She was slightly built and adorable at forty-two years old. Catie was a friend of a friend invited to the springtime beach party. We chatted about her career as a medical device salesperson who recently returned from living in China. Somehow we began to talk about me being a step-parent, and about her dating a new guy with kids. While sipping my favorite cocktail, the leap from discussing dating landed on her frank revelation about contemplating her last chance to have biological children. It happened in that odd space open women allocate to a perfect stranger: Fertility. Egg quality. Babies.
For many women, single or married, once you reach 40 and find yourself childless, it is time for deep consideration of options. In this era of imagining that we can have it all, what used to happen in a woman’s 30s has extended into the 40s. Over lunch recently, a friend shared that her daughter is “killing it in her career”, as a digital media buyer and strategist currently working for the world’s largest concert promoter. In her work role she leads the division’s paid digital advertising strategy, operations, and vendor relations. This accomplished young woman in her early thirties is not even thinking about having a child, nor is she in a stable relationship. Her mother told me that one of her employment perks is reproductive benefits, a practice favored by Facebook, Apple, Google and other Silicon Valley giants.
Essentially the package includes retrieving eggs, freezing and storing them, and one round of IVF. The offer of freezing your eggs along with flexible vacation time seems a bit Orwellian, but today major corporations who wish to attract and keep top tier talent do exactly this. What feels like an invasion of privacy is one of their attractive perks, along with free gourmet meals, massages and laundry service, all aimed at keeping top talent happy about working intense and long hours with little time for much else.
Women struggled mightily to earn equal employment opportunities during the ‘60s and ‘70s and to remove sex-related barriers in the workplace. Now it appears that they are being asked to eliminate those pesky interruptions called children, until they are in their early 40s. In this era of gender fluid acceptance and loosened guidelines about what makes a nuclear family, an ambitious young woman is expected to put her basic right or desire to bear children on the back burner.
Do these women know the true risks? Your fertility starts declining in your thirties; you have fewer eggs, and they are less viable. If you freeze your eggs when you are 25, and start IVF when you are in your late thirties, the odds are only 31.5% that you’ll have a baby after three cycles of In Vitro Fertilization (“IVF”). Not only are those grim odds, they reduce with each passing year, and each round of IVF costs from $12,000 to $17,000.
For many women the strong urges of biology bite at around thirty-two years old. Some women, deeply invested in satisfying work lives, or for a variety of other reasons, are not in a good place to try and get pregnant. Those who are immersed in electrifying and lucrative careers may find that they don’t hear the siren’s call until they are older. Nonetheless, our biology remains the same. Older may prove to be too late, despite medical advances.
The fundamental problem with waiting is that any pregnant woman over the age of 35 has what is still considered a high risk pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is a difficult concept in a culture that extends youth as long as humanly possible. Most women in their early 30s definitely do not view themselves as elderly, but in conception lingo they are just that. Currently, the average age of a first time mother is 26.3 years old. At age 25 the risk of a Down’s syndrome baby is about 1 in 1,250 births. At age 40, the risk increases to 1 in 100. At age 45, the risk spikes to 1 in 30. Both Down’s syndrome and miscarriages increase upwards by 50% by the age of 42. While today it is not unusual to give birth in one’s 40s, 50% of women in that age group experience difficulty conceiving. Sure, we see Janet Jackson pregnant with her first baby at 50.
And a gorgeous 42 year old Hallie Berry gave birth to her first child in 2008. Like so many other media messages, the repetition of this message causes us to imagine that this is all normal and within reach. But in plain language, as a woman ages, no matter who she is, so do her eggs.
Even with frozen eggs there is an issue about viability once the eggs are harvested, and the body that will receive fertilized eggs will be an older one, with all the attendant problems of an aging uterus and body systems. Of course, if you have the financial resources, surrogacy is an option, but this is not available to everyone.
I worry for the career super stars. I know how they will feel at 50 when they realize that they’ve missed their chance to have their own baby. Some will be in marriages or stable relationships, and some may not, by the time their biological clock sounds the alarm. According to Pew Research Center there are more single Americans today than ever before.
My friend Catie said that her doctor declared her eggs “good”. She is at a point where she is weighing the wisdom of pursuing becoming a single mother against the attractiveness of hooking up with a man who already has kids. Sadly, the chances are good that it is already too late for her to choose. I want to shake the women who have not paid closer attention, and tell them that this is a pain that can hurt forever.
Lucille Ball said that she’d rather regret the things she’d done than regret the things she hadn’t done. Not having a child, if you want one, is a far bigger mistake than missing a trip to Florence or not learning how to play golf before your hip goes out. The loss is indescribable, if in one tiny corner of your heart you wonder what it would be like to be a mother.