregnant in their 40s. Dr. Souter asked, "How do we know how they got pregnant? Did they require aggressive treatments? Did they have to resort to donor eggs?"
On Dec. 10, 2011, a few months after this appointment, I woke up to numerous stories about Michelle Duggar's miscarriage, on CNN, Reuters, in People, etc. Duggar had a reality show on cable channel TLC called "19 and Counting" about her having baby after baby (the name of the show changed depending on the number of kids, e.g., "17 and Counting," "18 and Counting"). That same evening, I turned on the television while making myself dinner. The Duggars were on "Extra," the celebrity news show. A few seconds later, Jennifer Aniston was on, addressing pregnancy rumors--she wasn't.
Next, I watched "Access Hollywood," cohosted by Maria Menounos, whom I remembered had frozen her eggs earlier that year. About that decision, Menounos had said on national television, "We're so wrapped up in our work and time goes by so quickly. I'm having fun, I'm living my dream. I had a couple of different colleagues approach me in the last two or three years and say, 'Don't do what we did and wait until you are 40 and forget to have kids.' I realized I could be a candidate."
The Daily Beast has reported that Diane Sawyer, the anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight" who first married at the age of 42, tells women who work for her to freeze their eggs as soon as possible, before they hit 40 when it might be too late.
Media Fuels Fascination
The media fuels a public fascination with women's fecundity and fertility. The more births--as with Duggar and "Octomom" (Nadya Suleman, who had octuplets through IVF after already having had six children)--the better the spectacle; the more extreme the age, the more the public will notice.
Through the years, there have been many news items about older dads too: Rod Stewart became one at 60, Paul McCartney at 61, Julio Iglesias at 63, etc. But even with recent studies showing the link between advanced paternal age and an increased risk of various disorders, older dads aren't new or shocking. Older moms, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon because ARTs have made their pregnancies possible. Dr. Pasquale Patrizio of the Yale Fertility Center said that because of the rise of ARTs, women feel that their fertility may be manipulated at any time, and "the problem is exacerbated due to images of celebrities who seem to effortlessly give birth at advanced ages."
Science writer Liza Mundy has written about how misleading it can be for the public to see older female celebrities getting pregnant without knowing if they had the help of fertility treatments, egg donation and the like. In her book "Everything Conceivable," Mundy pointed out that we've seen Jane Seymour pregnant at 44, Susan Sarandon at 46, Holly Hunter at 47 and both Geena Davis and Wendy Wasserstein at 48.
Mundy highlighted the story of Joan Lunden, who had twins in 2003 at age 52 but didn't reveal that they might have been conceived through donor eggs. Perhaps she implied this was the case when she said to Ladies' Home Journal that she wanted to send a message to readers: "I don't want them to feel that they can't achieve what we have if they can't produce their own eggs. I want everybody to understand that however they make their families doesn't make any difference."
Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, an actor, a producer and an activist. As a producer, her film "Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman" by Mickalene Thomas premieres on Monday, Feb. 24 on HBO; and "Born to Fly" by Catherine Gund premieres in March at SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. As an activist, she has worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Third Wave Foundation, the NGO Forum on Women and the World Health Organization.
For More Information:
Buy the Book, "The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock":
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