“Time is ticking. You only have so much time if you want to have a family.”
These phrases started becoming all too familiar before I got pregnant with my first baby at the age of 36. It was like I was driving a car down the highway, feeling fine, everything going well, then suddenly the check engine light comes on out of nowhere. I was trucking along (forgive the bad vehicular pun) at the age of 30, in a good relationship with my master’s degree, I was earning my license to practice therapy, I was financially stable, and had a great support system. All in all, I felt like I was on track.
Then the little warning messages began popping up everywhere. My mom began asking when my boyfriend was going to propose so I could start having babies. My friends with kids started to express concern over what my plan was, as I “only have so much time.” Even my family doctor started asking me about it during my yearly gyno exams. Not so much in an overt, “your eggs are going bad and you need to use them, like, now” sort of way, but in the “I just want you to know what your window looks like” sort of way.
Like pretty much every other woman over the age of 30, I began to feel the heat of pressure and desperation. The funny thing is that this said pressure and desperation weren't even necessarily mine, but everyone else’s.
“You know after 35, it becomes really hard to have a baby. I just don’t want you to wait too long and miss your window.”
My god, this window. I didn’t even know I had a window, or that I needed to be concerned about a window or how open it happened to be. Where is all of this concern about a window when girls are being educated about sex and their bodies in middle school and high school? At that point in the game, the message is to avoid a pregnancy like the plague, to wait until you are ready to have a baby, and that literally anything you do will get you pregnant. So here I am, in my 30s, I got my education, got myself financially stable and was in a good relationship. I did what I was told to do. I waited. AND NOW YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A FREAKIN WINDOW?
When I finally got around to doing the traditional thing (i.e. marrying my boyfriend of eight years with whom I lived in sin for the majority of those eight years) I was ready to start trying for a baby. And, boy, was my family doctor supportive. I say that with all of the sarcasm that exists in my heart. I believe her exact words were “You know it’s probably going to take you 6 months to a year to get pregnant at your age, right? I just don’t want you to get discouraged.” Side note: I’ve since found a new family doctor.
As a result of this inspiring pep talk, I braced myself for a long, difficult battle to do what most in our society consider impossible: get pregnant with my first child after the age of 35 (By the way, 35 and over is what those in the medical field consider to be “advanced maternal age.” Always the overachiever, I like to be considered advanced).
I got all the books. I bought ridiculously expensive ovulation prediction kits. While I was at it, I figured I’d grab a basal body thermometer so that I could really get some good cash-back coupons at CVS to justify the amount of money I was spending. I signed up for a fertility app to track my cycle, my basal body temperatures, my cervical mucus, my ovulation predictions, the cycle of the moon, and how many Kit-Kats I had eaten that day. You name it. I was ready. I was armed with all the accouterment. I researched and read and studied like I was in grad school and finals were coming up. I steeled myself for a long, uphill battle with what everyone told me was a biological window that was just about a sliver of a crack open to reproduction land. After two months of trying, I got pregnant with my daughter.
To be clear, I acknowledge that this may not be reflective of everyone’s story. Every couple’s fertility, genetics, anatomy, and health history are different. However, it’s important to also understand that this common myth that a woman’s ability to conceive suddenly becomes nonexistent after her 35th birthday, well, it’s simply not true. In fact, it’s based on a very small collection of data. Specifically, it's based on the fertility rates of French women dated back to the period of 1670 to 1830. Yes, that’s right. Your mom, your aunt, even the nurse you just saw—they’re all basing their well-meaning nudges and cautionary tales on a poorly sampled study of women who lived during a time of no electricity, no antibiotics, no vaccines, etc. In general, women usually died between the ages of 30 and 35 in the 17th and 18th centuries; no one was having babies later on because no one was alive to do it. To put things into perspective utilizing modern populations of women and current data, a recent study by David Dunson in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004, the statistical difference when comparing fertility rates in a woman’s late 20s versus her late 30s amounted to less than 5 percentage points. Still a difference, yes, but nowhere near the drop women have been hearing about from literally everyone.
Despite all of this, do we all eventually run out of time to conceive children naturally? Yes. But, barring any fertility, genetic or health issues, we have a lot more time than we thought we did. For many women who would like the option of one day having a family, that extra time-and the peace of mind that comes along with it is the difference between prolonged, needless panic over “missing the baby window” and living one’s life intentionally, fully and with purpose. So, the next time Aunt Sally warns you about that clock and the tick tick ticking sound that it makes, take a deep breath and remember you’ve got a little while before your time runs out.