Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Tanya Selvaratnam

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

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Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, an actor, a producer, and an activist. She is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. As an activist, she has worked with the NGO Forum on Women, the Ms. Foundation, Third Wave Foundation, and World Health Organization. As a producer, she has collaborated with Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems among others; and her current projects include Thomas’s “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman”, which premiered in February 2014 on HBO, and Gund’s “Born to Fly” about daredevil choreographer Elizabeth Streb, premiering in March 2014 at the SXSW Festival and playing at Film Forum in New York this fall. For more info and to order The Big Lie, please visit thebigliebook.com.

Women LEAD: What inspired you to write The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock?

Tanya Selvaratnam: I got the idea for The Big Lie after my third miscarriage in fall 2011. At the time I was 40 years old and frustrated not so much by the lack of information but by the conflicting messages in the media about the relationship between maternal age and infertility. I wrote the book that I felt I needed then. It’s part memoir, part exposé, and part self-help. I explore how delaying motherhood intersects with reproductive science, feminism, evolution, popular culture, female friendships, and global economics.
It’s a Big Lie that we can delay motherhood until we’re ready and if we’re not able to have a child naturally then science will make it happen for us. It’s also a Big Lie that we don’t need feminism anymore.

Women LEAD: What needs to change in order to foster more widespread education and open discussion about delayed motherhood?

Tanya Selvaratnam: I propose a number of action items to normalize the discourse around delayed motherhood. These include: Share your stories. Know your fertilities. Strategize for your goals. Advocate for a better future.
We need sex education that goes beyond pregnancy and STD prevention, and teaches us fertility awareness. We need governments that support us more in our pursuit of parenthood through measures like subsidized childcare and guaranteed parental leave.
Also, we need to support each other more. We are constantly pitching ourselves against the expectations of others, and this sets us up for disappointment or failure. We live in a judgmental society, and the immediacy of opinion-building through social media and the Internet doesn’t often allow for thoughtful consideration. Embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people build families, and embrace the variety of choices that people make—whether they have kids or not.

Women LEAD: How has feminism played a role in the phenomenon of delayed motherhood?

Tanya Selvaratnam: When I was growing up, the liberating messages of feminism dovetailed with advances in reproductive science to create an atmosphere in which women felt their fertilities were more within their control. It’s not that feminism told us not to become mothers; it’s that it told us all the things we could do aside from being mothers. My generation was the guinea pig one for testing the limits of our reproductivity, and many of us are discovering that perhaps we waited too long. I believe it is very feminist to arm women with accurate information, so we can make sure that the next generations have more basic fertility awareness incorporated into their educations. As a small contribution, I’ve created a toolkit companion for The Big Lie that is available as a free download on thebigliebook.com. It includes statistics, resources, conversation starters and more.

Women LEAD: What other battles with the biological clock must women brace themselves for?

Tanya Selvaratnam: Most people are generally aware that fertility decreases with age. What they don’t often realize is how steeply it decreases and at what point. After 35, a woman has a 15-20 percent chance of conceiving per cycle; by the time she’s 45, she has a 3-5 percent chance per cycle. At ages 35-37, about 35 percent of our eggs are normal; by ages 41-43, about 10.2 percent of our eggs are normal. It’s too vague to say “after 35 you can still have a baby but your chances go down.” So I say educate yourself about the exact statistics and ask your doctors for information.
What surprised me actually was that men have a biological clock, too. Recent studies have shown that advanced paternal age contributes to increased developmental disorders and birth defects. Moreover, among couples dealing with infertility, as much as 50% of those cases are the result of the male factor. We think of the biological clock and infertility as a woman’s issue, but it’s a people’s issue.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Tanya Selvaratnam: There are so many amazing women in my life that I can’t single one out, except my grandmother who always tells it like it is and is a lot of fun.
I’ve been lucky to have mentors along my path. I think this is important for every young person: identify your role models and see if maybe you can apprentice with them or at least meet with them. And for women in leadership positions, I encourage you to be a mentor. You can make a big difference in the course of a young person’s future.

Women LEAD: Why is women’s empowerment important to you?

Tanya Selvaratnam: We are all connected, and while you might feel free, there is a girl or woman in the world who isn’t. As I write in the book, you might not want to call yourself a feminist; you might not identify with famous feminists; but can’t you get behind what feminism advocates? Feminism encourages a broader democratic framework that counters the fundamentalist backlash, which is a never-ending threat to women around the world every day. As long as a girl can be shot for seeking an education (as happened to Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan in October 2012), as long as a female student can be raped and killed by a group of men on a bus (as happened in India in December 2012), as long as women need to stage a driving protest to ask for their right to drive their own cars (as happened in Saudi Arabia in June 2011), as long as a woman can ask for contraception coverage and be called a slut (as happened to Sandra Fluke in the United States in March 2012), we need feminism.

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