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Jewish World Review August 13, 2001/ 24 Menachem-Av 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Romance in a petri dish -- ONE of the cruelest unintended consequences of contemporary feminism comes to those who delay having children. You have only to speak to a woman trying to get pregnant to understand the pain.

She may yet succeed and if she does the visits to the fertility clinic, the supplemental hormones, the monthly failures will seem like a distant memory. But if a pregnancy doesn't happen, the ache quickly becomes anguish.

Every pregnant woman on the street is an image for envy. Every pregnant teen-ager is an affront. A shop window with tiny clothes, a cradle or a crib provokes tears, rage, fear and trembling. A feeling of helplessness infuses commonplace events. Someone else's baby shower invites deep depression. Children at the playground, in the sandbox, on the Jungle Jim beget fright and frustration.

I know because I was there. At 26, I cried every day for a year. It's easy to talk about it now; my three children are adults and one of them has children of her own, but I remember those other feelings. Even though I was still young and didn't have to rely on scientific measures, I felt the fear and panic. I obsessed over the same questions day in and day out: Will I be able to get pregnant? What if I can't?

Well, I was lucky. I was young and a year wasn't a long time to suffer such doubts. But today many women are suffering from doubts because they're in their late 30s and early 40s. Many of them have put off children because they want to be established in careers, they want to make partner in the law firm, earn the Ph.D., be promoted to general. They marry late, expecting to have children late.

What Mother Nature isn't up to, they believe, science will remedy. (Cloning is merely one logical extension of such thinking.) I came of age knowing that 35 was a crucial turning point for getting pregnant, that it was not only harder to get pregnant after that, but it was statistically more risky for having a normal, healthy baby. That kind of information evaporated in the popular culture in the 1970s, when everybody was encouraged to find "self-fulfillment'' first (as if becoming a mother wasn't). Babies were dropped from the scale for measuring quality of life.

For political feminists, the subject of children was linked to the need for day care. A young woman whose mother may have given her birth in her early 20s was pitied (if not censured) if she followed her mother's example. Cohabitation soared with public acceptance. "We'll get married when we decide to have children,'' these couples said. "Someday, not today.''

Since 1970, Newsweek reports, the number of first births for women in their 30s and 40s have quadrupled. Stories about older women giving birth make it sound easy. But it's not. Alarmed by the ignorance of women delaying first children, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the nation's largest organization of professional fertility experts, will initiate an education campaign headlined by a warning: "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children.''

It's a message that I often talk about in speeches on college campuses, but it's one that is uniformly met with the arrogance of youth, both female and male. Young women find most college men too immature to be husbands, let alone fathers. Sex has become so abundant and impersonal that fertilization in a petri dish almost sounds romantic.

The new ad campaign about the problems of fertility will bring some balance to the discussion, but it only deals with the reasons for not waiting. It doesn't speak to the rewards of a young couple with lots of love and energy to spend on a family, of the joys of being young as the children grow up and leave the nest.

I sound like I was born yesterday (and I was) and therefore overlook the current economic determinants, the challenges that occur without built-in supports of an extended family, the proliferation of sexual temptations, the cultural attitudes that make experimenting in different life adventures more seductive than having a baby and raising a family. But our indulgence in the culture of youth that suggests life offers unlimited opportunities is terribly short-sighted.

Even the popular HBO sitcom "Sex and the City'' has let fertility problems become a dramatic device. A recent episode focused on Charlotte, a married woman who was suffering from the pains of not being pregnant, when her single friend Miranda, a lawyer, who became pregnant by accident, decided to have a baby because she was getting older and it may be her last chance.

Feminism, for many, meant "choice.'' But the choices, like the times Bob Dylan sang about, are a'changin', too.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS