A few months before my 37th birthday, I told the man that I was in love with that I hoped we could decide whether or not marriage and children were in our future after we had been together for a year. When our year anniversary arrived, we had one of the most difficult conversations of my life.
“I love you, but I’m not sure I can spend the rest of my life with you,” he told me one cold January evening, sitting on the couch in his new apartment. Those words pushed me to tears through which I admitted my intense desire to have a child, something I’ve always wanted under the right circumstances, and my worries about my waning fertility.
Source: Management of the Infertile Woman by Helen A. Carcio and The Fertility Sourcebook by M. Sara Rosenthal
“It’s nature’s cruel joke on women,” he responded.
I cried harder. He told me I was “desperate” and “hysterical,” and I wasn’t “letting our relationship take its organic course.” I argued that at our age, making an active decision was the organic course. But he could not commit to me so a few weeks later, I gave him back the keys to his apartment, told him that I had to move on, and that he could call me if he changed his mind. He never did.
I decided to get proactive and level the playing field by freezing my eggs a few months later. The choice, I figured, would take the pressure off my biological clock and buy me some time to find a better love with whom I might start a family. Even though the technology is still considered experimental by The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the idea of it made good sense. I also began seriously considering single motherhood by forming a group of other women who were also thinking about the choice. Yet even with these so-called empowered steps, and even though I was ultimately saved from a man who called me desperate, and sometimes crazy, who was a selfish lover and who blamed me for all our conflict, I still felt like this break-up was a biological tragedy. Because I was thirty-seven, I felt like a massive failure because I had not yet married, and like I was losing the procreation race because I had not yet had a child. I wondered whether somewhere along the way I had taken a wrong turn and mistimed motherhood.
In my memoir, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009), I write about the reasons that so many women in my generation have started their families later, often over the age of 35 when fertility is in decline. It is the result of a combination of increased economic power, later marriage, the two-income family, the high cost of childcare, longevity, and a culture that rewards female independence, individualism and a strong career identity. I also explain that advanced reproductive technology, feminism, and looser social norms have made it possible for women – and men – to make choices they couldn’t have made a generation ago. We can get pregnant before we get engaged or walk down the aisle. We can have children as ‘”single mothers by choice” through artificial insemination before finding husbands. We can buy donor eggs from younger women or freeze our own to donate to ourselves further down the road.
There is, however, a darker, extremely painful side to these new choices that isn’t talked about as much at cocktail parties or over lunches with girlfriends. You could call it “The Aniston Syndrome” – the grim reality that it’s possible to wait too long. Because we don’t want to sound anti-feminist, anti-career or all together un-empowered, instead we smile, and say, “Oh don’t worry, I have a friend who got pregnant at 42,” and avoid the talk of miscarriages, failed IVF cycles, and the pressures on our relationships. These are the more painful and economically stressful consequences of starting later.
We all know someone who is suffering from one of them. She is your Brown roommate from 1990 who convinced you to scrawl your rapist’s name on the bathroom wall, who is now feeling defeated and ashamed because she can’t get pregnant with her second child and it’s ruining her marriage. She is your beautiful and career-driven single friend who has traveled the world, and whose life you sometimes envy, who admits that the pressure of finding love at 40 when she wants to have a child is killing her dating life. She is now trying to get pregnant on her own and spends her evenings shopping on-line for sperm instead of dates. She is a 39-year old Harvard MBA who makes six figures, runs triathlons, and recently got married after spending years looking for Mr. Right. Now she has had two miscarriage and wonders why her body won’t cooperate. “I’m ok. I’m ok,” she says stoically over coffee. But then she looks down and questions it all more quietly. “I’ve worked so hard to find the right guy and it’s so good now that I’m older and I know who I am and what I want. I’m so ready to do the job of being a mother. Why won’t mother nature cooperate?”
It is these more secret stories of our urban sisters’ struggles that make me wonder whether the choice to wait really is the most empowered one. It is the fact that whenever I hear the news of a pregnancy at a party, I now ask, “Was it her own eggs or IVF?” as if natural sex is as old-fashioned as the question of whether it’s okay to want to have an orgasm. That advanced reproductive technology has become so common, and that the more silent pains of older women struggling with dating and conception are very real, I wonder whether we should really rely so much on advanced reproductive technology as a crutch? When I decided to get my eggs frozen, I flew to Italy to interview Dr Eleanora Porcu, the technology’s inventor. She told me that she believes that freezing your eggs to postpone childbearing with an experimental technology is harmful to feminism. “It means that we’re accepting a mentality of efficiency in which pregnancy and motherhood are marginalized,” she said. “We’ve demonstrated that we are able to do everything like men. Now we have to do the second revolution, which is not to become dependent on a technology that involves surgical intervention. We have to be free to be pregnant when we are fertile and young.”
If I could go back ten years, I might tell my younger self that she should deeply consider her future family.I’ve always argued that it’s better to have more choices, but when I hear these sadder stories, or suffer dark moments myself, I do wonder whether in fact my generation collectively screwed up. Did we in fact buy a false message from our feminist mothers, and focus too much control on ourselves and our bodies in terms of birth control and sexual freedom in our 20s and actually wait too long to have children? I’m not alone in asking these questions. My friend Allison Warner, a 37-year-old advertising executive who is trying to get pregnant with a sperm donor recently told me that she made that choice exactly because she didn’t want to wait any longer and lose the chance to have a biological child. She felt like she had her whole life to meet Mr. Right and only a finite amount of time to get pregnant. She has now gone through three inseminations and had one miscarriage. I spoke to her on the morning she got her period after her third insemination. “I’m devastated,” she says. “The whole miscarriage has really affected me, especially because I had an abortion when I was 30. It wasn’t the right time then for me to have a baby, but I now feel worse about giving up that pregnancy because I’m not getting pregnant now. This morning was the first time I cried because I really thought I was pregnant. Since I’m 37, the more time that goes by, the more I get worried that I’m running out of time.”
It’s exactly these kinds of choices that have caused so many women to run into problems with their fertility, but it also would not be fair to blame us. Choices and focusing on ourselves is the main cultural message that we’ve received, not the one that Dr. Porcu suggested to me in Italy. When I graduated from college my mother said to me: “Find your passion! Become yourself!” I had always interpreted that statement as an injunction to find and fine tune my personal interests and career rather than burdening myself too early with the kinds of compromises necessary to form an enduring relationship and a family. So instead of hunting for a husband, I spent my twenties exploring my eclectic interests and surfing through different kinds of relationships with men. Birth control and not getting pregnant was a strong part of my social DNA. Fertility consciousness and a strong consideration of the route to my future family was not. I very much lived for the moment, probably an inheritance of the “Me Generation” motto “If it feels good, do it!” And then came Internet dating, which I think bred a kind of pickiness that has lead me to believe that the “Me Generation” feel good motto has now morphed into a new motto for my generation: “If it doesn’t feel perfect, I’m outta here!”