As the window of fertility begins to close for the women of Generation X, many of us are surprised to find we've had fewer children than we'd hoped – and in some cases, no children at all.
Gen Xers, those born on the heels of the boomers, starting in the mid-sixties, may have started out with a reputation as slackers, but once we put our minds to it, we embraced all that the feminist, business and boomer worlds expected of us. We worked, we owned our independence, we didn't rush into domesticity. We thought fertility science was keeping apace and would be there to help us procreate "naturally" into our 40s.
Until it didn't.
While science is busy trying to increase the odds, many women, expecting to become pregnant later in life without much trouble, have experienced the opposite. And they are processing the experience through an ever-expanding range of confessional essays, infertility blogs and memoirs, the strength of these voices giving rise to a strong public discourse about the subject. While this genre may have sprung from a cathartic need to process disappointments and share struggles, it may also be affecting the way Millennials, also known as Generation Y, think about fertility – both in terms of when they have children, and how to structure their lives around that goal.
Millennials "have something Gen X didn't – and that's a preview," says Melanie Notkin, author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness. "There are so many of us who remain single and childless as our fertile years wane," she adds. "We thought we'd have the social, economic and political equality our mothers didn't have. But, of course, we'd [also] have the husband and kids we wanted."
Tanya Selvaratnam, author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock, says she wrote a book she would have liked to have read herself much earlier in life. It is part memoir, part manifesto, stemming from her realization soon after age 40 that she would not have a biological child.
"Almost everyone I spoke to said they had not been adequately prepared for the actual risks of delaying motherhood." At 42, she now says she may adopt.
So how will Gen Y, those born after 1980, profit from Gen X's hard-won wisdom?
For now, research suggests that while those millennials value parenthood, even more than marriage – 74 per cent of them want to have children, according to American statistics from the Pew Research Center – their fertility rate is falling behind that of Gen X. About 36 per cent of women in the 18-to-29 age group had had children in 2010, compared with 41 per cent of Gen Xers of the same age in 1998.
Millennials "have science on their side," says Notkin. "When I was their age, egg freezing wasn't something viable. They have the opportunity to think about preserving their fertility. Or how much money they will need for IVF later."
Still, many millennials aren't willing to gamble on the wait. For Sara, a 30-year-old communications co-ordinator who is 11 weeks pregnant with her first child, fertility is something she's thought about for years. "Turning 30 this year – I got married last year – my husband and I had talked about it. I said, 'You know, time's a ticking. I'll be turning 30 soon.'"
For her, the job market was as big a factor as her fertility. (She asked us not to use her real name because she hasn't told her boss about the pregnancy yet.) The upside to the wobbly economy and contract work that many millennials are dealing with may be that the career side of the equation isn't as vital to this generation. When applying for a new position, Sara told her husband, "If I don't get this job, then we're just going to have kids now."
Ellen Cobb-Friesen is a 28-year-old Winnipeger who works at a non-profit organization. Many of her friends, she says, have a theory that they get refused jobs because they wore their wedding rings to interviews, and they now slip the ring off beforehand so that the interviewer doesn't see them as just potential baby-makers. Given the job challenges her generation is facing, Cobb-Friesen says that she and her friends are starting to imagine ways to share the emotional and financial challenges of having kids. They fantasize about staggering their birth schedules so that they can care for each others' children during mat leaves, and on relying on a batch-cooking system to lighten the kitchen load.
Says Hayley Mullins, who will be giving birth to her second child this year, at 33, "I certainly know that after 35 it's way harder; that's in your face a lot." For Mullins, recalibrating her work life has factored into parenthood: She left a marketing job to start a business that manufactures a baby-wearing device called the Sleep Belt. The flexibility afforded by that venture allows her family to save some child-care costs; and the business is already successful, currently nominated as a top "mompreneur" company in a contest run by SavvyMom Media, ParentsCanada magazine and a group called the Mompreneur Showcase Group. Notably, at least half of the 12 finalists are millennials.
Beyond personal stories, there are some encouraging signs that this is also a generation arming itself with information. Judith Daniluk, an expert in fertility counselling, runs the University of British Columbia-affiliated website Myfertilitychoices.com. She notes that some metrics suggest that 55 per cent of visitors to the site are men. The biggest age group is 25 to 35, with the next highest the 18-to-25ers. "People don't feel like we're using scare tactics; they're getting accurate information. They feel it's accessible."
Still, experts like Daniluk see combatting delayed parenthood as an uphill battle. In her research, she has found that most adults don't know basic information about fertility rates as we age, while at the same time we overestimate the success rates of assisted reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.
We won't know how all that plays out for millennials until the last of the cohort rounds the fertility corner of the age of 42 or so – after which the options of having a biological child dwindle significantly.
But Selvaratnam hopes that fewer women will learn of their dwindling fertility options as late as she did. At 38, she had her first miscarriage, but her doctor soothed her by saying, "Don't worry. You have time."
By her third miscarriage, only two years later, the message was different: She was told the biggest factor in whether she could have a baby at all was her age.
"I thought, now what is our notion of time?" she says. "So little time had passed, I thought somebody is not telling the truth."