By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
We are sitting on the giant root of an oak tree at The Cloisters, a medieval park filled with lush formal gardens on the northern tip of Manhattan. It’s late summer. The light bounces off the Hudson River and flickers through the leaves. He looks nervous. I’m shaky, too. Alex and I have been together almost a year, and I’m wondering whether he might be getting ready to give me a ring.
Instead, he looks away from me. Silence. Then he turns back, and in an awkward tone he says that he doesn’t feel the kind of “intangible connection” he needs to get married and start a family with me. Instead of starting our life together, he is ending it.
My stomach lurches. I ask him if we can go sit somewhere else, as though moving might make this feeling go away, push back what is about to happen.
No. He wants to break up. And with those words, everything I imagined about our future abruptly blurs: walking on my father’s arm down the aisle dressed in a white hourglass dress; living in the downtown loft with the skylight office where I would write; being in my parents’ suburban backyard, where our baby would splash in a plastic pool at a Sunday barbecue.
“I’m sorry I wasted your time,” he says. And with that, it’s over.
After the breakup
I felt as if I were caught in a whirlpool at the edge of a rushing social current. I was confused, spinning in circles and surrounded by new questions: What kind of relationship was right if this one was wrong? If I just invested one year in a nowhere relationship, then how much time would I need to invest in a relationship that actually went somewhere? I had a hunch all my life that I wanted to be a mother, but it wasn’t until the breakup with Alex that I felt biology tapping her toes. Her patience was not inexhaustible.
Throughout the industrialized world, in the last hundred years the nature of human life has changed dramatically. It’s not just that women are waiting longer to have children. People are also living longer—nearly twice as long. The various stages of our lives—childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond—are all extending and sometimes shifting in sequence as well. Technology and feminism have made it possible for women to make choices they couldn’t have made even a generation ago. Many women are intentionally getting pregnant before they become engaged or walk down the aisle. Some are even having children as single mothers by choice before finding husbands or freezing their eggs to donate to themselves further down the road. In the midst of the flurry of stories about baby panic, I read an article about a 58-year-old British woman who had given birth to twins conceived from donated embryos!
Fast-forward to 2015
I’m now 45 years old and writing the second edition of my book In Her Own Sweet Time: Egg Freezing and the New Frontiers of Family. Since the first edition was released in 2009, a lot has changed on the fertility front: Egg freezing is no longer considered experimental by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, and the procedure is now covered by many health insurance plans, including those at major corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Apple.
Single motherhood by choice has become downright mainstream. Women are more than ever speaking out about their fertility challenges and new options for family planning—even on Facebook! The latest Time magazine article to make the Facebook rounds among my cohort of career-minded friends, most being over the age of 35 when they had children, was headlined “Older Mothers Tend to Live Longer, Study Finds.” Health reporter Abby Abrahams writes: “The study, published in the journal Menopause, did not prove causation but it did find that women who gave birth after age 33 had twice the odds of living to 95 years or older than those who had their last child by age 29.”
It was only in the year after my breakup at The Cloisters that I began to make it a top priority to find the father of my imagined children. As I started my new life alone, I began to see all the new choices and the dilemmas and contradictions created by the newfound freedom to establish a family later. I realized that in this new world there were few social rules and regulations binding our decisions about whom to date, when and if to marry, and when to start trying to get pregnant as well as the new array of choices in advanced reproductive technology, forming alternative families with sperm or egg donors, choosing single motherhood, and adopting.
As women of a post-boomer generation, we are used to being in control of our lives, professionally and financially. The fact that we do not have control over the duration of our fertility can be incredibly frightening – and something many of us would like to ignore for as long as possible.
But no matter how scary some information is at first, it’s ultimately liberating to understand our body’s reproductive possibilities as well as its impossibilities. We have more options than ever; understanding them can empower us and, perhaps most important, turn panic into peace.
Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Egg Freezing and the New Frontiers of Family [Nothing But The Truth Publishing, LLC], available now in paperback and e-book.
One of America’s premier experts on the future of family life, career timing, and the influence of science and technology on fertility and pregnancy, Lehmann-Haupt is widely credited with coining the phrase “DIY Mom.” An in-demand speaker and journalist, her writing appears regularly in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, O, Glamour, Wired, Self, and more. She graduated with distinction in English literature from Kenyon College, and has a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley (where she apprenticed under Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine).