Infertility has many causes. Plenty of young women have trouble conceiving, a fact that doesn’t get talked about much because there are no larger social points to be made there. It is also true, though, that it becomes harder for many women to conceive upon entering their mid-to-late 30s. Men do not face quite the same decline in fertility. Because of this, the female biological timeline is sometimes presented as a problem to be overcome, one incompatible with desires modern women might have.
That mindset was certainly on display in an article I read this week in Forbes on Prelude Fertility, a well-capitalized ($200 million) start-up founded by a serial entrepreneur who’s experienced infertility in his family life. The basic idea is that the process for egg retrieval, storage, and implantation could and should be more affordable and user friendly. This is true. But in good start-up fashion, Prelude wants to massively expand the market to target young women who might be convinced to freeze and store their eggs for potential IVF later on. Per the Forbes article, “Prelude is betting that young women will pay a few grand a year to alter the equation between career and family. ‘If you know that your eggs are safe and sound, what decisions would you make about your life?’ says Allison Johnson, a former top marketing executive at Apple [who’s doing the marketing campaign for Prelude]… ‘That’s what’s really exciting about this,’ Johnson says. ‘Go pursue that graduate degree. Wait for your soul mate. Go travel the world. Your eggs are waiting for you.'”
The implication is that work and personal fulfillment, and raising children, are mutually exclusive things. But they aren’t, not at all, and assertions like this only serve to offer up false choices that don’t serve young women well.
The first false choice: The “equation between work and family” implies that these two concepts are on opposite sides of the ledger, dueling against each other. It’s the same problem with the image of work/life “balance.” For one to win, the other must lose, a balance that requires that these be the only two things that are going on in a person’s life. That’s clearly not the case. Historical time diary studies show that over the past half century as women entered the workforce in droves, time with children rose slightly. Other things fell: housework, most notably. Given how much time the average person spends on television (or, increasingly, doing other leisure activities online) there is probably slack to alter other variables without shortchanging work or family.
Of course, to think about this “equation” between work and family, one needs to get to the place of having a career and family, something that generally requires training for a job and finding a partner. Johnson asks what decisions a woman might make if she knew her eggs were safe. She’d pursue that graduate degree — which implies that you can’t get a graduate degree with kids in tow. You can! It will require more complicated logistics, and relying on others for help, than pursuing one solo, but given the number of people struggling to pay back loans for degrees that didn’t pan out so well, the added level of scrutiny offspring might inspire toward the grad school question doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. But even if you couldn’t go to school with kids, earning a graduate degree in your mid-20s still leaves plenty of time for childbearing afterwards. Especially since it might be quite possible to meet a spouse during this time.
Which brings us to our next point: “Wait” for your soul mate? Oh dear. It’s Prince Charming with the glass slipper. The perfect man appears and you live happily ever after. I’d recommend reading Alain de Botton’s novel, The Course of Love, for anyone with this mindset. There is no perfect person. All relationships require work in order to produce pleasure. As for finding a satisfactory partner with good character to whom you are attracted? Possibly best approached as a practical matter too. You go to lots of events to meet people, ask your friends to set you up, and go on dates with people who’ve indicated they are looking for a serious match. All of this can be done while pursuing education, or “focusing” on one’s career, another false choice put out there. Indeed, they often move forward in tandem. People you meet through work introduce you to their eligible friends, and so forth.
Crazily enough, one can even travel the world with kids! I have four, which makes it a bit unwieldy. But I’m always inspired by my friend Henley Vazquez, founder of Passported, who’s built a whole career around kid-friendly travel (and who’s taken her two cosmopolitan children everywhere — she noted when I interviewed her about this a while ago that the whole airplane and jet lag thing is still no fun, but it never is. Not for adults either. It’s just ultimately worth it.).
The problems with the “stop the biological clock!” mindset go on. A notable one: retrieving eggs and freezing them and implanting them is unpleasant and risky from a medical perspective. Conceiving babies the old-fashioned way is far more enjoyable. Also, saving your eggs for your 40s implies that you would be having a baby in your 40s. Having been pregnant at 27 and 36 I’m pretty sure that the trend line was not in a positive direction in terms of my stamina.
I think there is a different point to be made (and not made in the Forbes article) that society could do more to make it easier for young women to have children. Readers who know my politics know that I’m generally more right of center than not, but existing policies have involved choices that could have been made differently. Social Security supports older people’s ability to leave the labor force. It could have been structured to pay new parents to take time off after a birth — but it wasn’t. I’m still trying to figure out a way to rebrand childcare subsidies as a Milton Friedman-sounding “school vouchers for the under 5 set.”
But in any case, the zeal to unwind the biological clock so women can pursue life “as freely as men” as the Forbes article puts it, requires a starting assumption that female empowerment is about making women more like men, the apparent right version of humanity. I would take issue with that. Most importantly, the implication with this laundry list of things women might do pre-kids — if they could wait longer to have kids — is that kids are a major bummer. To have them, you must have achieved much, and then be completely mature and self-sacrificing. Since most of us never reach the Mother Teresa point in our personal development, it’s unclear when the right moment to unfreeze those eggs would be. There is never a moment when, in the moment, getting up with a 21-month-old at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning will feel better than having a leisurely brunch with mimosas and Bloody Marys. But the unpleasantness is not constant, and you can structure your life to have a few of those brunches during the tough years and then have more as you go.
And kids can actually be pretty awesome too. In my case, they’ve helped my career by giving me more to write about. They’ve widened my social circle considerably. I have mixed feelings about some decisions they’ve inspired (see my essay on New York nostalgia) but on the other hand, last night my three older children and I put together a puzzle after the little one was in bed. I enjoyed a nice glass of wine while doing this. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might have done to unwind even if I didn’t have kids, but instead it was a little Tuesday night party, with three amazing people in my life, all of us along for the ride.
Photo: Many choices…