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Should We Be Sympathetic to a 42-Year-Old’s Fertility Struggles?

Amy Klein“These are the days of ugly emotions. Infertility hijacks your schedule, damages your relationship with your spouse and unleashes in you terrible jealousy of other women, women who conceive easily, without thought, without drugs, without dozens of days lost to medical intervention. Women whose biggest problems are swollen feet.”

Those seem like fighting words coming from a 42-year-old woman trying to get pregnant for the first time, I thought. Surely this woman must understand that at her age fertility problems are to be expected when trying to conceive for the first time. How could she be so angry? Didn’t she see this coming?

Moreover, like so many people do when confronted with this sort of thing, I thought, “Are we really supposed to feel sorry for a 42-year-old woman who is doing IVF when she could just adopt?”

That was my honest, gut reaction to Amy Klein’s first Motherlode column about her fertility struggles. I pitched a response essay to my editors here at Babble, but then I paused. I know this is a hugley hot-button issue for people, and I didn’t want to write something knee-jerk and inflammatory that would make great link bait but earn me lots of contempt. So I Googled Amy Klein, read some of her stuff, then sent her a handful of questions via email. She graciously answered them. Her answers reveal more about her background and helped me appreciate how Klein came to be a 42-year-old trying to conceive for the first time. If you’re a young woman, they should give you some perspective on how to handle your reproductive future, as well.

Our exchange is below. It has been edited slightly for copy purposes.

KLEIN: Thanks for thinking of me! As I’m sure you realize, this is a tough time for me, but I hope that sharing my journey will help women of all ages on such a usually private topic. So far, most people have left fairly positive comments on this week’s and last week’s column in Motherlode, and many have written to me through my website as well offering me encouragement and their own happy endings.

In answer to your question, “Are you supposed to feel sorry?” I hope we all have compassion for people in difficult situations, no matter what leads to their suffering. I also know that people bring different baggage to the table. I have an older friend who went through years of fertility struggles and ended up adopting two beautiful babies, but she can’t talk to me now because it’s bringing up her old issues. I hope I learn from this situation not to judge others so easily. I hope being open-minded means that I know that each person should do what’s right for her/himself.

CASTIGLIA: I know you ran a blog called “True Confessions of an Online Dating Addict.” While you were a “dating addict,” were you looking for a husband? Or just enjoying the ride?

KLEIN: My blog only ran for a couple of years when I was in my 30s. I was religious in my 20s, so I had a number of innocent relationships then. I left religion when I was about 30, so I didn’t start typical dating until then which you can read in my essay, “True Confessions of a J-date Addict.” I was taught that I should have been looking for a husband when I was 19, so I was, even though I really didn’t want to be locked into the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, as I mentioned today. I think in my 30s I was struggling to figure it all out — how religious I wanted to be, what type of lifestyle I wanted to lead, did I want children at all? It’s very confusing for someone so indoctrinated in one lifestyle, looking for another way to live.

CASTIGLIA: I read your Modern Love piece about going to the rabbi in Jerusalem and it seemed as though you admit in that piece that you were only finally ready to find a husband at 39. If you weren’t ready to marry before 39, how do you reconcile waiting so long to get married with expecting to be able to have your first baby in your early 40s?

KLEIN: I think I became serious at 35, and that’s when I went into therapy to figure it out. I tell you, it wasn’t easy. Most of my religious friends were married at 25. They have four+ kids now. (My cousins have 14 kids!) It probably is hard for someone in the “normal” world to understand how, if every single person you know is religious, including all your family and friends, it’s hard to try and figure out a different life (like everyone around you is saying “the world is flat” but you don’t believe it). I still love them all and am in touch with them, but didn’t really figure out there was a different way to live until 35. I truly could not have gotten married earlier.

And let me say for the record that my husband Solomon is the loveliest, funniest, best partner, so, that being said and done, I’m glad I waited.

CASTIGLIA: Do you think that women are being falsely told that conceiving later is easier than it really is?

KLEIN: As you can see from my article Can Baby-Making Really Wait, I was torn by the new statistics telling women the problem is not 35 — it’s 40. But here’s the thing I wish I’d said in that article: I’d heard so much worry my whole life about not being married at 25, 30 (forget 35! I might as well be dead!) that I ignored all of that and thought it would work out! The statistics, it turns out were wrong-ish. 35 is not too old, but once you hit 40, you have trouble. So I’m glad the real statistics were out there, and people can make more educated decisions. Even though plenty of women conceive naturally after 40, but we don’t read about them.

Women can have trouble conceiving in their 20s and early 30s and be fine in their late 30s and 40s, too. I think people think IVF is a magic stork that will bring them a baby but it’s not so simple. I also think, as I said in my essay, that women delay childbirth for many reasons, not just work. How can we judge anyone’s choices?

CASTIGLIA: The big one: Have you considered adoption? Will you at some point down the line if IVF doesn’t work? I have a friend who had several miscarriages trying to conceive, but who wasn’t interested in adopting. Her goal was to have her own child. I do understand the drive to biologically procreate, but I think a lot of people wonder, if you want to have a child so badly, why isn’t adoption the first alternative? Why put yourself through so much turmoil when there are needy children waiting for a home? I understand adoption isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it is, but do you think the adoption-pushers have a point, or that it’s just judgment?

KLEIN: Adoption is not an easy process:  It can cost upward of $25,000 and take more than two years. I have a friend that just went to the Ukraine after waiting two years and came home empty-handed because the baby was not healthy. Russia also just closed its doors on adoption. Right now, my doctors are trying to figure out why I get pregnant but don’t stay pregnant, so the other options are not yet on the table for me. I’m sure I will have a family, and however I have to get there, I will get there. I was hoping it would be naturally, but now I’m starting IVF and hope it will work out very soon!

CASTIGLIA: I married young because I knew I wanted to get married and I wanted to have a family. In marrying so young, I made a choice that didn’t work out and I’m now divorced, but I have a beautiful daughter. It seems that often women are cornered in these ways: wait to find someone you feel truly compatible with and enter a marriage you feel as certain as possible will last but then deal with potential fertility issues, or marry young and take your chances when you’re still quite fertile. Not that it’s always an either/or situation, but still. Based on the way things have played out for you, what advice would you give to younger women when it comes to love/marriage/babies? I mentioned on Facebook a while back that women should take the time they need to try to find a truly healthy love relationship, but that if they don’t find a great partner by their mid-30′s, they should just have a baby alone.

KLEIN: I really hope that in the future egg-freezing becomes standard procedure, and then everyone can make better choices.

In a way, I am jealous of you that you were so certain you wanted to be a mother and you knew that so young. I didn’t. I wasn’t born with the “maternal gene” and had to come to it a long way after. I went into therapy at 35 (late!) to figure out if I wanted to have children or if I didn’t (either would be okay). The one thing I didn’t want to do was wake up at 44 and say, “I was just afraid, I wish I would have done it.”

If I could do it all over again, I’d have partied in my 20s, realizing I wasn’t interested in settling down, so to stop pretending. I would have dated and figured out what kind of guy I’d want to settle down with. I’d start dating seriously at the end of my 20s, early 30s, have kids by 35. Ha ha, can anyone really plan their life like that?

I honestly think it’s all okay: marrying young, not marrying, having children later, not having children at all. It’s so hard to remember that each one of us was put on this planet to live out our own particular journeys, and there’s no one way to get there!

Follow Amy Klein’s story on Motherlode, the parenting blog of The New York Times. Her fertility diary is updated every Tuesday.

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