Tick, Tick, Tick...
The latest buzz in the media these days surrounds recent studies - and a recent book - published about women's fertility. In spite of celebrity medical oddities like Kelly Preston or Beverly D'Angelo - who gave birth at 48 and 49 respectively - it seems that millions of older women are facing the sobering reality that they probably won't be able to have their own children. Celebrities are misleading, we're told, and for the vast majority of women who thought they could safely put off having children until their late thirties or early forties, reality is showing them that for women anyway, you really can't have it all.
Newer studies have revealed even more alarming figures. Women's fertility begins to decline in the mid to late twenties, apparently, and so does men's. Couples who blithely put off having kids until they had the four-bedroom house are now finding that there won't be any kids to fill up those bedrooms.
Feminists hate this information getting out because they claim it's a step backward and an attempt to scare women back into the maternity wards where they belong. Doctors and psychologists claim its important that women have this information so that they can at least make informed decisions in their lives and not end up shocked and disappointed when they try to conceive. But the one question that no one is answering is the one that keeps popping up - what does a woman do with this information?
What does a 38-year-old do, a woman who only met the man of her dreams last year and has been married less than six months? What if she's in her last year of medical school or has finally earned the promotion that will give her the dream job she's always wanted? Or what if she knows she would like children but she simply doesn't feel ready to have one right now? TV shows are full of such women, tears streaming down their faces, scared senseless that if they don't get pregnant tonight they'll end up childless - and not knowing what to do about it.
I can't tell anyone what choices to make in her life, but I think it's time someone put some thoughts out there.
First, if you aren't actively trying to get pregnant, if you are conscious of "putting off" starting a family then you're probably doing so for a reason. Whether it's a good reason or not - you don't have to be a millionaire to be a good parent - is up to you. Maybe you don't feel entirely "ready", maybe you're not sure about your partner, maybe your career is just too important to you right now. Whatever the case, if you are avoiding children right now, you should be aware of why, and seriously consider whether this reason can or should be dispensed with just because you saw some statistics on TV.
Maybe parenthood, for you, is like marriage for some people - something you do when you're more mature and have had more time to accept what kind of a challenge it will be. Maybe your thirties are still the exploration age for you, and you don't want to have children before you decide, for certain, what you want to do with your life. Maybe your teens and twenties were largely unhappy times for you and you've finally found a bit of fun and peace of mind with your partner, and want to be entirely selfish a little while longer. Maybe you're sensible enough to know that a child deserves a happy, fulfilled parent, not one who gave up a career or rushed into child rearing out of abject fear - and you're willing to wait until you are the kind of parent that a child of yours deserves.
And here's another possibility - maybe you just aren't meant to be a parent. I don't mean that in the sense that fate will deprive you of a baby, I simply mean that some people live happier, more fulfilled lives if they don't become parents. Some people have absorbing careers that complete them; others are so happy being a family of two that they don't want to bring more people into their relationship. Others have a simple, basic understanding that parenthood is not in their life plan, and won't be missed. The common belief seems to be that having children is the most important thing in life and that if we forgo the opportunity to have them we'll end up miserable in our old age - but many childless people will attest to the fact that this just isn't true. If you don't feel empty without children now, there's no reason to believe you'll feel empty later.
This is a thought I don't hear discussed or even mentioned because, I assume, most people don't want to risk the wrath of those who would "protest too much", but it's something I'm not afraid to say: it's reasonable to assume that a woman in her mid or late thirties who hasn't had a child yet never really wanted one badly enough in her younger years, or else she would have had one. It's a simplistic view of a complicated subject, but I mention it to call attention to the reality of it - if children had been a priority for you, you probably would have had one by now, or at least tried to. If the thought of having a child was entirely welcome and pleasant for you, then this new information would merely make you shrug and say "Okay, honey, I guess we'd better get started sooner rather than later" instead of provoking tears and worried expressions and protestations about career, ambition, choices. Either you're excited about having a child or you're not, and either way you can't fake it no matter what fertility experts or talk shows have to say about it.
What I find disturbing about this recent emphasis on the loss of fertility is the assumption that everyone wants to be fertile, or should want to be fertile, and that there's something wrong with you if the prospect of never having a child doesn't alarm you. There's nothing wrong with you if you don't want to have children; parenthood is simply one option among many and not choosing it doesn't preclude you from having a happy, satisfying life. If you're a woman in your thirties or early forties and you find yourself ambivalent about having a child, torn between the stability and happiness of your life and the possibility that children will increase your happiness, then consider what your real values in life are, not those dictated by talk shows. Be confident in your choice, whatever that choice is, and know that you're doing what's best for you.
For those women, though, who always did want to have children and now face the future with fear because of these reports, it's important to remember that no good decision ever came out of fear. No woman can be expected to make a sound decision about such a profound and life-changing experience as motherhood based solely on the panic she senses in other women. I would recommend that women do nothing until all this "fertility" doom and gloom dies down and the media picks up on something else. Let it be something that starts you thinking about it, perhaps, but don't flush your pills down the toilet just yet.
It's also important to fully understand this feeling you have regarding the desire for children and to be absolutely sure that when you say you want them, you really do want them, and for good reasons. Ask yourself, honestly - why do you want children? It seems like an obvious question but it's truly staggering - and appalling - how few women actually think about this. Ask yourself honestly why this is something you "feel" like doing. Is it because you're bored in your life? Is it because you're bored in your marriage or unhappy being alone with your partner so much? Or is it because it's "just something people do"? Is it because babies are so cute? Or is it because of all the attention you'll get as a pregnant woman and then new mother? If you want children for any of these reasons I can promise you, you don't really want kids. You want distraction, attention, diversion, you don't want a full-time responsibility for another human being's complete development, which is what having kids is about.
Having a child is a monumentally important decision, or rather it should be. It shouldn't be done lightly - like all those couples who entered a radio station contest to try to have the first baby of the year 2000. Your life and your child's life are too valuable to be decided on a whim - or a talk show. When you have a child you are committing to at least eighteen years of attentive care, concern, worry, financial challenges, joy, delight and the most intense and unique kind of love you'll ever experience. These things don't end at eighteen either, they stay with you for life. Your child will need your full attention, adequate resources, positive role models and thorough, focused education - not to mention a lot of time and the bulk of your concentration. Is this something you really want to rush into because you're afraid it might never happen? Or because your cousin just had a baby and you feel left out? Or because you can't think of anything else to do?
The only real motivation to have a child should be that you and your spouse are content in life, happy with your goals and achievements and especially, crucially, with each other, so much so that you want your love and happiness to spill over into another person. You should be confident enough in your adulthood that you have things to teach a child, and you should be mature enough to accept all the unexpected risks and joys that come with parenthood. You should be wise enough to accept whatever kind of person your child chooses to be, and not go into parenthood with a predetermined idea of his or her destiny, like the birth announcements in which parents announce their baby's birth as if he were the star draft pick for XYZ hockey team in 2029, an arrogant and futile projection of what they expect this new little life to be. You have to be willing to observe your child and guide him based on his aptitudes and thirst for knowledge, and support whatever passion he develops regardless of how much or little it suits your expectations. And above all, you have to have a life beyond parenthood, a career and a passion that not only makes your life worth living but which has the added benefit of giving your child an excellent example of what to strive for in life.
If you don't have these things, I can't stress enough that parenthood is not a good idea for you right now. If you don't achieve these things 'in time', if you do run out of time and find that by the time you find the right partner and the right career and the right situation you're not able to produce your own children, then so be it. Be thankful that you didn't rush into parenthood when you weren't ready or able to provide the necessities that your child is entitled to.
And finally, this is often the hardest point to get across - becoming a parent is by no means a guarantee for anyone, and never has been, and even if you do become one it doesn't mean the road will be easy. With the advent of in vitro fertilization and all sorts of other fertility aids we've come to believe, as a society, that any woman of any age can produce a perfect child through a pain-free birth and then go back to her regular life. I think "baby technology" is a wonderful testament to humanity's intelligence and perseverance but its downside is that it has clouded reality a little, and deprived us of some of the wisdom our grandmothers had. Wanting children doesn't mean you'll get them - wanting a boy and a girl doesn't mean you won't get five boys trying. Having children is never easy and everyone definitely takes a chance when they have one - a chance that all might not be well with this child or that life might not turn out at all as you expected when you planned your pregnancy.
"Barren" couples in history used to lament their childlessness but at least they understood it, and accepted it, and were all the more grateful if they did finally produce a child after years of trying. It's much easier to view your child as a blessing if you don't go into parenthood expecting, or even demanding, that you have a perfect family right on schedule - rare things, things that had to be longed for, are so much more appreciated than that which you feel is your due.
What I would encourage in every woman who knows she wants children but has been spooked by the revelation that her ovaries may be drying up as we speak is this: relax. Enjoy your life, enjoy your partner, try to conceive if you like but don't reduce your life to ovulation charts and fertility monitors and regularly scheduled intercourse to maximize the conception window. Remember, always, that you aren't an animal, the purpose of your life is not to simply reproduce. Remember that you are a fully realized human being who wants to experience all the wonders of life and that if you've been lucky enough to find love with someone you'd like to have a baby with, it's worth remembering this fact before you get too hysterical about not being able to conceive. Remember the person who inspires thoughts of motherhood in you, and don't ignore him or your love for each other in your panic about the biological clock. Accept the fact that if you get pregnant, you get pregnant and if you don't, you don't - and whatever happens, you will still experience joy and fulfillment and love in your life.