I am the proud "owner" of an almost 4-year-old boy. He is sweet and sassy, loving, funny and generous to a fault. To quote Nicholas Cage in the movie Raising Arizona, "I think I got the best one!"
When I first embarked on my baby-having mission at the age of 38, I was shocked to find that my age was an issue for the first time in my life. Not so much to me. I felt rather proud of myself. All those vitamins. All those years of not doing crack or heroin. They were now bearing fruit, so to speak, as (much to my husband's disappointment) we got pregnant after trying just one time.
But when you enter the health care system as a 38-year-old pregnant woman, you suddenly discover you're a bit of a problem. They've coined a rather insulting phrase for you and you hear it ad nauseum. You are a lady of "advanced maternal age," a term definitely not thought up by a woman.
My pals and I who were in our late 30s and pregnant mocked it, all the while harboring resentment and feeling secretly scared about this new development. Unbeknownst to us, we'd slipped over into a category considered so specialized and problematic that they needed a name for it. We were not the sum of our experiences or our commitment to non-toxic cleansers and organic foods. Our youthful fashion choices made no impression. We were the number of our age. Fraught with potential difficulty. Something to keep a trained eye closely on.
Still, I defiantly yoga'ed my way through pregnancy fairly confidently and had the beautiful, successful (albeit horrendously painful) natural birth I'd wanted and planned for.
Cut to five years later. I'm now a 43-year-old woman with two demoralizing and terribly sad pregnancy losses under my belt on our journey towards having a second child.
It will make your head spin how quickly you can go from being on the privileged side of an equation to joining a club you wish you didn't belong to. It has completely undermined my sense of who I thought I was, while increasing my compassion for other women who've experienced similar challenge and loss. Whereas in the past I would have intellectually understood what it meant for a woman to lose a pregnancy or to come up against infertility altogether, my empathy has been cracked wide open. It's hard to believe how many women carry these experiences around with them.
The medical community has a new set of glamorous terms with which to approach me at this age and they include the following (also not thought up by a woman): Elderly. Failing. Old. High risk. Against the odds. And the bearer of "bad eggs."
If you ever want a humiliating experience, arrange things so that every single person you go to for help with something you're really struggling with consistently talks about the fact that you are, it seems, horribly old. Implicit is the idea that you are starting your descent. You may still shop at Old Navy and H+M and, every once in a while, some charitable bouncer sitting in the dark will throw you a bone and ask for your ID. But your eggs don't know it and they don't give a sh*t. Now you are not only seen as someone to be carefully watched, but someone whose success would be actively bucking the odds.
I've felt capable my entire life. If I didn't have it or didn't know it, I figured I could work hard and aspire to it. This is truly the first time I've felt this helpless and lost. A year ago, I was trying to figure out whether or not I even wanted another child. Now that the option is being rapidly closed off to me, I'm desperate for it. And I cannot see the forest for the trees. I cannot determine whether it's the urge or the denial that is now ruling my emotions.
I know that, technically, there are options: IVF, egg donor and adoption all spring to mind. I do feel that any of those routes might put us in the poor house, but maybe the confrontation I'm having is not entirely with the fact that I may not be able to bear another child. It's deeply entwined with facing my own mortality and the end of the relative ease of youth. It's something we all have to face, and usually without warning. It can come on like a house on fire.
Five minutes after meeting me, my reproductive endocrinologist shoved a dildo camera into my nether regions, looked at my eggs, and announced that there were very few left and they're probably mostly bad anyway. "Perfectly normal for a woman of your age."
Because I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, I see an acupuncturist as well. She sticks needles in my belly and swears they will "improve egg quality." As I lay on her table, listening to relaxing reed instruments and looking more akin to a porcupine than myself, I can't help but think about the movie Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman. Desperate to find a cure for his terminal illness, he travels to a foreign country to see a traditional healer. After spending his life as a con man and a shyster, when the practitioner pretends to pull the cancer out through his belly button, he can't help but see the trick and know it's a scam. And yet, he still lies there and hopes.
After a lifetime of a cynical nature I attribute, almost proudly, to being a New Yorker raised on Woody Allen movies, I find it equally hard to suspend disbelief. And yet, there I lie. Hopeful.
My endocrinologist feels my acupuncturist is a charlatan. My acupuncturist, although she is a demure, quiet Asian lady who would never say so, clearly feels my endocrinologist is a lying sack of snot. And I feel... angry. Really angry.
I spent a ton of energy during my first pregnancy rebelling against the often cold, arrogant, overly-medicalized, male-centric health care system, and tacitly joined a movement towards naturalism, faith in a woman's body, and viewing pregnancy as a natural process rather than a problem to be solved. This movement is entirely necessary and valuable because, especially in America, we are ruled by fear and expense when it comes to health care decisions. I'm glad I aligned myself with this group, but what I TRULY wish is that there didn't have to be such distinct sides. I wish BOTH groups had given me more even-handed advice and let me decide things for myself.
Along with the natural movement, there was the message that time lines and biological clocks are externally imposed bullshit limitations. That women have always given birth into their forties. It just used to be their fifth or sixth child, not their first or second, as is often the modern way in the western world.
The truth, as I see it now, is that while the linguistics and semantics of the medical world and the fear and disempowerment they often evoke are to be reviled, what women really need is information. One "side" insulted and frightened me, while the other "side" glad-handed me. Had I had a more honest overview and better guidance, I might not be here at 43 feeling so lost. I wouldn't have assumed that I could trick my body into thinking I had all the time in the world. And I wouldn't feel shaken enough to accept insulting treatment.
Every day, I am grateful to have my healthy, sweet son. I also feel more compassion than ever for women confronting similar challenges as well as much more difficult ones. I wish each of them even-handed, solid, encouraging but realistic guidance delivered in a kind and respectful way. And I wish them a ton of good fortune.
As for me, I am looking forward to finding my way back towards empowerment; back to feeling like a ballsy, confident woman. But it's clear I'll never be blissfully ignorant again and that I will never be the same.