By now every woman with even the slightest interest in birthing babies has probably read Jean M. Twenge’s article “How Long Can You Wait To Have a Baby”, in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. If you’ve managed to miss it, and the comments it generated in all corners of the Internet, here’s the short version: Those oft-cited statistics about how fertility drops precipitously after 35 and if you haven’t had kids by then you might as well just pack up and take your shriveled useless womb out of here? They’re wrong. And not just “oops we were a little off” wrong, but “this data comes from French birth records dating from 1670 to 1830” wrong.
If using numbers from 17th century France doesn’t immediately strike you as ridiculous, take a minute to ponder what was going on in America (which, of course, was not yet the United States of America) in the 1670s. King Philip’s War was breaking out in New England, possession of New York City was being fought over by the English and the Dutch, and the Royal African Company controlled the slave trade to Virginia. The 1830s were a little more advanced, what with the introduction of the Colt revolver and the Oregon Trail. But still. As Twenge puts it, “We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a light bulb.”
Reading the Atlantic article, I was startled by this upending of “facts” I’d been hearing for years, and dismayed that it took so long for someone to make this knowledge public. Popular writing about fertility may have been lazy, and some medical authorities appear to have used questionable numbers in attempts to dumb down reproduction-related information for the public, but there was no conspiracy to hide the unreliability of the original data. Twenge, a psychology researcher, simply looked it up in the relevant medical databases. But after my initial surprise, I felt conflicted.
What I was supposed to feel, I think, was that I’d been granted a reprieve. (The image that came to mind was baked goods mistakenly placed on the sale shelf, just sitting there hoping someone will buy them before they get stale and land in the dumpster behind the supermarket, when all of a sudden a store employee comes along, rips off their “50% off” sticker, and puts them back in the front of the bakery case.) And I do feel a little bit like I might have a second chance. Learning that a health problem you thought you’d be particularly prone to is not as much of a threat as you worried it might be is always reassuring.
And yet, I’m not sure what to do with this information. I imagine that mid- to late-30s women who are currently in a position to have children but who had put it off due to financial or logistic concerns might be thrilled to find that their choices are not as limited as they feared. But for single women (who do not want to be single mothers) the happiness of “My eggs are still good!” segues quickly into “Four more years to find a man!” The inward pressure and outward judgment were already there, but introducing that second chance – which is really a last chance - does nothing to quell them and perhaps even makes them worse.
The reality is that there’s nothing I can do now, knowing I have a few more good years, that I couldn’t have done before this article came out. (Should I start wearing a T-shirt that says “Now With More Fertility?”) I can, and probably will, feel a little more at ease about my potential medical future. But there’s no new action I can take.
And it can be difficult for people who prefer to take action to remember that good science and thorough research, while laudable and indeed necessary, can’t always make life predictable on an individual basis. Bursts of chatter about fertility, like the depressing 2002 conversation Twenge cites (which was prompted by a book, a Time magazine article, and an ad campaign) and the one her reporting is inspiring now, always die down. No matter how momentarily panic-inducing or uplifting they may be, they soon pale beside the fact that what we almost superstitiously call “choices” are usually simply strokes of luck.
More Fertile Than I Thought?