Women have to plan, conceive, carry and labor to make babies who, chances are, wont even have our last names, writes Mandy Len Catron
Im a 37-year-old woman and, no matter how hard I listen, I cannot hear the ticking of my biological clock. Maybe thats because I hear the din of everyone elses concerns about my reproductive future instead: Are you thinking about kids? Having a baby will destroy your writing time. Whatever you do, dont give up a job with maternity leave.
My partner doesnt get these comments. Only one person has ever asked him if were having kids: his own father.
I dont hear the clock ticking but I am trying to have a baby anyway. And its not so hard to imagine another, smaller person in our home.
When Mark and I stopped using birth control about a year and a half ago, I felt like my body was a site of possibility. Any day our whole lives could just be upended, which, though scary, was at least interesting. I didnt want anyone speculating about the status of my uterus so, for a few months, my doctor was the only one who knew that we were not not trying to get pregnant. She sent me for standard blood work and recommended some vitamins. I downloaded a period tracking app and bought pregnancy tests in bulk online. Id spent my adult life taking care of my own reproductive health so all of this felt normal. I didnt even notice I was the one doing all the work.
But my cycle was unpredictable, which meant different symptoms each month, many of which mimicked the symptoms of early pregnancy. A few months in, I began to understand that my body wasnt a site of possibility as much as it was an existential paradox. Inside was Schrodingers egg in its state of quantum superposition: fertilized and not. Every month I waited and I wondered: Is this what I want? How will I get any writing done? And what if we cant conceive? When are we supposed to start worrying? Mostly, I wondered why I the one with more ambivalence about having kids in the first place was the one with all the anxiety about our fertility.
Of course, the answer to this last question is easy: its because Im a woman. Not only do women (even in otherwise egalitarian relationships) do more of the childcare and housework, the emotional and logistical labor of getting pregnant in the first place falls to us, too. Marks life looked and felt exactly as it had months earlier. He liked the possibility of having a kid but felt no real rush. He wasnt especially worried that we wouldnt be able to get pregnant. No matter how I explained it, he didnt get why I couldnt just stop paying attention to what was happening inside my body each month.
I have never understood why women my age have the reputation of trapping carefree bachelors into the burdens of commitment and fatherhood when so many of the thirtysomething women I know are starting post-docs or tackling new projects at work, gently pushing back against male partners who are ready and waiting to become fathers. These women are not anomalous. Study after study shows that men are more likely to want kids. But this fact, too, is hard for the men in my life to digest. But women love babies, they tell me. Its just biology.
I dont mind babies, but I dont long for one. The world promised me this longing would arrive one day, like a package on my doorstep, but what I long for is a second book contract and protracted stretches of time alone. Im beginning to think this promise was not a lie, exactly but the cultures way of distracting me from all the non-gestational things Id like to be doing.
Ive spent my reproductive years receiving two incompatible messages: that having kids will get in the way of my career (that, in fact, everything I love to do, from writing to rock climbing to traveling, is existentially opposed to being a mother) and that my life will be shaped by great regret if I dont have kids. I am tired of wondering whether I can love some unconceived person and still love my life. Of course Im the anxious one.
Over the past 18 months, Ive been in and out of doctors offices. Ive spent hundreds of dollars on naturopathic treatment to balance my hormones and acupuncture to regulate my cycle. Ive changed my diet and charted my body temperature and tracked my ovulation. Ive learned the finer points of fertility and conception and explained them all to Mark. Ive lain on a table with a clamp around my cervix while dye was injected into my uterus and my abdomen x-rayed. Why am I doing all this for something Im not even sure I want?
In truth, what I want is to be a dad. I dont especially want to carry or deliver a baby. I dont want to breastfeed or take time away from work. I want to go to the aquarium to marvel at the otters and read picture books before bed.
I love my partner and I like idea of making a human with him, but Im the one with the uterus. And, despite the fact that male factor infertility is responsible for about half of all infertility cases, our entire reproductive health care system is designed to focus primarily on womens bodies.
Yes, Mark has done a handful of tests now, too. But he isnt reading articles that interview men about their fears related to infertility because those articles dont exist. Id genuinely like to know what men think about their fertility: are they worried about their declining sperm counts? Womens fears are not the story here. The story is a culture that fetishizes motherhood as the most meaningful experience a woman can have while telling her to put it off as long as possible so she can lean in at work despite knowing shell never earn as much as her male colleagues.
The New York Times tells me costs of motherhood are on the rise, but we arent talking about the costs of conception: not just the enormous expense of fertility treatments, but the costs of missing work for frequent doctor appointments, the physical toll of hormone treatments and invasive procedures, and the ordinary effort of planning sex on the right day while making it seem fun and spontaneous. We have to plan, conceive, carry and labor to make babies who, chances are, wont even have our last names. Of course women are less eager to have children than their partners are; the costs to our bodies, our careers, our finances are just so much higher.
Mandy Len Catron is the author of How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays