A Spotlite on TANYA SELVARATNAM, Author of THE BIG LIE
By Sarah Heikkinen
How do we define time? When is it “too late” or “not worth” considering the conception of a child as a woman over the age of 35? Why are women and men given a false perception of the inevitability of infertility as time goes on?
Tanya Selvaratnam raises these questions, and many more, in her new book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. Through the exposition of her own struggles with conceiving a child in her late thirties, Selvaratnam creates a safe space for men and women with similar struggles to learn about and explore the reality of their ability to become parents later in life. “Knowledge is power,” says Selvaratnam in our interview, and through her honesty and willingness to help others understand their biologies, her knowledge has the potential to change the way we all approach the responsibility of parenthood.
Sarah Heikkinen: Your new book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, explores the truth behind the science of the female reproductive system with the help of your own journey towards conceiving a child. What inspired you to share your story with the world?
Tanya Selvaratnam: At the age of thirty-seven, after my first miscarriage, my doctor consoled me saying, “You have time.” In fall 2011, as I was recovering from a third miscarriage at the age of forty, my doctor said, “The biggest factor is going to be your age.” I wondered, “How do we define time?” Less than three years had passed.
I wrote the book that I felt I needed then and that I hope helps others. I offer my personal story for the reader to connect to, while I present the latest research and multiple perspectives on the issue of delaying motherhood.
My goals are to strip away the guilt women feel about abortion, miscarriage, and infertility; to provide more comprehensive and accurate information; and to encourage debate and advocacy for better solutions. Towards the end of the book, I list action items for the future and advice for people of different reproductive ages.
SH: Do you believe that by the publicizing of the struggles we face as women over the age of twenty, the women of the future will be better exposed to their potential as both mothers and successful workers?
TS: Knowledge is power, and I want to arm women, and men, with more knowledge so they can make better decisions about their futures, including whether to have kids or not. I believe it’s important to present the heartbreaking struggles alongside the positive outcomes. As the author Peggy Orenstein, who has dealt with miscarriage and infertility, put it, “Even in this era of compulsive confession, women don’t speak publicly of their loss. It is only if your pregnancy is among the unlucky ones that fail that you begin to hear the stories, spoken in confidence, almost whispered.”
If more people revealed their experiences with miscarriage and infertility, for example, they might inspire others to be more open and share suggestions for how to cope. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I was frustrated not so much by the lack of information about fertility and work/life balance, but by the conflicting and misleading messages out there. We see celebrities and people around us having children in their late thirties and forties, but we usually don’t know the struggles they went through to achieve that goal. When I opened up to my friends, I was surprised to find that almost everyone had a story to tell about miscarriage or infertility–their own or a friend’s.
SH: Many women are raised to believe that they need to have children by a certain age in order to remove any serious risk to their fertility. Why do you think women are told these lies about their biology, especially when our society is slowly progressing towards a more open, feminist space?
TS: Like many women, I grew up without ever really learning basic facts about the impact of delaying motherhood. I remember being told how babies were made when I was in fifth grade. I raised my hand and said, “Is there any other way?” I was taught how to avoid pregnancy and getting STDs, but no one ever told me what would happen to my fertility as I got older. I knew that fertility declined especially after the age of thirty-five, but I didn’t know how steeply. At the age of fifteen, a woman has a 40 to 50 percent chance of conceiving naturally per cycle, but after age thirty-five, she has a 15 to 20 percent chance; and by the time she’s forty-five, she has a 3 to 5 percent chance.
In The Big Lie, I explore the various lies we are told and tell ourselves: We can do things on our own timetables; we can manipulate evolution; we don’t need feminism anymore, etc. I believe we need better education and we need to advocate for a better future. Recently I saw a new documentary Sex(ed) by Brenda Goodman about the history of sex education in America. I was shocked to discover that only 22 states mandate sex education, and of those 22, only 12 require that the information conveyed be medically accurate. That means some young people are being preached to about abstinence-only behavior and are being told that if they have sex before marriage, they will die.
Having been through my experiences, I want to make sure that other women are better prepared. I want them to have fertility facts at their fingertips and to think about their future fertility before it’s too late. I want women to know there are many ways to become a mother, and also that there are many ways to find fulfillment aside from being a mother. I want women to think carefully about why they should or shouldn’t pursue motherhood. I want them to be supported more in that pursuit by their partners, families, communities, doctors, insurance providers, and governments.
SH: How do you think your story will affect the next generation of women looking to have children?
TS: I’ve been hearing from women in the next generation about how the book is helping them in various ways. They say the book has sparked honest conversations with their friends and partners; it’s opened their eyes to different options for building a family; it’s made them feel better about choices they’ve already made or it’s impacted choices they’re planning to make. I’ve been especially heartened that young people truly understand the book and what I’m trying to do. Some of my favorite interviews have been by students, including at USC and Columbia, who’ve reached out to me after reading The Big Lie. This is the impact I wanted the book to have.
SH: Have women with similar fertility struggles reached out to you after reading your story?
TS: The best part about the book’s release has been connecting with readers, both female and male, around the world. Everyone is different and makes choices based on her or his circumstances, but we all grapple with issues of career and/or family in some way. I’ve heard so many moving and mind-blowing stories. A woman sent me a heart-wrenching email about being diagnosed with cancer while she was 12-weeks pregnant with her first child. After her daughter was born, she had to have an emergency hysterectomy, but her wise doctor told her before the surgery about fertility preservation and gestational surrogacy, which is how she had her second child. Now she volunteers as a fertility consultant.
A lesbian couple in their mid-thirties said that after reading my book, they’re not going to delay trying to have a child. Some people have told me they got pregnant soon after reading the book. Some people have started exploring adoption. And others have said they feel better about not having a child. The book is at its heart about embracing the multiple ways in which people live their lives and building a kinder, less judgmental society.
SH: You’ve mentioned that you credit being an artist with helping you find your way. Can you elaborate on that idea?
TS: Artists have the tools to turn adversity into action and to inspire others by sharing their stories through their art. I think of so much great art that has been borne of personal suffering: Frida Kahlo’s paintings that conjure her physical afflictions and more recently Sonali Deraniyagala’s stunning book Wave that recounts her experience losing three generations of her family in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her memoir, My Beloved World: “There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested….Difficulty can tap unsuspected strengths.” Creative people have an outlet for their difficult experiences. In my case, I found hope in my artistic pursuits. All the energy I would have thrown into parenthood I directed towards my art, including writing this book and continuing to produce films–many of them about artists and the creative process.
I also feel lucky to be part of New York’s artistic community. This community rallied around me and lifted me up when I was going through difficult times.
SH: Do you have any final messages you’d like to send out to young women?
TS: In the same way that many of us think proactively about our career goals, we can think about our goals for parenthood. Do you want to be a parent? Under what circumstances? If you can’t have a child through natural delivery, would you consider adoption? Etc. Also, if you want to become a parent with a partner, you should ask that person these questions, too. Don’t be scared of the conversation. Having it can tell you a lot about how your vision of the future aligns with your partner’s.
I certainly wish I had chosen better partners when I was younger. I confess that when I was in my 20s and even early 30s, I didn’t think proactively about parenthood. Now I tell young people that even if you might not want kids now, envision a time when you might change your mind. Are you prepared for if that moment comes?
I hope young women read the book and I’ve also created an educational toolkit that is available for free as a download from my site: thebigliebook.com. The toolkit includes facts, charts, conversation starters, and resources.
Again, my favorite part is connecting with readers, so if you do read the book, please let me know what you think. My email is email@example.com.
Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, producer, actor, and activist based in New York City. She is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. Tanya’s writing has been published in Vogue, Bust, Paper, xoJane, Huffington Post, Pop and Politics, the Toronto Review, Art Basel Magazine, the Journal of Law and Politics, on Women’s eNews and CNN. She has produced projects by Gabri Christa, Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jed Weintrob; and has appeared in shows by The Wooster Group and The Builders Association, among others. Tanya has been a fellow at Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Chinese language and history from Harvard University.
Written by Sarah Heikkinen
Photography by Patrick McMullan for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Mina Darius
Tanya Selvaratnam, Photography by Patrick McMullan for PatrickMcMullan.com