Fertility, Family & Freaking Out

Let's hope that the reports of Madonna's third pregnancy, at age 44, turn out to be true.

I'd be happy to hear that while the rest of the female population between 25-45 is gripped with Baby Panic, as New York Magazine dubbed it, the Material Mom is thumbing her nose (and her ovaries) at the onslaught of studies and media reports that have been arriving in regular intervals over the past months with some dire warnings: a woman’s fertility begins to drastically plummet as early as her late twenties; conception in our thirties is a furious game of beat the clock; and by the time you roll over the hill into the big 4-0…well, here's how Time magazine put it:

"Once a woman celebrates her 42nd birthday, the chances of her having a baby using her own eggs, even with advanced medical help, are less that 10 percent. At age 40, half of her eggs are chromosomally abnormal; by 42, that figure is 90 percent."

The grimmest reaper swinging the scythe of reproductive death is author Sylvia-Ann Hewlett, whose book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children makes the claim that 42 percent of "high achieving" corporate women were childless after 40. That figure rose to 49 percent for women earning $100,000 or more. These women, reportedly, are miserable and bitter with regret.

The fevered clamoring for women in their twenties and early thirties to just drop what they're doing and get knocked up immediately has reached such a hysterical pitch, that even Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey, weighed in.

Thanking Time for a baby scare article "so depressing, I can actually hear my ovaries curling up," Fey took on Hewlett:

According to author Sylvia Hewlett, career women shouldn't wait to have babies because our fertility takes a steep drop-off after age 27. And Sylvia's right; I definitely should have had a baby when I was 27, living in Chicago over a biker bar, pulling down a cool $12,000 a year. That would have worked out great. But Sylvia's message is basically that feminism can't change nature — which is true...

Well, it's not that feminism, really, can't change nature. It's more that the reasonable, rational, responsible thing to do — to wait to start a family until you have the finances, emotional desire and maturity, and — this seems key to me — appropriate father on the hook — is just not in sync with female biology.

But isn't there something a little disingenuous about Hewlett's conclusion that all these women really, really wanted kids? And equally so about Vanessa Grigoriadis rebuttle in New York, in which she seems to assert that women in their twenties and early thirties really, really don't?

First, there is the issue of choices

Some of this new news about fertility is neither new nor news. We've always known that baby making becomes more difficult, and much riskier, once you enter your later thirties. A 40-something woman who has chosen not to have a child when she otherwise could have has made a choice — a perfectly legitimate choice — about her career, her lifestyle, her priorities.

But choice means...well, it means having to choose something. You may have wanted children, but you may have wanted some other things more. By definition, choice does not mean having it all.

Hewlett undermines the legitimacy of that choice, assuming that all women really want children more than anything else. I can’t help but wonder how much of the regret these very successful childless 40-somethings are feeling is external pressure, not internal desire.

Second is the issue of not really having a choice. I have not conducted any scientific studies, but a lot of the delayed motherhood I see around me has a lot to do with prolonged singlehood that wasn't entirely a choice.

Grigoriadis would have us believe that women in their twenties and thirties live such fabulously fantastic single lives that they just couldn't possibly be expected to sacrifice their shoe shopping and martini swigging for something as boring as true love or as fattening as pregnancy.

Yeah, right. No woman I know has ever called me up and said, "I desperately love him, he's wonderful, he will make a great husband and father, he's the one, but I'm dumping him because I'm only 30 and need to focus on my career."

(And no one I know seems to think that shoe shopping and martini swigging has to stop on the wedding day, either.)

Having a baby can indeed put serious brakes on a career, but the underlying notion in all of this — that women are purposely delaying marriage because marriage impairs a woman professionally — is ridiculous. Maybe for a rarefied few, the demands of a very successful career, the lure of a dazzling single social life, are legitimate relationship barriers. But for most of us...maybe not so much? (If it weren't for my husband, I'd have no clean clothes to wear to work and never make my bus on time.)

The bottom line is that most women still prefer to become mommies the way that requires a daddy who's also a hubby, and our master family plans have a trip down the aisle penciled in sometime before a trip to the delivery room. But Mr. Right doesn’t always show up by age 27. Sometimes, there hasn't even been a good Mr.Wrong by that time.

Sometimes, he's not Mr. Right because he is 27.

According to a study conducted last summer, only 50 percent of women college seniors have been asked on six or more dates by men since arriving on campus their freshman year.

Meeting somebody is such an arduous task, it has spawned an entire genre of reality television programs and is fueling a booming business in pricey dating services. Meeting somebody is considered such an accomplishment, a $70 billion wedding industry is dedicated to celebrating it. 

What exactly are we supposed to do about this situation? We can't possibly be suggesting that women start becoming single mothers en masse. We know how society feels about that. 

Are we heading into some brave new world where fertile young women produce babies and hand them over to married, barren couples, and then a decade later, when they’re married and barren themselves, they receive their bundle of joy the same way?

Maybe we'll start arranging marriages between younger women and older men. Women of childbearing years will be paired with men in their child rearing years. Young guys can still do whatever they want, but they'll have to do it with some of those old, decrepit 32-year-olds who somehow slipped through the cracks. The young babes will be busy making new babes.

But, maybe not. If you read between the lines of all this data, you'll stumble across this little factoid: As it turns out, men have biological clocks. A man's fertility begins to decline at 35. More ominously, an Israeli study has found a link between schizophrenia and the age of the father. This time, it's not the egg, it's the rooster.

Hmm ... while the guys were sowing their wild oats, the sun was setting on their seeds. Now that's news. Just imagine. Daddy Panic. Tick, tick, tick.