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The Clock Watcher

How Do You Know When You're Really Ready for Kids?

Last May, five of my friends had babies. My husband and I spent the month dropping off pasta salad for bleary-eyed parents and playing Hot Potato with their swaddled infants. There were suddenly so many new children in our lives that we kept mixing up their names, so we just referred to each of them as The Baby. Each time I held one of The Babies, I felt a rush of tenderness and affection. But when we went home to indulge in the sleep our new-parent friends were missing, all of the little ones blended into one in my mind. As I slept, The Baby would swell to grotesque proportions, as if his bottle had been swapped with Alice's drink me potion.

Until recently, babies weren't my priority: I had to find a career, a partner, myself. I'd deal with the motherhood question later. Now I'm 35 and married. "Later" has arrived — and I'm still solidly, intractably ambivalent. My husband, also undecided, looks to me for guidance and motivation. I figured the issue would somehow resolve itself: Like Alyson Hannigan's character on How I Met Your Mother, I'd grab my husband one day and half sexily, half scarily demand that he "put a baby in me!" Or, after many heartfelt, wine-soaked conversations, we'd decide we were too selfish/broke/inept to have children of our own, and toast to a future of aunt- and unclehood. Instead, now that I've entered the five-year period when fertility experts strongly urge women to get busy, the indecision is agonizing.

In 1978, Louise Brown became the first infant born via in vitro fertilization. Over the next decade, women flooded the workplace, psyched about new educational and career opportunities and also fortified by this baby backup plan. Yet many were disappointed to find that getting pregnant in one's late thirties or early forties wasn't necessarily so easy, even with science on their side. That's when the concept of a biological clock—a use-it-or-lose-it time bomb of female fertility — went from trend to trope. Unmarried career gals heeding the clock's call became a familiar plotline on smart sitcoms like Murphy Brown, Moonlighting, and Designing Women. Remember a then 28-year-old Marisa Tomei irately stomping out the beat of her ticking clock in My Cousin Vinny?

Growing up, I wasn't into dolls or babysitting, but I still assumed my body would one day issue some kind of warning — both psychological and physiological — that its eggs were approaching their sell-by date. But while scientists have never been more certain about our short-term fertility window, it turns out the notion of the clock — our signal that the window's about to shut — is almost entirely anecdotal. According to Jani R. Jensen, M.D., an assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic, there's no proven bodily sign that "it's time." In the medical world, the term "biological clock" refers as much to circadian or basal rhythms as to babymaking. As a fertility buzz-phrase, it's "more of a press term," Jensen says. ...Read More

What, then, is making the very women with whom I've spent years critiquing the American institution of parenthood — say, the fact that 40.2 percent of married women with children under three didn't work full-time in 2009 — show up at brunches and book club meetings and gleefully announce their pregnancies? Something must be helping them push past pragmatic baby concerns, right?

Enter baby lust. My friend P., who is 32 and involved in a serious relationship, says it "almost feels like something is tugging at my uterus. Like when your stomach drops, but it's not your stomach." She remembers helping her boyfriend's adorable three-year-old nephew wash his hands: "My body was suddenly like, 'OMG, babies!'" Another single, 35-year-old friend of mine exclaims, "Oh, yeah!" when I ask if she's experienced anything like that. She describes an irregular pull in her lower abdomen, especially when she thinks about babies.

Even as I wait for my own mystical abdominal twinge — so far, nada —I know there are plenty of practical reasons I should be pulling the trigger ASAP. Bizarrely, a woman's egg supply starts to dwindle even before she develops fingernails, never mind wrinkles. "A fetus has probably between six and seven million eggs," Jensen says. "A newborn's ovaries only have between one and two million eggs. That means you lose 80 percent of your eggs before you're even born." In our teens and twenties, we have a 20 percent to 25 percent chance of getting pregnant each month (assuming we're having unprotected sex once or twice a week) — less, perhaps, than many of us believed in our pregnancy-phobic youth. Fertility begins to decline around age 27. According to the American Fertility Association, the probability of conceiving decreases 3 percent to 5 percent per year after age 30 and at a faster rate after 40. So a healthy 30-year-old has around a 20 percent chance per month of getting pregnant, but by 40, her chances are only about 5 percent. In addition, a woman in her twenties has only a 12 percent to 15 percent chance of miscarriage during an unassisted childbirth, while the odds are one in two for a woman over 40. A lot happens in a decade — my decade.

When I told my gynecologist that while my husband and I aren't "trying" yet, we're…considering, he suggested "ovarian reserve" tests. The first was for follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)—produced by the brain's pituitary gland, it tells the ovaries to release eggs; the ovaries respond by making estradiol or estrogen, then signal back to the pituitary to shut off production of FSH. Menopausal ovaries aren't capable of responding to FSH, so the pituitary keeps churning the hormone out at high levels. "Early in the menstrual cycle, you want to see the pituitary releasing some FSH, but you don't want to see it shouting at the ovaries," Jensen says. The good news — my FSH and estrogen levels are "perfectly fine"; i.e., I have as good a shot as any other 35-year-old at conceiving — came with a warning: Both levels can change in a few months, which is why the same tests are usually repeated after a year if the patient hasn't gotten pregnant.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently determined what they believed to be one clear sign that the body does, in fact, tell us when our baby time is running out: sex drive. Their study of 827 women ages 18 to 65, published in the June 2010 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, found that our desire increases as our fertility decreases. "Women with declining fertility think more about sex, have more frequent and intense sexual fantasies, are more willing to engage in sexual intercourse, and report actually engaging in sexual intercourse more frequently than women of other age groups," the researchers wrote. "These findings suggest women's 'biological clock' may function to shift psychological motivations and actual behaviors to facilitate utilizing remaining fertility."

I'm not convinced. First of all, the subjects they identified as having declining fertility spanned ages 27 to 45. Their sex drives weren't shown to be especially revved up during the ages when fertility drops between 35 and 40. And, as the study authors themselves point out, their results may simply coincide with their subjects' increased sexual experience — maybe they just want more sex because they were getting better at it! If my husband and I have more sex now that I'm in my thirties than when we met in my midtwenties, I'd say it's because we spend more time together under the same roof. And, much to his dismay, my mature self has not suddenly turned into a tigress in the bedroom.

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  • Did your body tell you when you were ready for kids?

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The Clock Watcher
How Do You Know When You're Really Ready for Kids?
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