Should College Women Learn About Their Shriveling Eggs?

In addition to academic and career advice, do college women need preparation for deciding if and when to have kids? One Barnard student argues that they do.

In an editorial for the Columbia Spectator, Margaret Boykin writes,

Just by picking up a paper it becomes immediately clear that the women of my generation have a multitude of choices concerning if and how we will handle motherhood — and we're entering a society with absolutely no efficient policies or work-life constructs with which to support us. As a college student, it is easy — and to some extent healthy — to exist in an idyllic, purely academic world, but there's a world of voices like my mother's lurking outside the Barnard gates, waiting for graduation day. Considering all these looming pressures of time, money, family, and society, I couldn't help but wonder — has my women's college ever thought to warn me about these issues?

The answer to that last question appears to be no, and it's not hard to see why. Says Abigail Lewis, director of a scholarship program at Barnard, "I don't think this is a huge conversation, and on one hand I think it needs to be, and on the other hand, I don't think it should be. You're 20, you should not be worried about that, and for the most part I think that that's true." Since young women in years past were often encouraged to marry and procreate at the expense of their education, it makes sense that Barnard chooses to emphasize schooling over kids. And many loud media voices are already urging women to get down to baby-making (Boykin herself mentions a Wall Street Journal piece called "My Fertility Crisis," which her mom used as an unsubtle request for grandkids) — does Barnard really need to chime in too?

Barnard president Deborah Spar tells Boykin, "There have been a lot of studies that women actually don't know the age at which their fertility declines. It's 35. And it falls off a cliff." Fertility information, and scary, pushy formulations thereof, are readily available though — if women haven't heard this information from its many sources throughout society, they may not hear it coming from Barnard either. But there's something the college — and other institutions across the country — could do that might be way more helpful than telling girls yet again to watch their withering ovaries. Writes Boykin,

The practice of sublimating biological conditions in order to achieve greatness is cemented by a mindset cultivated in college. At Barnard, and at many colleges, it is the norm for students to have a full course load and an internship, straight As and a great set of extracurricular activities. Students overload their schedules and forgo sleep, proper meals, and often, sanity, in order to keep all the balls in the air. But with this extremist devotion to academics and passive attitude to our physical selves, what does the future look like? If you spend your college years ignoring your body's needs in order to get ahead, what's to stop you from accepting an 80-hour workweek in the future? What's to stop you from being too afraid to ask about maternity leave, or cheating the biological clock to satisfy your professional dreams even if you desire children?

And Elizabeth Castelli, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, says, "It's important to think not just about issues of reproductive technology or issues of work-life balance, but how to change work in a way that allows you to have another life." The idea that your work should also allow for a personal life — whether that includes children or not — could use more acceptance both in corporate America and at competitive colleges. Boykin's right that college students often pride themselves on their ability to work all the time — and their schools often explicitly or implicitly encourage this. And a culture of forgoing sleep and personal relationships in school could very well support this culture in the workplace — especially in an era when new graduates are scrambling so desperately for jobs.

If Barnard wants to prepare its students for balanced lives, it could teach them negotiation tactics for talking to employers about scheduling and time off. It could foster debate about public policies that might improve work-life balance for everyone, and show students how to advocate for such policies. It could establish a school environment that, while rigorous, also gives students time to actually live. All these efforts would be more useful than giving women the same message about their declining fertility that they've gotten a million times before.

Why You Can't Have It All [Columbia Spectator Eye]