The Paradox of Reproductive Choice

This year -- the year I turned 30 -- the birth-control pill is turning 50. As Elaine Tyler May points out in her new book, America and the Pill, that little technology promised a whole lot of change -- feminist liberation, angst-free sex, world peace -- that it hasn't quite delivered. Another thing that the pill didn't do was eradicate the modern woman's wrestle with those tricky twins: time and fertility.

I've recently left my 20s behind and people have started asking me if I'm going to procreate. I don't blame them. I'm acutely aware of the fact that time is already not on my side. Most studies indicate that fertility takes a downturn for most women in their 30s; most studies also indicate that men's sperm become less hearty as well.

This race against time is nothing new for people who want to have children but also want to enjoy their work, leisure, and autonomy. We still don't have federal legislation or a workplace culture that supports working families. We still haven't figured out the child-care hustle in our private lives.

What is new is the specific cultural moment in which we struggle. (Note that the "we" I'm referring to here, and throughout, is admittedly a privileged, urban demographic.) For starters, many women of child-bearing age have watched slightly older friends and colleagues go through expensive, painful, and emotionally devastating fertility treatments -- at least in part due to delaying their leap into the maternal unknown. For Generation X, raised on their Free to Be You and Me records, independent choice was gospel. They believed not only in the importance of finding work they loved but their right to do so, while simultaneously finding a compatible partner and procreating whenever they chose. Unfortunately, their biology didn't match their conviction.

Many were left with super impressive CVs and less-than-robust ovaries by age 40. The use of assisted reproductive technologies has doubled in the last 10 years in almost every category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study released last week in the U.K. found that fertility treatments there have also doubled since 1992.

Women my age and younger have been taking note. "I try to live a hormone-free life as much as possible, and hearing horror stories about having to undergo daily shots, feeling terrible, and being constantly worried about having a high-risk pregnancy definitely make me want to have a baby earlier," says Sam, 32, from Minneapolis. According to Time magazine, the long-term health risks are understudied, but the most extensive research to date found a 30-year increase of various cancers in women who underwent fertility treatments.

Kate, 29, of Boston, doesn't feel pressure so much as a natural inclination. "I feel a certain awareness of and respect for my body's biology and the way it works, which makes me want to have a baby before hitting 35," she says. Kate also cites economic factors. One IVF cycle can cost as much as $12,000. For many women, multiple cycles are necessary.

It's not just women in their 30s, however, who are worried about putting off motherhood. "Of my friends who do want to have kids, most of them envision doing it before they turn 30," says Sarah, 22, of New York. She cites the correlation between advanced maternal age and difficulty in conceiving as the key factor.

Another rarely discussed factor is our own aging mothers and fathers. It's not only birth that's haunting us but our parents' impending deaths -- both the care-giving and grieving implications. Morbid, but true. Ethan, of New York, was born in 1980 when his mother was 38. As he stares down 30, he explains that though he'd like to wait another 10 years to have children, he doesn't have that luxury: "I'd prefer to have kids earlier than I want, rather than have my kids not know my parents."

Megan, 29, of Denver echoes Ethan's sentiment: "I had such an amazing relationship with my grandmother, and I want to make sure my kids have the same with my mom. Although she's healthy and active now, she's not getting any younger, so I feel compelled to hurry my own process along."

It is also undeniable that our generation has perfected a certain type of extended adolescence. By choice or circumstance, those of us born in the 1980s have delayed all things adult. We've crashed at our parents' homes, opted for the five-plus year plan in college, pursued epically long graduate studies programs, and spent years job-hopping and soul-searching. The American Sociological Association reports that in 2000, 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men have reached adult markers -- finished school, left home, gotten married, had a child, and reached financial independence -- by age 30. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men that same age had reached those adult markers.

Jessica, 31, of New York, is pregnant with her first child. She explains, "The biggest struggle was dealing with the fact that the age I was most wanting a baby was the age that I had the most going on job-wise." Another fallout of our extended adolescence is that the peak of our career-building process often coincides with the decline of our fertility. Do we plow forward on those last little successes before stepping back? That was the philosophy of so many of our older peers whose successes piled up along with their fertility-treatment indignities and medical bills.

Of course, all the angst is an absolute luxury -- the baby-making version of Barry Schwartz's concept of the "paradox of choice." In short, the more options we have, the more crazy we make ourselves. The pill afforded us, among other things, the anxiety that comes along with having so much control over if and when we procreate. Our class privilege gives us the resources to take advantage of reproductive technologies, while socializing us to focus on our individual success and happiness (not, consequently, the obsessions most conducive to parenting).

The good news is that the luxury of choice also affords us the option of not stressing out. Molly, 30, of Bozeman, wonders: "Shouldn't getting pregnant be something joyful, something impulsive, something our bodies give us a nudge towards, instead of something we pencil in?"

Gwen, 31, of New York, doesn't have that option. She knows she'll have to face fertility treatments no matter what, as she's partnered with a woman. But she's anything but doom or gloom about it. She explains: "For every ‘horror' fertility treatment story from a friend in her late 30s or early 40s, I hear a ‘success' story from another. All in all, if having tons of friends in their thirties having babies in the last year taught me anything, it's to relax and enjoy my freedom at this point in my life."