The Biological Clock

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Molly McKaughan’s idea in writing this book is a good-hearted one: to shed light on the motherhood dilemma facing thousands of modern working women whose childbearing years are soon to end. She undertook a massive research project, compiling responses from nearly five thousand questionnaires--four pages that ran in WORKING WOMAN magazine in 1985-- and interviewing more than one hundred of the respondents.

Not surprisingly, the book reads like a very long women’s-magazine article. At times it reminds one of an interminable kaffeeklatsch: The women who speak at greatest length are not always those with most insight. The book’s patchy editing produces occasionally amusing results (“He said, ’No, the baby is all the way up to your naval’”). The names of Bruno Bettelheim and Erik Erikson are misspelled in a passing reference.

Three-quarters of the women who responded to McKaughan’s survey were childless. In the first section of the book, she allows those who are so by choice to explain their decision. At great length, they retrace their career paths, reflect on their maternal role models, and discuss salaries and financial goals. Relationships with men constitute a major factor in these women’s postponement of motherhood.

Part 2 looks at women who have turned the corner and made that all-important choice to try to get pregnant. Most of these women are in their thirties and forties and have already attained a significant degree of success in the business world. McKaughan’s discussion of infertility and its treatments and of prospects for the “elderly primagravida"--horrid phrase--are again reminiscent of a popular magazine article in cataloging all the dreadful possibilities and then in effect patting the reader on the back reassuringly, reminding her that the odds are in her favor.

The final and longest portion of the book explores life after giving birth: bonding with one’s child, adjusting work schedules, day care, single motherhood. Reading this material evokes feelings of frustration-- employers are often inflexible, good day care is hard to find, trying to maintain a successful career life and a happy, relaxed home life is exhausting. McKaughan’s own solution--moving to freelance work at home--is not possible for many women. Yet she and her interviewees manage to communicate their joy in motherhood: “Being Nicky’s mother,” says McKaughan, “has been more significant to me than any work I’ve done in my life.