The Biological Clock

I cannot pinpoint the first time I heard someone use the term “biological clock” to refer to a woman’s fertility, but I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11. At the time, the adults in my life, primarily the teachers in my secondary school, would give unsolicited advice about the lives of women, what they should and shouldn’t do, and how, in all their endeavours, they must make sure to settle down quickly before their wombs withered and dried up and became unfit to bear children.

With thinly veiled scorn and ill-disguised pity for women who actively pursued their careers, led unconventional lives or lives that defied cultural expectations, they’d warn us not to be like them. Children, after all, were the most important achievement in a woman’s life.

Little me back then would agree. I would think to myself, “I won’t be like those women. I would finish secondary school by 15, enter university by 16 and graduate by 22, do my house job, serve and get married by 25.” Plenty of time for me to have kids before my eggs disintegrated so I wouldn’t be like those unhappy, childless women in their 30s.

As I grew up, life didn’t quite happen that way. I did not get into university by 16, and I will not be graduating by 22. I also doubt I’d be getting married by 25 and despite my best efforts and generally liberal views concerning women and marriage, I can still hear my biological clock ticking.

The term “biological clock” wasn’t always used to refer to infertility. In fact, up until the 70s and 80s, it was just something scientists coined to refer to the circadian rhythm – your sleep-wake cycle. What changed? Well, sometime in the late 70s, a Washington Post columnist published a column called “The Clock is Ticking For The Career Woman.” Ever since then, the term has taken on a new life and meaning.

As medical school goes on longer than I expected, the clock in my uterus gradually ticks louder. I worry that I will not do all I’ve planned to do before my ovaries explode in blood and wailing oocytes. I worry that I would not figure it all out before the dreaded 30. I worry that I will have to make sacrifices I will wholly detest to beat this time bomb. I worry that I will have to settle or choose a more conventional dream just so I can have children.

A study published in JAMA Surgery in 2021 revealed that female surgeons were more likely to delay pregnancy, use assisted reproductive technology like IVF, have non-elective C-sections and suffer pregnancy loss. In the study, about 42% of surgeons had experienced the loss of a pregnancy – more than twice the rate of the general population.

A 2016 survey in the Journal for Women’s Health reported that the infertility rate for physicians was about 1 in 4, almost double the rate of the general population. Another survey in 2023 revealed there was a higher rate of infertility and pregnancy complications in female physicians when compared to the general population.

Faced with studies and surveys like this, the consequences of choosing the career path I want, the life I want to live, and the type of love I want become more glaring and threatening. Every day, it looks like I cannot have all I want because my reproductive system has failed to evolve as the lifespan of human beings got longer. I might have to make concessions my male colleagues won’t have to make.

It doesn’t help that society helps magnify the already loud sound of this clock. A lot of women are pushed into having children without having even asked themselves if they want to. The external voices are intense and loud and they’ve not stopped to ask themselves if they really desire children or just think they do.

The biological clock pressures many women into getting married before they’re ready. Many women settle for people they don’t really want because family members won’t stop reminding them of the ticking time bomb they carry. Many women have forgone the kind of careers they want because society has magnified the sound of their biological clock.

My male friends and colleagues do not face this same dilemma. They have all the time in the world to figure everything out – career, love, marriage and children. I do not have the same luxury. As ASUU, the federal government and Nigeria delay my education, the state of my reproductive system weighs heavily on my mind as I contemplate what I want to do with my life.

Much to my displeasure, I cannot simply snap my fingers and erase the biological clock from existence. It’s a fact and it doesn’t particularly care about my feelings or opinions. It’s science that as women grow older, the quality and quantity of their eggs reduce, predisposing them to higher rates of miscarriages or birthing children with anomalies.

Nevertheless, it’s something I want women to think about. I want them to look inwards and ask themselves questions. I want them to ask themselves if they even want children. I want them to be bold and unapologetic about their answer, regardless of what it is. I want women to ask themselves if they want to sacrifice their careers or other things they might want to do with their lives that aren’t compatible with having kids young.

I want women to consider other options like freezing their eggs or adoption. I don’t want this clock to limit us, to push us into decisions we aren’t ready for or to live for other people than ourselves. I want women to decenter that ticking clock and lose the fear of living the lives they want. I want more and better for us.

This might all just be wishful thinking, but it’s something to think about.

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