Tick Tock, Beat the Clock

By Lili Wright ’86 / March / April 2005
August 10th, 2007

In the bathroom, I keep an ovulation monitor, a box of Gonal-F hormone, and a bag of syringes—reminders of my three-year bout with infertility. For some reason, I can’t throw them away. Perhaps I’m not ready to forget where I’ve been.

While our daughter’s birth was a happy accident, it took the best of Western and Eastern medicine to bring our little boy into the world. For months, I gave myself hormone injections. I got pregnant, only to miscarry. I had surgery to clear up endometriosis, then to remove a polyp. Moving to in vitro fertilization, we amped up the hormones. The first round didn’t work. But when we implanted four frozen embryos (my mother was horrified by the prospect of all those babies), in combination with acu­puncture, our son Lincoln—just Lincoln—was born.

Throughout the wrenching cycles of hope and disappointment, it was comforting to know I wasn’t alone. Friends from Brown and elsewhere were struggling with infertility. One conceived both her girls through IVF. Two more sought help from surrogate mothers.

Forget book clubs. Brown ought to set up alumnae infertility groups. Among women of our era, infertility is practically a rite of passage, on par with menstruation, marriage, and menopause. Since the first U.S. baby was conceived outside the womb in 1981, the use of IVF and other assisted reproductive treatments has skyrocketed. In 2001, 1 percent of babies were conceived in a lab.

While this is good news for couples who in earlier days might have remained childless, high-tech intervention takes its toll. Endless shots, exorbitant bills, and agonizing ethical quandaries make infertility treatment a debilitating ordeal. Women turn to mad science for myriad reasons, from blocked tubes to genetic disorders to uterine cancer. My biggest roadblock to a second pregnancy was age.

I was forty when Lincoln was born. Why did I wait so long? Indecisiveness? Immaturity? The Peter Pan syndrome?

In my twenties, I simply wasn’t ready. While I don’t consider myself a “career momma,” a loathsome term, I am a teacher and a writer and I love what I do. I worked hard in my twenties, met my husband in my thirties, and soon after we started a family. This pace felt right.

Who knew my fertility would plummet? No one warned me! Okay, my mother warned me (but could I really have been expected to listen?). Certainly the media tried to warn me, with ticking clocks and images of Bridget Jones in a bunny costume, but those mean-spirited predictions of spinsterhood and barren wombs only paralyzed me as I tried to find a lifelong mate. Love can’t always be hurried.

Much of America was aghast when Aleta St. James, sister of Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa, delivered twins at fifty-six. How could she? How selfish. While changing diapers in your late fifties is hardly ideal for mother or child, I applaud the way science has begun to reduce one of the great biological inequities of our species: that men can sire children until the grave, while women struggle after thirty-five. Tony Randall fathered a child at seventy-seven; Saul Bellow at eighty-four.

Still, I worry about the next generation. Americans really ought to invest more time and money and brainpower in devising ways to make work and parenting more compatible—from daycare to paid maternity leave to flex time. It’s not that women “want it all,” as some social critics sneer; we merely want what so many men enjoy: rewarding work and a family.

Until it becomes easier to combine these two fundamental callings, many women will postpone motherhood, hoping science can keep their bodies forever fertile.

Lili Wright teaches writing at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and is author of Learning to Float, a memoir.

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March / April 2005