Beating the Biological Clock
As you read this, women in Seattle, Chicago and New York are being reminded that they are not getting any younger every time a bus goes by bearing an ad declaring: "Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children. Infertility is a disease affecting 6.1 million people in the United States." And in case the No. 6 whizzes by too fast to read the text, it's hard to miss the eerie graphic -- an upside-down baby bottle shaped like an hourglass.
Yes, Virginia, women in their 30s and 40s are likely to have a harder time conceiving and bearing children than their younger counterparts. That is the primary message of an information campaign launched this month by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). The medical group has also created ads about the risks associated with weight, smoking and sexually-transmitted disease, along with a companion website, www.protectyourfertility.org.
But the focus on these other risk factors seems like little more than padding around the very loaded issue of the biological clock. Already, the campaign has been covered by the Today show, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and, most alarmingly as a Newsweek cover story bearing the headline, "Should You Have Your Baby Now?"
The funny thing is, this is not a society where women are out of tune with their ticking. Even Rachel on Friends dumped her adorable 24-year-old boyfriend when she hit 30 last season. Time to stop fooling around, she lamented, and get down to the very serious business of finding the Father of Her Children. The storyline (unlike most elements of the wildly popular sitcom) was actually quite plausible. So, one has to ask: What makes a group of fertility doctors think women need to be reminded of something they can't seem to get off their minds?
For those who are single, or in uncommitted relationships, hitting 30 has become one of our culture's continental divides. On the twentysomething side, women are reassured that they have plenty of time to worry about settling down and starting a family. Pass 30, and the reminders are everywhere that it's one big downhill slide toward biological irrelevance.
Alarmed by the growing number of women seeking their services, the fertility doctors say they fear that science is viewed as a reproductive safety net in today's society. Features about older celebrity moms and tales of medically fostered triplets and quintuplets have grown commonplace. But the flip side of these technological triumphs is rarely newsworthy: Approximately one in three women over 35 trying to conceive will have trouble with her fertility.
Talk to women of childbearing age, and it's hard to figure out what is more frustrating -- this biological bind or the fact that a group of (mostly male) doctors feels compelled to remind them of it by way of bus-size ads.
"It irritates me that the whole conversation is about women," says Nancy Watzman, a 36-year-old Denver writer and researcher. "It's not that women are blameless, but how can we leave out men when we're talking about having children?"
Watzman, who was married this year and wants children, says she is "hyper-aware" of the need to get pregnant soon. As for waiting until her late 30s to begin a family, Watzman is like most of her educated, professional peers in that it was never an intentional plan. It is just how things worked out.
In a world where four-plus years of college is usually followed by many more of working to establish demanding careers, gain some financial security, and find the right partner, marriage and family are simply not in the picture for many twentysomething women. And even when it is, as Watzman says, "It's not like there are lots of 28-year-old guys out there chomping at the bit to reproduce."
"It's not an awareness issue, it's a lifestyle issue," says Charles Sniffen, a 29-year-old district attorney in Sarasota, Florida. Sniffen says he is very aware of the biological clock -- without any prompting from his girlfriend. Still, at this point in his career and relationship he doesn't feel ready for parenthood. "This new campaign makes me feel the same way I do when I see all these articles about sleep deprivation. Everyone knows lack of sleep is bad for you, but it's not like most of us have a lot of choice."
For some men, it's a reason to shy away from relationships with women of a certain age. Glen Freyer, a television writer in Los Angeles, says he was still in grad school when the issue of parenthood first came up with an older girlfriend. Freyer, who was 28 at the time, just wasn't ready and the two eventually went their separate ways. Now 38 and childless, Freyer says, "By the time I realized I was ready for kids, there wasn't a relationship. I feel like I already missed the window in some ways."
For most women, that window begins shutting, literally, with each passing year. While still in utero, women establish their lifetime egg supply. Those eggs wait, not fully developed, in a state of suspended animation until they are chosen for release from the ovaries. But as women age, they are more likely to produce eggs that can't be fertilized successfully once they are out. This condition is called "diminished ovarian reserve." Doctors don't know exactly how aging causes this problem, but, it seems, they are tired of hearing women complain about it.
Every year in the U.S., only about 2 percent of babies are born to women over 40. In launching their campaign, the ASRM notes that they routinely treat women past their childbearing prime who hope to be the exception to the rule. When technology fails to help them, they are crushed.
The disappointment of not being able to have a child is tremendous. But what about the flip side -- that having children too soon can also bring with it enormous heartache and problems?
"I would have been a terrible parent when I was younger," says Nicole Lucas Haimes, 41, a television producer in Venice, CA. "I was really into my work and needed to prove myself professionally. My confidence as a mother came with maturity, and in part, my professional success."
Haimes had her son, Lucas, at 39, after meeting her husband a year earlier. Now 41, Haimes is trying for a second child. "I know I have a lot working against me now, but I had no choice."
Haimes is like many women who, unwilling to go it alone, hold out for the right relationship to have a baby. But what comes after the relationship can be almost as frustrating ñ trying to pair work and parenthood.
"People used to get married in their late teens and early 20s and be able to support a family on just the man's income," says Watzman. "That model just doesn't work anymore."
Has more opportunity left women with fewer choices? "It scares the hell out of me when I think about trying to balance my job with motherhood," says Noelle DeBruhl, 38, whose job as a television editor routinely includes 60-hour weeks.
"Professional women have an untenable choice between their own drive and status gained through work, versus giving that up for the satisfaction of being with their kids," adds Haimes, who took off a year-and-a-half to be with her son.
"Everyone knows there is really no support for working mothers in this country," says DeBruhl. "I'd like to see a bus ad about that."
Christine Triano is a writer and mother living in Los Angeles. She had her first child at 34.