Fertility has “really been on my mind,” says Alex, a 26-year-old Toronto PhD candidate whose mother always told her to wait at least until she’s 30, and who doesn’t think she’ll even be close to a tenure track position before then. What she really wants, however, is “information that reaches beyond ‘mom knows best.’ Would it be so hard to organize a roundtable about it?”
Another young woman, a 27-year-old corporate lawyer, has taken the plunge and gotten pregnant, the first of her friends to do so. “They were a little shocked,” she says, adding that most of them haven’t considered the matter of their fertility seriously at all.
“The message being given to young women, or at least young professional women, is to focus on our careers, our marriages and our personal enjoyment – travel etc. – and that the ‘right’ time to have children is well after we’ve hit 30,” she says.
A third woman, turning 30, with a committed partner and a great job, made fertility sound like the new “f” word as she glumly remarked to a friend ,“My doctor told told me my fertility just dropped 50 per cent. Crap.”
The latest science shows that there is a marked decline in a woman’s fertility after the age of 35, and pretty dismal success rates with treatments such as in vitro fertilization. So some family doctors are beginning to say what was unsayable a generation ago. They are telling young women today that there is a starker choice to make about when to have children than their mothers had led them to believe.
I am one of those mothers. I not only had my children successfully in my mid-thirties after my career was well established, but I have proselytized since my daughter was young that getting a career well under way before you have babies is paramount. Now that she is 25, I am wondering if I should keep my mouth shut.
Giving in to biology feels like a retreat from everything women have fought for – not the hoary old “yes you can have it all” (you can, but in stages), but the sense that to be a self-sufficient, self-fulfilled and a contributing member of society, you need to, as the stunningly successful Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has put it, “lean into the work.” By the way, she’s worth millions and says she leaves work every day at 5:30 to eat dinner with her kids. Lucky her.
This new brutal reality check on fertility is landing hard on a generation of well-educated – often multi-degreed – young women, many of whom have been slow to get going professionally, thanks to a worldwide economic collapse and a general delay within their cohort in achieving the milestones of adulthood. (A recent study says that 51 per cent of Canadians under 29 still live at home, for god’s sakes.)
Are we now supposed to tell them forget that trek through New Zealand or a second degree, have a baby instead?
Fertility is a huge complex topic with undercurrents that are barely discussed.
Anne Rochon Ford, executive director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network, acknowledges that fertility rates are declining – for both sexes – but argues that “attributing it to ‘waiting too long’ – funny, the men are never told that! – is a simplistic and short-sighted approach.”
Could this new pressure to go younger into maternity be, as Ms. Rochon Ford suggests, “unconscious misogyny?” It definitely puts women, she says, “in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation that is deeply unfair.”
There is also a growing body of literature on how environmental hazards affect the fertility of both women and men. Chemicals unprettily called “reproductive toxicants,” of which there are thousands, have not been studied enough.
One thing seems clear to me: Young women – and men – are crying out for more factual, emotionally neutral information on how their fertility works. “They don’t teach us when to get pregnant!” said one London School of Economics grad at a party, while her male counterpart added, “this definitely affects me too, and everyone I date.”
Having and raising children was the great joy and challenge of my life. No matter what age you have them, babies go off like a bomb in a woman’s professional life, evoking, along with the heady scent of baby powder, Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” escalating to “unknown unknowns,” from the health of the baby to the deep, true intoxicating pull of motherhood.
The mid-thirties timing worked for me because of a flexible profession, a husband who shouldered a greater financial burden, and my deep belief that I hadn’t been ready before then to have kids.
While a few friends struggled with fertility, most women I knew did just fine – our bodies agreed with us that getting pregnant even in our mid- to late-thirties was a great thing to do. As one of them said to me: "I would rather my daughters be ready in whatever way they choose, than have children based on fertility rates.”
So who am I to tell my daughter that waiting as long as I did may be dicey? Thankfully, I have raised her to have a mind – and body – of her own. She may listen, but she’ll do what’s right for her.