The other day, I ended an e-mail to a friend with a sympathetic one-line query: “Baby?”
She responded: “No baby yet. Four months trying. But found out the colon cleanser I take daily (on derm’s rec.) could be a big part. So no more colon cleanse.”
There was a time when it would have been considered rude for me to ask how her attempts to spawn were going, and for her to answer so frankly. Now, it’s quite the opposite. Never mind the colon cleanse: The once-stigmatized topic of fertility is so far out of the closet, you might as well turn the closet into a nursery. As any thirtysomething female will tell you, getting pregnant is the new yoga. (Except it’s not, because as so many people are delighted to share, “Only the missionary position really works.”) It seems the ability to intercept a sperm cell has replaced artistic talent/big salary/social connections as the sine qua non of Manhattan womanly achievement.
My startled observations include:
—Women rushing to the doctor after only a month without birth control to have their ovarian reserves and hormone levels tested.
—Friends not drinking in preparation for pregnancy, not because they are pregnant.
—Widespread weight gain. (I recently heard a newly pudgy acquaintance, who’d long survived on the thin edge of the anorexia wedge reassuring a gal busily snorting a Beard Papa cream puff: “It’s O.K. if you’ve gained a few pounds. It’s easier to get pregnant that way!”)
—Conspicuous bottles of pre-natal vitamins lying about.
—Obsession with getting enough sleep.
—Graphic conversations about recent sex acts, ovulation times and cervical-mucus consistency.
—Everyone owning those special basal-body temperature thermometers or the upscale version, LadyComp.
—Not eating (potentially mercury-laden) fish.
—Fascination with actresses, such as Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts, going to fertility clinics.
The concomitant media frenzy has planted seeds of anxiety where once there were none. It doesn’t stop at The Star and Us Weekly, with their frantic documentation of celebrity “bumps.” Now there is Conceive, a Florida-based magazine that preys solely on commoners trying to go gravid, with panic-inducing articles (“How fresh are your eggs?”), advice columns (“Fun ways to keep the romance alive while trying!”), sinister beauty-product plugs (“You glow, girl! You don’t have to wait until you’re pregnant to get that special glow”) and fertility-porn features (“A quick look at the fertility history of our candidates’ spouses”).
A press kit for Conceive arrived, wrapped in a diaper, at the offices of Elle, the fairly progressive women’s magazine where I work. I read the slogan—”celebrating the creation of families”—and felt a wave of first-trimester-like nausea. Could it be that the independent, intellectually rigorous women I’d moved to New York City to meet—and happily did—might embrace this insipid fertility-fetish rag? Examining the first issue, I felt a certain kinship with the giant, translucent-skinned baby head looming from the cover. It looked like an alien, and I’d been feeling like an alien.
Horrified yet intrigued, I found myself going to Conceive ’s opening party, on the 14th floor of the D&D building on Third Avenue, where a staffer greeted me with an offer of “Water, soda [long, cautious pause] … some wine?”
I met the magazine’s founder, one Kim Hahn from Orlando, a middle-aged former executive at SunTrust Banks who saw a niche to fill between Modern Bride and Fit Pregnancy after four years of unsuccessful fertility treatments (she ultimately adopted). “There was no magazine for me,” Ms. Hahn said. “We’re going to fill the gap.”
The room was full of her family and friends, many of whom seemed also to be her shareholders, looking distinctly Florida-does-corporate: the tan men in forest-green poly-twill blazers and white pants, or mock turtlenecks and sports jackets; the women in too-long blazers over floral-print dresses; everyone in gold jewelry.
Frantically searching for a more familiar fashion ethic, I began chatting with Jane Tervooren, a consulting board member of the magazine and the marketing director of IVF New Jersey. Although it was ostensibly in her professional interest to tell me that there’s no rush to have babies, she gave me the straight dope (the topic of fertility seems to send women straight into “sisterhood is powerful” mode): “Our eggs go so south after 35, you wouldn’t believe it. Honey, I am not kidding. I don’t mean to scare you.”
“But we don’t even own an apartment yet!”
“Screw that. Don’t wait. Have a baby. Believe me, I’ve seen what happens when women wait.”
I’m 33, and it’s not that I don’t have longings to see my husband holding a mini-us (sooo cute!), or—I’ll admit it—to triumph in a fray where simple good genetic fortune trumps wit or hard work. (The fantasy: “I know, I just threw my Leah’s Shield away last month,” I say, smiling ruefully. “I’m just so fertile!”)
It’s just that I feel a profound resistance to the wholehearted acceptance of biology as destiny. Am I the last one whose loudly ticking clock hasn’t drowned out the quiet thrum of rational analysis? I still have questions. Beginning with: Isn’t this obsession with having one’s own offspring just narcissism, when our maternal energies would be far better directed at the terrible schools for children who already exist, or unloved foster kids? What about Sylvia Plath and her bag of green apples? And what of that old saw, overpopulation? As Conceive gaily tells potential advertisers in its sales package, the population is going to double in 60 years. Does anyone want to be around when this city is twice as crowded? Do you want it to be your fault?
My friends placate me with a few tossed-off comments, but their eyes cloud over. The answer seems to be: You just know you want a little life to mold, and that’s all there is to it. Then they light up again, discussing luteal phases, soft cervixes and that RNA clinic on 60th and Lexington that offers the latest technology: egg-freezing services for healthy women at $15,000 a pop.
Sadly, I’ll probably buckle and “start trying” this year myself, caving to this mysterious force— Conceive its glossy envoy—spreading the creepy, resurrected notion that the most important experience of a woman’s life is motherhood, and that, unless I want to be faced with a huge, gaping hole in my heart when I’m 45, I’d better, as Ms. Tervooren said, “hurry the hell up.” Worse still, I probably won’t be able to stop talking about the process.