Last month, Jean Twenge wrote an article for the Atlantic — titled “How long can you wait to have a baby?” — that addressed the notion of declining fertility over the course of a woman’s 30s and how statistics have been exaggerated to a certain degree.
The article resonated with me for many reasons and appealed to me on various levels. First, she called out mainstream media for sloppy reporting and interpretation of scientific research, which everyone should do. Second, she addressed the baby panic incited by people like Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose book “Creating a Life” basically tells young women to have their babies as soon as possible — no later than 27 — lest they find themselves old(er) and childless.
I look back at 27-year-old me and just cringe at the thought of me becoming a mother because a book panicked me into it. After sifting through the statistics cited by the panic-inducers and statistics she researched on her own, Twenge pointed out that “fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child.”
But the article also resonated with me because of my own feelings about motherhood and issues with fertility, which made me focus on the manner in which women seem to be flooded with the idea that they should hurry to have their babies and how that notion assumes women will eventually definitively want one. That intense pressure placed on women by society — everyone from family members like Grandma at one’s wedding to gynecologists to the mainstream media — that they must have at least one baby led me to question how many of those women want a baby because they are told they do.
It’s a complicated question that has no answer, of course, but one with which I wrestled with for many years nevertheless. I was my mom’s “miracle” (her word, my word is something very different). She tried for more than a year to get pregnant with me, and it was not the easiest pregnancy or delivery. One of her two sisters tried for a decade before finally getting pregnant with her son, who was born with a cleft lip and required several corrective surgeries (he’s OK now, and quite a handsome young man, if I do say so myself). Her other sister had three children, no problem.
So when I had that first talk with my OB-GYN, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that it would be very difficult for me to become someone’s biological mom. Because I was never the most maternal person, and I truly never had that innate desire to have a baby that some (arguably many) have, I can’t say I was devastated — though I was still young enough that I did feel bad for my parents, who were already “hinting” (read: when are you giving us a grandchild?) at wanting to become grandparents.
Where once my mom may have been frustrated by the way I’d bolt from the room when someone with a new baby tried to get me to hold it (or change its diaper or babysit because “you better start practicing now, sweetheart”), she now sees it as a stroke of luck. And I suppose I do as well. Reading Twenge’s article, reading about that woman whose grandmother reminded her on her wedding day that time was ticking and she should have a baby ASAP and the countless women who feel pressured into starting families well before they are ready because of that looming what-if, reminded me of one of the last conversations I had with my OB-GYN on the matter of being able to carry a baby to term.
I was in my early 30s. She said point-blank that if I didn’t get pregnant within the month my chances would drop to near zero within the year. I replied with a wisecrack, and went back to work, pretending that it didn’t really matter.
But then I considered my diminishing odds and wondered how this news would have affected me if I did want a child. I imagined myself as a woman who really wanted a baby having to wrap my head around that ultimatum — “If you don’t get pregnant now, that’s it for you” — and thought, “That’s a pretty crap thing to do to someone.” Never mind that I wasn’t in a good enough place in my life to try to have a baby. Never mind the medical ramifications of everything that might go wrong with and for me if I did manage to get and stay pregnant. And never was the other option worth exploring if one cannot have a baby but still wants to experience motherhood even broached (yes, I mean adoption).
I remember feeling quite angry after the fact, and thinking, perhaps too simplistically, that just as one shouldn’t do groceries when one feels hungry, one shouldn’t try to crowbar a baby into one’s life because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Because of my experience, I was most grateful that Twenge pointed out what should be obvious to everybody: “Most fertility problems are not the result of female age. Blocked tubes and endometriosis — a condition in which the cells lining the uterus also grow outside it — strike both younger and older women.”
To pressure someone who is already facing bad odds because of fertility issues that have nothing to do with age is just as bad as scaring someone who might be perfectly healthy and simply not ready to be a mom at age 27 into trying to get pregnant. Twenge tackles a highly sensitive subject both academically and with compassion: “[Women] shouldn’t let alarmist rhetoric push them to become parents before they’re ready.” Indeed. I’d humbly add that there isn’t anything wrong with you if you don’t become a parent at all.