Women fighting fertility timeouts are redefining what it means to "have it all."
In 1983, legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown released a book called Having It All, in which she outlined tips for women hoping to find success in the workplace, at home and in bed. The past 25 years have left women's plates increasingly — some might argue, precariously — overloaded, as they try to maintain healthy portions of career, love and family.
In her book, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures In Finding Love, Commitment, And Motherhood, New York City journalist Rachel Lehmann-Haupt explores the expanding buffet of choices that exist for women hoping to "have it all" today.
YourTango: Tell us about your book. What prompted you to write it?
Rachel Lehmann-Haupt: In 2001, when I was 31 years old, I ended a relationship with someone at the same time that a woman named Sylvia Ann Hewett wrote a book called Creating A Life. It basically told women that they needed to start having children younger because the dividing line between a regular pregnancy and a high-risk pregnancy was age 35.
For the next couple years, single and dating, I was very aware of this age looming over me. There was pressure to find love and create a family before getting "too old."
This baby panic was shooting through the media and I thought to myself, "This doesn't feel right." The answer that women should start having kids earlier seemed too simplistic. Most of us who have gone to school and want careers also want to support our families.
I found a statistic that said the number of women having babies between 35 and 44 has doubled since the '80s. They need their twenties and often their early thirties to go to medical school or law school. Where is having kids going to fit into all of this?
YT: So what advice do you have for women who want to have it all?
RLH: You have to expand your concept of choice. We have this idea that we're supposed to do things in the right order, when in reality, it might mean having a kid first and then meeting the love of your life. Or maybe you meet the love of your life and you have kids, but you have to put your career on hold for a while. Or you have a career, then you meet the love of your life and that means you have to use assisted technology, a donor egg or adoption, to have a child.
The other thing that's important is that you don't have to have it all. Who's to say that having it all is the most fulfilling life?
A lot of people have told me it's really stressful trying to balance it all. Maybe you want to be a really good writer — you focus on that, and you and your partner don't have kids. Or maybe you just want to be a mom. Having it all does not have to be the end-all be-all goal for every woman.
YT: What advice would you give to a woman who's 35 and single but knows that she wants to have kids?
RLH: Most important: check your fertility cycle. Our bodies are very individual. And it's not like there's this law that says you hit age 35 and suddenly your fertility falls off a cliff. Many women's fertility starts to fall off then. But many women stay fertile until they're 42.
There are a lot of tests now that check your fertility. One is a blood test called the FSH test, which measures a hormone in your body called the follicle-stimulating hormone on a scale of 1 to 12, which will give you an idea of how fertile you are. The test isn't fail-proof, but it will give you an idea.
There are new tests coming down the line that will check additional hormones. For example, Dr. John Zhang at the New Hope Fertility Center does something called an Antral Follicle Count & Sonogram. He takes an ultrasound picture of your ovaries to reveal how many follicles you have left and give you a baseline on your fertility. This gives women a sense of timing.
If you find out that your fertility is falling off a cliff and you are 35 and single, there are many choices for women today. Some women are just putting the cart before the horse and having the baby on their own, hoping that the right man will come along afterwards.
A lot of women are choosing to have their eggs frozen, even though the technology is still considered experimental. As more women do it we'll learn more about it and at some point it won't be considered experimental. Egg-freezing could become a technology that's almost as important as the birth control pill.
And then a lot of women are just plunging into the dating scene and working really hard to find Mr. Right. If that feels natural to you, do it.
YT: Explain the concept of the instant family.
RLH: The instant family means that you meet, marry and have a kid within two years. I coined the term to describe the narrowed window of courtship and time it takes to make a family when you're older than the "traditional" marrying age.
Say you meet the guy or girl of your dreams when you're 37. You're probably going to know yourselves a lot better and therefore you might be able to make these decisions a lot quicker.
Getting married later means your fertility might be more at risk so you think to yourself, as a couple, "If we get married we may as well move forward and have the kid." This is happening often now.
But of course there are also some downsides to it—there are a lot of instant divorces and people who rush into marriage and kids for the wrong reasons.
YT: Is it difficult to find love when you're also concerned about having children? Are men more afraid of commitment if there's talk of babies too soon in a relationship?
RLH: I've heard that cliché story — you bring up wanting to have kids on the first or second date and the guy runs out the door while you're in the bathroom.
A lot of men really want to have kids, too. I've had men say to me on the first or second date, "I want to get married and have kids." I took it as a good sign because it meant that they were serious.
But there's nothing worse than a panicked person sitting in front of you. I've talked to my really close guy friends about this, and they sit there and wonder, "Do you want me, or do you just want a baby out of me?"
So if you really want a baby, just have a baby! And maybe that will free you up to have real love.
YT: In the introduction of the book you describe a time when your friends were settling down. Do you think the urge to settle is biologically or socially motivated?
RLH: I had a whole group of friends get married in their late twenties and early thirties. And a lot of those marriages are breaking up now.
That pressure to settle down is, I think, very socially motivated. There's enormous amounts of peer pressure to get married, especially for women. There's still this idea in our society that a married woman has a little bit of superiority, that it's something she's "achieved."
I hope my book will help change this culture so that marriage really is a choice, and it's one that you make because you love somebody and not because you think you should be married.
YT: You point out that male fertility drops with age, just as a woman's does. Do you think this fact will get more attention once your book is out?
RLH: It's already gotten some attention in the press. In my book I talk to a number of men who have realized that they also face fertility issues. It's not as drastic as a woman's fertility — men can conceive babies well into their fifties. But more studies are coming out that say those kids have a higher risk of this or that.
It's important for men to think about fertility as much as women. I think men often blame women for fertility hysteria, but men need to realize that they have responsibility, too.
They need consider their girlfriend or fiancée or wife's fertility, and they should know that their fertility declines with age, too, albeit not as drastically as women's.