Childless women often view their declining fertility with ambivalence. Jennifer Westfeldt, director and producer of Friends With Kids, recently said, “I kept feeling like I’d wake up with absolute clarity, and I haven’t. And we have a pretty great life together. The chance that we’ll regret it doesn’t seem like a compelling enough reason to do it. I may wake up tomorrow with that lighting bolt, and I’ll have to scramble to make it happen.”
Ms. Westfeldt is 42. “Scrambling to make it happen” would, in all likelihood, entail high-tech fertility rites with a low chance of producing a child with both her genes and those of her partner Jon Hamm.
I know firsthand the profound regret of having waited too long and the frustration of fertility treatments. But I sympathize fully with the difficulty of forcing a life-changing decision.
Nicole Rodgers put it well in an essay last year in Role/Reboot: “We need to understand that women who ‘wait’ (often too long, biologically speaking) for kids are responding rationally to new paradigms that are still governed by old rules.” (The new paradigms include more education and career opportunities for women as well as the growing trend to marry later in life.)
Deciding to have children was a particularly difficult decision for me because I was married to a divorced man who, despite his pre-marital avowals of a desire for children in addition to his own two, became adamantly opposed given the exigencies of my legal career. He refused to become the “default parent” when work required my presence.
His proposed solution was for me to give up my position in a major international law firm. Mine was to leave him. In fairness, I should add that neither of us knew how demanding my career would be when we married.
Marriage counseling made me remember the reasons I had married him: bright, witty, and playful. On the other hand, success in my career made me even more reluctant to leave the partnership track.
I considered my choices “rationally.” Should I leave a man I loved or a career I relished for the unknowable satisfaction of being a mother? I had never spent much time with infants or toddlers. Every parent I knew said children were so much more work than you ever expected if they were healthy and well-adjusted. But then there were birth defects, drugs, accidents…so much could go heart-wrenchingly wrong. How could I choose that over two knowns?
So, I waited. I made partner. The clock ticked louder and I insisted we try. But my husband was unbending. We separated only to get together later. He said he loved me enough to have a child and suggested a “compromise.” It would allow us to both get what we wanted. He would leave his hated job as a nuclear engineer and study commercial photography. I would remain a partner, get pregnant and a nanny would become the “default parent.”
Except I didn’t get pregnant.
As I look back, I realize I had delayed because I was trying to make an emotional decision rationally. Wanting a child was the expression of an emotion hard-wired into my genes, one that couldn’t be analyzed away.
I had this epiphany standing on the bank of an Alaskan river watching salmon charge up a waterfall to reach their spawning grounds. Through the streaming white water, I saw salmon leap out of the foam at the bottom into the air and, if they were lucky, clear the ledge with a final flick of their tails. The unlucky charged the falls again and again, jumping upward only to fall back defeated or worse, slashed by the sharp rocks below.
Watching their struggle, I knew my intellect couldn’t overcome my wish for a child, no matter how irrational that desire might be.
Possessed by the drive to reproduce, I visited fertility specialists. I faithfully followed their regimens, including taking very powerful drugs. Before dispensing the medication, the doctor’s nurse would throw away the package inserts, telling me the information would just frighten me. I finally stopped, not so much out of fear of side effects, as eventual frustration.
I cannot fully describe my joy at adopting a new-born boy. He is now a happy, healthy, bright 23-year-old.
However, women who delay childbearing shouldn’t consider adoption a fail-safe cure-all should they prove to be infertile. The number of infants available to be adopted has dropped sharply. Moreover, concerns are now being expressed openly that adoptees may be more subject to unexpected mental health problems than birth children.
Despite my inner turmoil and my husband’s opposition, I became a mother. However, I didn’t create a family. My husband left within a year of my son’s birth. He was right: He didn’t want to be a parent.
Like the married couples in Friends With Kids, our marriage was changed by the demands of parenting. My husband resented the attention I gladly gave my baby.
If I could choose again, would I have chosen my child knowing the result would be the loss of my marriage? Absolutely. The richness of loving my son fills my heart.
This piece originally appeared on Role/Reboot, and is cross-posted with permission.