Darn, I Forgot to Have Babies!

Stem Cells, HBO, and Passing Buses Fuel a Fertility Panic

For women raised with the hope of having both a career and a family, this reality can result in a frenzied midlife crunch, says Naomi Wolf, whose latest book, Misconceptions, focuses on the travails of American motherhood. "The workplace makes it virtually impossible to become mothers when it's reproductively ideal," the 38-year-old Wolf said in a recent phone interview, as her children vied for her attention in the background. "It can be heartbreaking."

On this point, at least, the creators of the subway ads agree. "Social reality and biological reality are not intersecting where they should," the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's spokesman, Sean Tipton, explains. Tipton insists that the point of the group's ads—which can be seen on protectyourfertility.org, and also caution women about the counter-reproductive effects of weight (both too much and too little), smoking, and sexually transmitted diseases—is simply to address the social/biological mismatch.

But the message seems to be aimed only at only one-half of the equation, holding individual women responsible for a situation that's much bigger than they are—and, in the process, tightening the knots already in many stomachs. Feminists have long pointed out that social policies—most notably paid parental leave and adequate financial support for child care—could go a long way toward making American motherhood more viable. "We need to radically restructure social organizations so that women can truly give birth when they want to give birth," is how Wolf puts it.

Illustration by Catherine Parr

Perhaps that radical restructuring bill got stuck in committee. In any case, while they're waiting for the grand overhaul, women are having children later. Indeed, to the extent that there is news on the fertility front, it's not that women's baby-making days are numbered (that's always been true), but that the biological picture is improving for older would-be mothers: The number of women in their thirties and forties giving birth for the first time has quadrupled since 1970, pushing the median age of first-time moms to its current all-time high: 24.5. Between 1980 and 1995, the number of 40-to 44-year-old women giving birth shot up by 81 percent.

There has yet to be a scientific breakthrough on the level of the discovery of stem cells that solves the egg-suicide problem. But there's no shortage of women having babies well past what we used to think of as the age limit. After Wendy Wasserstein gave birth at 48 and Cheryl Tiegs, using a surrogate, produced twins at 52, the recent news of photographer Annie Leibovitz's pregnancy seemed almost ho-hum. So far, response has centered less around her age—51—than on how a little one will affect her jet-setting work life.

Gray-haired moms could hardly be as scary as cloned people. Still, the success of these women may well be somewhere in the destabilizing mix that's making the biological alarm clock ring right now.

"Just as women get some confidence in figuring out their own trajectories and giving priority to their work, these things come and hit you," says Rosalind Petchesky, a distinguished professor of political science at CUNY and author of Negotiating Reproductive Rights. Petchesky can't explain exactly how this backlash comes to be expressed in the collective consciousness. But when it does, she says, the message is usually the same. "The burden is on women to make sure that children are produced and that they're healthy," says Petchesky. "We are just not allowed to have an unguilty relationship to maternity."

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