…and all for exercising my reproductive autonomy so effectively that I’ve never been pregnant. From the Beeb:
US researchers looked at 21,000 couples living in Utah between 1860 and 1985, who bore a total of 174,000 children.
The researchers, from the University of Utah, analysed nineteenth century data from the Utah Population Database.
They found that the couples had an average of eight children each, but family size ranged from one to 14 or more children.
The data showed that the more children a couple produced, the higher their risk of early death.
The situation was worst for women, because they were affected by the physical costs of bearing the children.
Fathers’ mortality risk increased the more children they had, but never exceeded that of mothers.
The team looked at deaths after the last child was born and found mothers were also more likely than fathers to die after the last child was born.
They found 1,414 women died within a year of the last child’s birth, and another 988 by the time the child was five.
In comparison, 613 men died in the first year after their last child was born, with another 1,083 dying within five years.
And the larger the family, the more likely children were to die before the age of 18, particularly if they were among the youngest.
The last-born of a large family is logically the weakest link in the chain. Which is not surprising when you consider how many of a mother’s physical resources have been drained before that child was even conceived. Aside from her age, there is nutrition to consider, not to mention the fatigue of having borne, nursed and tended umpteen other sprogs before the runt gets whelped. An older first-time mother, or a one-time mother of any age, is sure to be in better physical shape than a younger one who’s had several children, all other things being equal, simply because she hasn’t been sucked dry by multiple pregnancies and the strain of rearing a steadily growing family. And a non-mother is, by logical extension, the healthiest of all, because she’s never faced that kind of resource drainage.
This all sounds like a “no shit, Sherlock” to me. I’m the oldest of six kids, a situation which in itself would have been enough to make me seriously consider swearing off motherhood, though it would not have been the only reason. Firstborns often end up overburdened in large families, having to become, even early in childhood, super-responsible. Some are virtually second mothers or fathers to the brood that the parents cannot raise alone. I was not quite one of these bedraggled little unpaid nannies, but I certainly felt the weight of my responsibility; I have not been an only child since my brother was born, a week after my first birthday. Not that I don’t love my siblings, but I often wished my parents had been less–oh, how to phrase this?–ambitious.
Add to this my essentially unmaternal nature, except maybe where cats are concerned; I prefer kitties over kiddies. I have no idea what baby hunger feels like, and I don’t particularly care to find out; the alarm was left out of my biological clock, and I like it that way. It’s not that I don’t like kids; I like them fine, but I can live without ’em quite happily, and have consciously chosen to do just that.
My decision was basically cemented by two things: a car accident at 14 that left me with a broken, permanently deformed pelvis, and the sense of my own mortality that fell hard on me soon after that. Needless to say, I had no trouble abstaining from sex in high school. By the time I was 19, I had seen all I cared to see of motherhood, and was relieved to be headed off to university where, for the first time in eighteen years, I would be responsible for no one but my brainy little red-headed self. (And where I also went on the Pill, primarily to regulate my periods, with my mother’s knowledge and blessing.)
Part of me was actually surprised I had made it through my teens alive. And also wondering why I had a dramatic spate of nightmares at 18, all about being married off to a much older man I didn’t love, and forced to have children against my will. I had these nightmares even though I don’t come from a culture that explicitly inflicts such horrors on girls. Until recently, I had trouble putting a finger on exactly why that was, but now I think I know.
The team, led by Dr Dustin Penn and Dr Ken Smith, say the findings do shed light on human reproduction which are still relevant today.
Humans are one of the few species where the female goes through a menopause which ends her reproductive years.
The researchers say: “Menopause appears to allow mothers to live longer and rear more offspring to adulthood, and this unusual life history probably evolved in our species because, as we found, offspring so extremely depend on their mother’s survival.”
They add the findings also suggest why women now tend to have fewer children.
“If women have generally incurred greater fitness costs of reproduction, this could explain why they generally prefer fewer offspring than their husbands and reduce their fertility when they obtain more reproductive autonomy.”
I imagine this is why I was deeply relieved at my mother’s reaching menopause while I was still at university. You don’t wanna lose your mama till you’re good and ready to let her go, and a woman who makes it to the Change is a lucky lady indeed, even if she doesn’t necessarily see it that way while all the hormonal havoc is going down.
But menopause is actually nature’s great gift to women, especially mothers. It may seem ironic to the True Believers in the “Quiverfull” movement, but it’s actually better for life in general when a woman stops being able to birth more of them babies. You might even call it pro-life, in the broader sense that has nothing to do with abortion.
What a tragedy, then, that we’re still hearing the meme that a menopausal woman is just a worthless husk, all dried up, fit only to be shucked off for a younger, spiffier (and still fertile) female. No wonder so many menopausal women in the developed world go physically and mentally to pieces, even when there’s no biological reason for it. In this, our sisters abroad are better off; cultures that embrace menopause and respect the senior woman, interestingly, also report fewer menopausal health problems.
Now, I’m still in my fertile years, although I’m also voluntarily, surgically sterile. I suspect I am also closer to menopause than to menarche. How many more years I have before my ovaries stop kicking out eggs and estradiol, I do not know or care to speculate. I’m quite content to drink my (hormone-free) milk, take my supplements, keep up to date on science, and exercise faithfully, knowing that my efforts today will pay off in better health and a longer, more productive (though not reproductive) life tomorrow.
And I’m also hoping that by the time I do face my own menopause, I’ll be ready to handle it…and science will have advanced our society to the point where the older woman is properly revered once more. That would make my life not only long and healthy, but happy, too.