June 15, 2009 -- Rachel Lehmann-Haupt was enjoying a good life. At 31, she had a boyfriend, a fulfilling career, and the prospect of marriage and children. When her relationship ended a year later, she was close to 35, facing the dividing line between a regular and a "high-risk" pregnancy.
So she traveled the world to consider her options for having children: egg freezing, single motherhood, and instant families. In "In Her Own Sweet Time," learn about one woman's effort to have it all: a career, a family, and the perfect mate.
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Introduction: Starting Later
We are sitting on the giant root of an oak tree at The Cloisters, a medieval park filled with lush formal gardens on the northern tip of Manhattan. It's late summer. The light bounces off the Hudson River and flickers in the leaves. He looks nervous. I'm shaky too. We've been together almost a year, and I'm wondering whether he might be getting ready to give me a ring.
Instead, he looks away from me. Silence. Then he turns back, and in an awkward tone, he says that he doesn't feel the kind of "intangible connection" he needs to get married and start a family with me. Instead of starting our life together, he is ending it.
My stomach lurches. I ask him if we can go sit somewhere else, as though moving might make this feeling go away, push back what was about to happen.
No. He wants to break up. And with those words, everything that I have imagined about our future abruptly blurs: walking on my father's arm down the aisle dressed in a white hourglass dress; living in the downtown loft with the sky-light office where I would write; being in my parent's suburban backyard, where our baby would splash in a plastic pool at a Sunday barbecue.
"I'm sorry I wasted your time," he says.
And with that, it's over.
Alex and I met at a rooftop party in Greenwich Village in the summer of 2000. I was thirty-one, and more intensely focused on my career than on my romantic life. I was dating a lot, but I was more interested in meeting up with groups of friends for after-work drinks and lingering over dinners at the latest hot spots than I was in nesting at home with one man or starting a family. Getting serious in a relationship that would lead to marriage was in the back of my mind, but I was in no rush.
Alex came to the party on a date with another woman. I was charmed by his shyness; his big, wistful blue eyes, the way he quietly lingered on the sidelines of the gathering. At the bar, a mutual friend introduced us, and after a few minutes of small talk he complimented my social ease and made a self- deprecating comment about his lack of it.
I responded to this subtle flirtation by offering to do the talking for him; then we exchanged cards. A few weeks later I decided to take the chance and email him. I told him I wanted to write a story about his company as an excuse to get together and find out if he was still with his date from the party or if he was available. He responded a few days later by inviting me to a party at his apartment, but by then I had gone out of town on assignment. When I got back, I returned his email asking him to get together for drinks. He thought my late response was charming.
We met at a bar on Bedford street with a red glow. Young business guys swooned at the bar in knock-off Ferragamo ties. Alex pointed to this detail and sardonically mocked the faux romance. I immediately liked his astute observations, A few glasses of wine turned the mood of reserved professionalism towards giddy laughter. And then standing on the street corner he kissed me - a kiss so charged that when we parted I had walked four blocks before I realized I was heading in the opposite direction of my apartment.
The relationship got serious quickly.
At the time, some of my friends were starting to settle down; a few were even having their first child. These were the friends who started giving me those raised eyebrow looks that said: "When are you going to start?" My grandmother, especially wanted to know when she was going to be able to give me her diamond ring, the one given to her by my grandfather when she was only twenty-three, the one intended to be my engagement ring.
So I told myself that it was time. Time to give myself over to the inelectable pull of domesticity, time to join my peers in the next phase of life, time to settle on someone and commit and build a life together. But even more than that, it was time to do something about that subtle timeless urge buried somewhere in the connective tissue between my heart, brain and my gut. With a start, I now understood: I wanted to become a mother. I, too, wanted to rub my cheek along the top of a baby's fuzzy sweet smelling head, to hold a helpless child close, to whisper I "I love you."
I told Alex I loved him after only a month. He said he loved me too. I started getting excited about the future; almost immediately, I began to romanticize our wedding, our baby, our life as a family. Everything about him seemed right, like I was making a responsible--and yes, I'll admit it--socially acceptable choice. He was well-educated, ambitious, and tall. He had a wonderful self- deprecating sense of humor: once had sent out a bachelor holiday e-card greeting with a picture of a wanting dread locked Caribbean siren on her knees covered in sand on the beach. But where her face should have been, he had photo-shopped a picture of his own.
My friend and parents liked him. And I'll go even farther: I liked the attention that I got because I was "in love." One day at a cocktail party, a family friend put her hand on my shoulder and said: "If he makes you laugh then you should marry him." He did make me laugh, so he became the one with whom I decided I would begin the next phase. It was the route my parents had taken, and the one I thought I had to take as well to become a real adult.
The only problem was that Alex and I weren't really in love. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was much more in love with the shiny fantasy of our future than the man himself: the way he made me feel every day. The more I got to know him, the more I realized that the differences in the way we interacted with the world were not complimentary. His once-charming social anxiety began to block us from a certain level of intimacy that I needed to feel really loved and be able to commit to our relationship.
In retrospect, I wasn't ready to commit to building a life with anyone because I had not yet discovered the type of intimate connection I needed for such an important and sustaining relationship. I still had more growing to do on my own to understand what this connection might feel like. While I knew that this relationship was not the right one for me, I didn't end it because I was afraid. I thought that if I let go and had to start all over again, I might fall behind. I worried I might never catch.
Still, that day at the Cloisters, tears streamed down my face because it was he who had made the first move to break up; he who had shattered my fantasy of who people were telling me I should be, and therefore who I believed I should be: a married woman on the path to becoming a mother.
After the break-up, I felt like I was caught in a whirlpool at the edge of a rushing social current. I was confused, spinning in circles, and surrounded by new questions: what kind of relationship was right if this one was wrong? If I just invested one year in a nowhere relationship, then how much time would I need to invest in a relationship that actually went somewhere? I had known all my life that I wanted to be a mother, but it wasn't until the break-up with Alex that I felt biology toe-tapping her toes. Her patience was not inexhaustible.
The same year Alex and I broke up, a book burst onto the scene that caused young women all over the country to panic. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the liberal Center for Work-Life Policy, published Creating A Life: Professional Women and The Quest for Children. In her polemic about the problems women face in balancing career and family, Ms. Hewlett, a baby boomer, told scary stories about the pioneering feminist women of her own generation who had struggled with conception and infertility because they waited until later in their lives to have children. She wanted to warn the next generation against making the same mistakes. "All of this new status and power has not translated into better choices on the family front," she wrote. "Indeed, when it comes to having children their options seem to be a good deal worse than before. Women can be playwrights, presidential candidates and CEOs, but increasingly they cannot be mothers."
Hewlett argued that women simply had to start earlier. Women should be hunting for husbands in our 20s and having children earlier – long before the age of thirty-five, the dividing line between a regular pregnancy and "high risk" pregnancy. Otherwise, they were likely to end up without a family of their own. Creating A Life provoked a media circus. Stories soon appeared in magazines and newspapers about "the new baby panic" that was infecting single women in their mid to late thirties. Hewlett recited her findings wherever she could -- on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, and in a big spread in Time magazine – constantly reinforcing the message that women were waiting too long to have babies.
Although it was not Hewlett's intention in writing the book, the publicity that ensueded from it was the beginning of a backlash against the achievements of feminism. Women, of course, were creating this problem all on their own. The Time story, for instance, cited an iVillage survey of more than 12,500 women, who answered 15 questions about fertility. Only 13 percent knew their fertility began to drop at age 27; 39 percent thought their reproductive capacity was unchanged until 40; only one woman got all 15 questions right. The message was clear: Women had gotten themselves into this situation through their own ignorance. No mention was made, of course, of the wide array of socioeconomic factors that contributed to this trend – including the cost of childcare, or even the decline in the standard of living in America that had made it impossible for a single income to support the majority of households in America. No, the sisters were doing it to themselves.
The media juggernaut was unstoppable. Those hot independent career women immortalized in Sex and the City? They better trade in their Manolos and get real if they ever wanted to become mothers. A lot of women bought into the panic, and blamed themselves for their own irresponsibility. In a May, 2002, article in New York magazine, journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote: "These days the independence that seems so fabulous – at least to those of us who tend to use that word a lot – doesn't anymore."
"Baby Panic" became the new media mantra of 2001 —not unlike the phrase "Marriage Crunch," which had taken America by storm in a similar moment of cultural backlash. In 1987, Newsweek ran an article claiming that a woman who reached forty without a wedding ring was more likely to be struck by terrorists as she was to get married. We now know that this statistic could not be further from the truth: In September, 2007 Newsweek retracted the original story, revealing that in fact a 40-year-old woman today has a better than 40 percent chance of marrying. One can't help but wonder how many women had suffered from anxiety as a result of that article in the intervening twenty-years – or even made bad choices to stave off their punatively inevitable spinsterhood.
In 2001, Hewlett's book hit me like a punch in my unpregnant gut. Her argument hit exactly on the facts of my own situation and intensified my anxiety about my romantic and biological clocks. I was even questioning where I might have gone wrong in my choices. Suddenly I felt bad about all my career ambition and the emotional and financial independence that I had achieved. It was as if I should start listening to another, older, cultural message; a learned desperation because I was not in the proper, socially sanctioned place a woman of my age should be.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett did, after all, have some real facts on her side: it is true that as a woman ages, her egg quality does decline and pregnancy becomes both riskier and harder to achieve. Older eggs do have a higher chance of contributing to genetic abnormalities and early miscarriages. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that while a thirty year-old woman has a 1 in 385 chance of having a baby with a chromosomal abnormality, that chance has risen to 1 in 192 by the time she is 35. By the time she reaches forty, she has a one in 66 chance. It is also true that women have a harder time getting pregnant as they get older. A 2004 study published in the journal Human Reproduction, finds that 75 percent of women who start trying to conceive naturally at age thirty will succeed in a year. At age thirty-five, about 66 percent will conceive in a year, and 44 percent at age 40.
But Hewlett also missed some really important facts. Medically speaking, the dangers of a having a child after age thirty –five have become significantly reduced by developments such as non-invasive genetic screening and diagnostic pregnancy tests. And while Hewlett's statistics of the likelihood of getting pregnant at various life stages are correct, they are only statistics. In fact, every woman had her own distinct biology, and the variations between women are massive. . In her 2005 book Everything Conceivable: How Reproductive Technology is Changing Men, Women and The World, Washington Post Journalist Liza Mundy eloquently describes the reality of this blurring line: "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 fifty-one."
Hewlett left out another important point as well: an increasing amount of evidence shows that aging affects men's biological clocks as well. Today men make up more than half of the cases of infertility. Sperm does not decline in quality in such a drastic way as eggs, but scientific evidence does point to the fact that sperm does age. In a 2006 study of the Isreali military database of men, researchers studied men to determine whether there was a correlation between paternal age and the incidence of autism and related disorders. They found that children of men who became a father at 40 or older were 5.75 times as likely to have autism disorder as those whose fathers younger than 30. So it is quite likely that as the age of marriage and child bearing rises both for men and women across America, poor sperm quality rather than poor egg quality will often be the culprit causing problems for many couples. But where are all the cover stories on that?
Hewlett's book, and the media onslaught that followed it, seem to have reflected a nostalgia for an earlier, simpler age, when men were men and women stayed home to take care of their children. And once upon a time, that division of labor made sense. In the agricultural age, women conceived younger and many more children because children were economic assets as workers on the farm. In the post-industrial age, children are emotional assets but economic liabilities, costing both a middle class husband and wife and a single parent over $10,000 a year. More often than not, the male head of household cannot support that family on his own. Women need to build their careers in order to become their own economic assets and to support their families. (Many women, of course, have also found that they really like working.) Women have therefore put earning power before procreative power. We are getting married and having children after we get our master's degrees and the corner office.
The age of first-time motherhood - and fatherhood – is rising all over the developing world, especially in urban centers among the middle and upper middle class. Just in America, the number the number of women becoming pregnant between the ages of 35 and 44 has nearly doubled in the US since 1980. In 2003, the number of women over 40 who gave birth in a single year topped 100,000 for the first time.
The shape of human life has changed dramatically in the last 100 years throughout the industrialized world. It's not just that women are waiting longer to have children. People are also living much longer -- nearly twice as long they were as 100 years ago. The various stages of our lives – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond –are all extending, and sometimes we're shifting the sequence as well. Technology and feminism have made it possible for women to make choices they couldn't have made even a generation ago. Many women are getting pregnant before they get engaged or walk down the aisle. Some women are even having children as "Single Mothers By Choice" before finding husbands, or freezing their own eggs to donate to themselves further down the road. Amidst the flurry of stories about "Baby Panic," I read an article about a 58-year-old British woman who had given birth to twins conceived from donated embryos!
The effect of Hewlett's book, and the "baby panic" furor that followed, was to make women feel women more constrained by biology at a time when they should be feeling less constrained than ever. Women have a range of choices unprecedented in human history.
Intellectually, I knew this. But emotionally, I was just as panicked as everyone else.I am now thirty-eight years old and I'm still hoping to start a family of my own. I didn't arrive here by accident. I'm here because of choices – both good and bad – that I have made along the way. When I entered college in 1988, my mom said: "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 stability and convention, I spent my twenties exploring my eclectic interests, and the more bohemian aspects of my personality. I spent a semester of college in Nepal studying a culture as different from my own as I could imagine. I climbed peaks in the Himalayas by myself. After graduation, I traveled and danced into the sultry night on offbeat islands in Thailand. I moved across the country to San Francisco, went to graduate school. And through it all, I surfed through different relationships with men.There are some unforgettable romantic experiences – the sexy hazel-eyed water polo player who taught me to play bar shuffle board and once rode me around the island of Menorca on the back of a little red scooter; the geeky magazine editor who was obsessed with retro airplane memorabilia and with whom I once drove all night to see camels race across the Nevada desert There was the guy who drank red wine through a straw on our first date because he said he didn't want it to stain his teeth, and the quirky Mormon artist who was hand drawing the Grand Canal of Venice on a scroll. There was the one who taught me that even if a man says he is going to call, he might not, and the one who took me out twice before deciding to tell me that he was already living with someone. Each move, each professional adventure, and each relationship revealed a little more of what I wanted out of my life; each choice led to new choices.
I followed my instincts and lived for the moment. Sexual liberation was well-embedded in my social DNA. I took it as a given that birth control gave me freedom, and I believed that this freedom would in turn enable me to further refine my passions and interests to choose a career that would give me financial control over my life. From there, I could find a partner who would share my interests and ambitions.
At that age I didn't really think about my potential choices for how and when I might become a mother; motherhood was something that I just assumed would happen some time down the road. I wasn't yet searching for my future family; I spent those years studiously trying to avoid getting pregnant.
It was only in the year after my break-up at the Cloisters that I began to make it a top priority to find the father of my imagined children. As I started out my new life alone, I began to see all of the new choices and the dilemmas and contradictions created by the newfound freedom to start later. I realized that in this new world there are few social rules and little regulation binding our decisions about who to date and when and if to marry, when to start trying to get pregnant, the new array of choices in Advanced Reproductive Technology, forming alternative families with sperm or eggs donors, choosing single motherhood, or adopting.
Because this world is so new, however, there is no roadmap. Sylvia Ann Hewlett and plenty of others have given advice – often contradictory -- based on the experiences of their own generation, but that wasn't what I needed. I wanted advice from someone within my generation who was going through everything I was, and am, going through myself. And since, ultimately, I couldn't find that book anywhere on the shelf, so I decided to set to work using turn the tools of my trade as an investigative journalist to investigate my own options as a single woman at the edge of her fertility. I hope that in doing so, I can help other women think more clearly about their own options, as well.
I began my research very simply – by talking to other women and men. Some my age, some younger, some older. I wanted to hear directly from other people about their experiences of becoming mothers and fathers at different life stages and through unconventional routes. I sought out stories, though not the stories of Hollywood celebrities and other famous women like Elizabeth Edwards, who became a mother of twins at fifty-one. The problem with these stories, I've found, is that most of these women did not use their own eggs – a fact that is rarely played up in psycophantic stories in People magazine. I wasn't as interested in the glossy magazine versions so much as the stories of regular women who were willing to share with me their most personal details of how they got to motherhood through alternative means.
It's not only single women who struggle with these issues. I've interviewed married women who are also uncertain about their careers, even their spouses, but certain their future must include the experience of parenting. They too have wondered how they are going to start a family. They've asked similar questions. How much time do I really have? Can I freeze my eggs? Should I test my fertility? Will motherhood make me happy?
In the course of my investigation, I have explored the most innovative and up-to-date technologies available for women on the edge of their fertility. I've met and interviewed the leading business people, inventors, doctors, and psychological experts in the field of fertility science. I've learned about a wide array of present possibilities, and have also seen a glimpse into a not so far off future. This future may include technologies that allow older women's DNA to be implanted into the working eggs of younger women, the possibility of restocking a woman's egg supply using bone marrow stem cells, or the creation of babies without sperm.
Advanced Reproductive Technology is contributing to these new choices, but just because we have this technology, does that mean we should depend on it? Of course, there is an entire group of women and couples who are facing infertility – not because of their age or because they waited -– who don't view the use of this technology as a choice, but as a last resort and only chance for a biological child. But still, it's important to examine whether the commercialization of reproductive technology is making the act of becoming a parent too much like shopping for a pair of designer shoes? Is it creating a culture of perfectionism in which our ambitions to have it all have become unrealistic projections to create perfect children? How much risk can we take? And how much emotional and physical stress should our bodies go through in order to get pregnant? How old is too old?
At the heart of all these questions lies an even deeper one: when motherhood is no longer a requirement for women, why do we choose to have children? Even when we don't necessarily wait to have children for economic reasons , or because we haven't found the right match, some of us are spending a lot of time actually struggling with the question of whether we want a child to be part of our lives?
During this time, I have also continued on my own personala quest to create to the kind of family that's right for me. At times, it has been excruciatingly lonely. At others, downright scary. But sometimes it has also felt absolutely exhilarating. As I began to learn about the new possibilities available, instead of feeling like my life has become more limited as I've gotten older, it feels more expansive.
In the course of my research, I've talked to American women as far afield as Des Moines, Iowa and suburban Texas. And I've talked to women further away still, in places like , India and Italy. This broad perspective has allowed me to see the myriad values women bring to bear as they confront the same challenge of planning their futures and their families. Each story has been like looking into a kaleidoscope and seeing fragments of my own life. My perspective changes at each turn of the dial, with each person's story. The people I have met have moved and instructed me, and helped me explore the most difficult terrain I've encountered in the course of writing this book: my own emotions.
I have encountered values radically different from my own and learned from them. At other times I have experienced intense identification. I have discovered that some women think about family in fundamentally different ways. Some ssee it through the lens of biology and genetics, while others see it through the lens of socially constructed patterns and taboos.
By connecting all these experiences, I have been able to clarifyclarify my own values. As I've worked towards figuring out my own life, I've tried on all sorts of potential scenarios for size. Single motherhood, co-parenting with a friend, adoption – and yes, even, settling for something less than perfect love.. I hope my experiences and my research will project a light for others into how some of these different choices look and feel. But I can offer no general solutions to the dilemmas women face in this challenging new world of ours, because the answers I've found are specific to me, based on my own values and experiences. Other women will come up with different answers. The only thing I can say definitively is that women who want children – or are even on the fence about it – should take the time to think about these issues early on. As women of the post-boomer generation we are used to being in control of our lives, professionally and financially. The fact that we do not have control over our fertility makes it incredibly frightening, something many of us would like to ignore for as long as impossible. But I have learned that no matter how scary the information may be at the time, it's ultimately been incredibly liberating to understand my own body's reproductive possibilities – as well as the impossibilities. We have more options than ever; understanding them can empower us and, perhaps most importantly, turn panic into peace.
From the book "In Her Own Sweet Time," by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books (www.basicbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.