A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about freezing your eggs (the ones in your ovaries, not your fridge). It began like this: “They say that youth is wasted on the young; and for the many women belatedly confronting the ephemerality of fertility, the phrase hits close to home.”
This sentence now makes me cringe for two reasons. First, because I clearly wrote it during my “I must use at least one GRE vocabulary word in each story” phase.
But more importantly, because I had a point. Many of us spend our most fertile years trying not to get pregnant. It’s when we get older—and our fertility declines—that our desire for motherhood revs up. Among a generation of career-focused and independent young women, the biological clock is the elephant in the room.
But no matter how much we’d like to put it on snooze (just a few more years of selfish behavior, please!), turn it off (not ’til I find Mr. Right, thank you), or chuck it out the window (I don’t need you to tell me I’m getting older), it’s there, and it wants you to listen.
Here’s what it’s saying—and what you can say back.
“I haven’t kept up with the times.”
If you had been born in the early 1900s, at 25, you’d be middle-aged. But today, a woman’s life expectancy is nearly 80—a whopping 30 more years than her great-grandmother’s.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, our biological clocks haven’t figured that out yet.
When it comes to your fertility, 35 is generally considered the tipping point. Before then, most women don’t have trouble getting pregnant. But after that, your chances decrease more dramatically (women ages 35 to 39 have a 52% chance of getting pregnant in a year, as compared to a 63% chance in their early 30s and a 78% chance in the late 20s). And because your number of high-quality eggs decreases over time, pregnancy post-35 is not only more difficult to achieve, but it’s also more likely to result in birth defects or miscarriage.
But, while 35 may be the tipping point, it’s not a deadline. In our society, the late 30s are often viewed as the optimal time to start a family, and many women have no trouble doing so. If you’re not ready for kids, you’re not ready for kids—but keep in mind that if and when you are, your body gets a vote in the matter, too.
“You can’t stop me—but you can set me back.”
For a lot of us, taking advantage of our fertility in its heyday is just not in the cards. But thanks to modern medicine, we do have options.
One of those options is egg freezing, which is pretty much what it sounds like: Some of your eggs are collected when they’re still in relatively good shape (ideally pre-35, though late 30s usually works too) and frozen in a bank, which sustains their quality indefinitely. Then, when the time is right, you can thaw them and attempt to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization.
“It’s insurance—and you buy insurance because you can’t predict the future,” says Paul Gindoff, MD, FACOG, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology, Fertility, and IVF at the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, where he offers the service. “Most women won’t need to do it, but there will be a subgroup—five to 10%—for whom it would make a significant difference [in their ability to have a child] if they did.”
Though the procedure is expensive and can be physically and emotionally taxing—not to mention a target for ethical critique—it’s growing in popularity among healthy 30-somethings looking to log a few more years of non-motherhood. “It seems to be working fine as an alternative,” says Gindoff, “but it is an alternative—there’s not a replacement for a timely pregnancy.”
“You’re not alone.”
Sometimes, the ticking of the biological clock feels like a dog whistle that only women can hear. But while men’s fertility is only negligibly compromised by age, they aren’t deaf to the sound altogether. Other clocks—social, religious, you name it—can ring in their ears, too.
“I used to think crying babies on planes were annoying, but now I just think they’re cute,” admits Jack O’Connor, a 26-year-old consultant in Washington, DC.
What’s more, though women bear the brunt of infertility fears, it’s not an exclusively feminine problem. Lifestyle factors (like drug usage or being overweight or underweight), and inherent biological conditions can affect both men and women’s fertility, even when age doesn’t. So when it comes to making babies, it’s the match that matters, says Gindoff. “Fertility is a dynamic between the couple,” he says. After all, it takes two to tango.
So even if you find that your biological clock is at odds with your desired timeline, you should still treat it the same way you would treat a relative who has a conflicting opinion: with respectful acknowledgment. Because, like your crazy uncle, it’s not going to change.
And while you’re at it, treat your whole body well, too: Quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight (no yo-yo dieting!) can help you keep your reproductive parts in tip-top shape until the time is right. Then, if you do get pregnant, you’ll already have habits that will support the growth of a healthy child. And if you choose never to get pregnant? You’ll have habits that will support a healthy you.