The Aniston Syndrome

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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.

“I’ve had all this freedom to come this far in my career, and I’ve finally found myself, and as a result I found you,” I said.

“Now I have no control over my biology.”

“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 37, 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!”

“There’s always the feeling that there is someone better a click away,” a 39-year-old single friend said to me on the phone recently. “The ambition in my career has spread into all aspects of my life and now I feel angry and resentful about this. Even though I built my career, this attitude hasn’t worked for my dating life and I feel like I’ve wasted my procreative years.”

At an education seminar on egg freezing held in New York by the company Extend Fertility, I talked to Jane O’Reilly, a 36-year old MBA with black curly hair and a wide, toothy smile, and Allison Barney, a tall blond in a flowing yellow skirt who looked more like she should be meditating on an Ashram in Nepal than running a Hedge fund. O’Reilly said she spent most of her twenties bouncing from city to city, trying to find her place and build her career. After business school in Chicago, she moved to Paris and then to London to work for different finance companies. She had boyfriends along the way, but none with whom she wanted to settle down.

“I came close a couple of times,” she admitted. “I just haven’t found the person I love enough to commit to for my life, and now that I’m finally emotionally and financially ready to make a commitment to a family, there is a chance that my body won’t cooperate.” “Yeah, but what happens if you do get married earlier, and then get divorced,” Barney broke in. “That’s what happened to me.” She explained that when she was thirty-one, she spent nine months in couples counseling with her boyfriend of three years trying to decide whether they should get married or not. They both worked long hours in time consuming, competitive jobs and found themselves struggling with the issue of whether there was room for both of them in the relationship. They finally decided to take the plunge-even though they hadn’t worked out a lot of their problems.

“One year and one week after the wedding, he walked out,” she continued. “He decided that he didn’t want to be married. Now when I look back, four years was too many to be together without getting a commitment from him. After one or two months of our engagement, I should have cut [the] cord.”

I felt like a massive failure because I was losing the procreation race.She paused. “You know,” she said, “I sometimes wonder whether I got into a bad marriage because my clock was ticking. My parents said maybe I wanted to get married because my clock was ticking. They said that maybe I wanted to get married because everyone else was, and maybe I wanted to have babies for the same reason.”

The right answer is not simple and the facts contradict each other. On the one hand, a natural pregnancy becomes harder to achieve in our mid-to-late thirties, and on the other hand, a marriage has better odds of being a good, happy one when we’re older. The latest CDC data shows that the “higher age of marriage is associated with lower probability of marriage disruption,” which might mean that surfing until you find Mr. Right- even if it’s at 35 or 40, and even it’s a second marriage- might bode better for long-term commitment and a more stable family life.

The obvious problem with this is that women who get married in the later 30s and also want to have children, face a lot more physical risk- and potentially painful consequences- around conception. A study published in January by researchers at the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University tracked 325 women and found that the average woman is born with around 300,000 eggs. That number declines to 36,000 by the time she is 30, and 9000 by the time she is 40. The researchers concluded that this loss was greater than they had previously thought. And because the quality of the eggs also decline after the age of 30, there’s not just a higher chance for problems getting pregnant, but there is more of a risk for genetic anomalies and miscarriages. A miscarriage is nature’s way of telling us that the embryo was not genetically healthy. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that while a thirty-year-old woman has a one in 385 chance of having a baby with a chromosomal disorder, that chance rises to one in 192 by the time she is thirty-five. By the time she reaches forty, she has a one in 66 chance. Recent findings also show that there is an increased risk for autism in the children born to men and women in their 40s.

Not every woman’s fertility falls off a cliff at 30, or even 35 to forty, however, and this can be seen by the increasing rather than decreasing number of women who are getting pregnant over the age of 35 and 40. In the United States alone, the number of women becoming pregnant between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four has nearly doubled since 1980. Of course much of this increase is a result of the dramatic increase in the number of older women trying to get pregnant, as advances in reproductive technology, non-invasive genetic screening, and diagnostic pregnancy tests have made it easier to navigate conception and pregnancy when we’re older.

But the problem is that after 35, the odds dramatically differ among women- some women are very lucky and get pregnant; others run into fertility problems. A 2004 study published in the journal of Human Reproduction found that 75 percent of women who start to conceive naturally at thirty will succeed in a year. At age thirty-five, about 66 percent will conceive in a year -44 percent at age 40. As Liza Mundy writes in her 2005 book, Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World, “After thirty-five, women enter a period of extreme variability. A woman may remain fertile for ten years or she may undergo a precipitous drop in her ability to conceive; her childbearing may be over. As a rough gauge, doctors assume that infertility usually sets in ten years before menopause, which begins, on average, at age 51.”

Sarah Arthur, a 39-year-old real estate developer from Seattle who now lives in Manhattan’s West Village has been trying to get pregnant on her own for two years now. She’s had thirteen inseminations and her third IVF cycle just failed, but she is not giving up and says she doesn’t regret the choices she has made.

“When I was 28 and lived in Seattle I had opportunities to get married because there was nothing else to do and that’s what everyone did,” she says. “I had boyfriends back to back until I was 30 and moved to New York. It’s a dream to live in New York and see art every day and have the career I have and my apartment. I have a magical life. I would not take those choices back. I’m sure I would have had an easier time getting pregnant ten years ago, but I would not have been ready to do this when I was 30. I had no idea who I was.” As as a result of those choices, however, Arthur is trying to get pregnant on her own, which now involves invasive fertility procedures that she says become “harder physically, emotionally, and spiritually the more time that goes by and the more invasive the procedure becomes.” It’s more proof that our bodies were made to have children when we’re in our 20s or younger, and the older we get, despite the new choices, the path to parenthood becomes much more treacherous and painful. After all, how many 20-year-olds do you know who have suffered multiple miscarriages, gone through 12 IVF cycles or ended up spending $50K or more on donor eggs or a surrogate? Because so many women in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s have run into problems around dating, marriage and conception, we are beginning to question our feminist progress and question where we went wrong. In her new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, journalist Lori Gottleib, who chose to become a single mother at the age of 38, argues that modern women have just become too picky about relationships. In the words of one psychologist she spoke with, we have “developed a heightened sense of entitlement that previous generations didn’t have.”

“I think we have this me-centered ethos and often think about what’s going to make us happy in the millisecond as opposed to the long run,” she says. “I think women need to start focusing on the long run when they’re younger as opposed to 40.” I asked Allison Warner, the advertising executive, if she regrets not settling for someone when she was younger.

“I don’t think there was someone I should have married,” she says. “I look back and understand that all these relationships ended for a valid reason, but I do regret some of the choices I made. I wasted a lot of time in relationships in which I was treated badly and that I tried to make work because I wanted to be in a relationship. If I could talk to my 20-year-old self, I would say don’t be so stupid and ignore problems.”

Allison admitted her biggest regret is not that she didn’t start earlier, but that she didn’t freeze her eggs.When I was 25, I was in a serious relationship with a man that I thought I would marry. Andrew had angelic blond curls. I was living in San Francisco at the time working for a publishing company. I really loved him, but I didn’t think of him as “The One” because at that stage I didn’t think about “The One.” I was living for the moment and our lives fell together as part of the flow. After we dated for a little over a year, we moved in together. I was starting graduate school at UC Berkeley, and living together seemed right and fun. It also made financial sense since at the time I was paying to go to school rather then being paid to work. Pretty soon Andrew and I were buying furniture together, alternating grocery shopping, and throwing holiday dinner parties.

But in graduate school, I started to discover a different, more serious side to myself, and I started to focus on my dream of becoming a writer. Suddenly our partnership didn’t feel like the priority and I began questioning being so settled in a relationship when I still felt so unformed in other ways. I didn’t want to make compromises. After we broke up, I didn’t think for a second about my fertility or the fact that I might be losing the chance to have a family. I now look back and sometimes wish that I didn’t think this way. I wonder why I didn’t commit to growing up together, compromising, even fighting to make it work for both of us, which would have been a good foundation for a balanced family life and career.

I’m adamantly against the concept of settling for the wrong relationship just because you’re afraid you’ll miss a chance. And at this point, I’ve seen too many marriages break-up because women felt like they had to get married and have kids on schedule or because of peer pressure, and then wake up at 40 depressed and lost, leave their husbands and break-up their families. But because of the painful pressures that I’ve seen my peers experience around dating, marrying and conceiving older, I am leaning toward believing that women who are in their 20s and early 30s should consider an attitude adjustment.

I think it’s important to think about the long run and your fertility in your twenties more than I and many of my peers did. My version of feminism taught me that I had to be in perfect control and have all my ducks in a row – the perfect relationship, the perfect career, enough financial power – before I was ready to become a mother, and I now see that control and perfectionism hurt me and wasted a lot of my procreative power. If I could go back ten years, I might tell my younger self that there is never a perfect time to have a baby in terms of your life circumstances and not everything has to be perfect. And rather than just living for the moment, I would tell her to deeply consider her future family and how she might want it to look- keeping in mind that it does get harder and harder to get pregnant as you get older. This is different than settling for the less than perfect guy, but I do think that by better balancing your priorities, younger women may choose different kinds of relationships with men.

Allison Warner admitted to me that her biggest regret is not that she didn’t start earlier, but that she didn’t freeze her eggs. “It’s a pain to work through so many years of finding what you want and being insecure, and then when you finally get into a good place, it’s too late to have your family in a pressure free way,” she says. “I wish I had some eggs on ice as an insurance.” I would agree that this is a vital new procreative tool that could be as important for the next generation as the birth control pill was for the last one. But I also think it’s important for women to face their fertility early and often. We’re used to being in control of our lives, professionally and financially. The fact that we do not have control over the duration of our fertility is incredibly frightening, something many of us would like to ignore. But I have learned that it’s ultimately more liberating to understand your body’s potential, and maybe even decide to use it when it’s at its peak for procreation, than it is to ignore it and only define your power in terms of individual freedom and career.

I now believe that there is a better balance to be achieved in understanding our options even if it ultimately means waiting until you’re older. Instead of living your life on one track, live it on two. It’s not easy, but today there is much more information available in order to be conscious about fertility. There are websites, books, and tests that let us manage our fertility much like we manage our careers. Ultimately, the timing of motherhood is an intensely individual decision. Every woman will come up with different answers. I still haven’t had a child, and yes, part of me feels like a failure because of that. At the end of In Her Own Sweet Time, I wrote that I was going to choose single motherhood by the time I turned 40, but after months of consideration, I cannot bring myself to do it alone without a partner and father. I know very clearly now that I want a good, intimate relationship to be the foundation of my family. I’ve recently dialed back my high-strung Manhattan life and moved back to San Francisco to find more balance. I’m dating and happy, and I hope to be one of those lucky ones who can successfully conceive older. If not, I hope my frozen eggs will be a good back up. What I can say about where I’ve ended up is that I definitely do not regret choosing the wrong person out of desperation, peer pressure, or because I was too young. I’m feeling closer than ever to the right relationship that could lead to motherhood in some way and I think I may have only gotten to this place on the route that I have taken.

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