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The Atlantic's Fertility Story Just Told So Many Women What They Want To Hear

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As Slate outlined in a brilliant infographic last year, the Atlantic has made a business out of running dramatic stories that scrutinize women's life choices. Don't hook up. Marry anyone. No, wait, stay single -- men aren't doing so well right now. Get a nanny, get a divorce. Get used to less sex, have more sex, recognize that, no matter what, you will feel like you aren't trying hard enough.

The magazine's latest female-targeted story, "How Long Can You Wait To Have A Baby?" by Jean Twenge, is about another contemporary "female problem" -- how late is too late to get pregnant -- and contains many of the same elements of its predecessors in what Slate called "The Atlantic Guide to Womanhood." The reporter's personal story threads through the narrative as she (and as Jessica Grose once observed, the author of these marriage/babies/sex/divorce stories is always a she) tracks a trend or truth the rest of us have supposedly overlooked.

But where previous stories in this special genre have involved a fair degree of scare-mongering -- men are in decline, you will never get married, you will never have it all -- Twenge's piece is all about how a fear repeatedly encouraged in modern women, that they will not be able to conceive if they wait too long -- is based on old science and exaggerated if not entirely manufactured.

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless--30 percent--was also calculated based on historical populations.
In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not.

More recent studies, she reports, found that women over 35 have between a 78 and 82 percent chance of getting pregnant within a year. Also, most fertility problems have nothing to do with women's age.

She goes on to explore why fertility experts haven't made this clear to women -- basically, fertility is hard to study, they spend most of their time thinking about and treating women who are having trouble getting pregnant, and, terrifyingly, even they frequently cite data whose source can't be found. (Twenge doesn't mention that fertility clinicians, at least, stand to benefit financially from women's heightened fear of infertility. The more scared women are, the more likely they are to take expensive elective measures like egg freezing to improve their chances of conceiving.)

Much like Hanna Rosin's 2009 Atlantic cover story "The Case Against Breastfeeding," the piece is an acknowledgment and answer to the frustration of women struggling to do the right thing who have been told over and over again that if anything goes wrong, it's their fault. Twenge makes the not new but significant point that there are compelling financial and professional reasons not to have babies early: One study showed that a woman's career earnings increase by 10 percent for every year she puts off having a kid. And she dares to make a concrete and optimistic prescription: "Plan to have your last child by the time you turn 40. Beyond that, you're rolling the dice, though they may still come up in your favor." With three kids she had over 35, she's also living proof that the haters can be wrong. "It's nice to be right," she writes. Do you hear the women cheering?

I hope she is, in fact, right, as I suspect does every other American female between 25 and 40 who wants a career and a family and has been taught, in part by stories in the Atlantic and similar publications, that having both may be impossible. If she isn't, we at least know that the Atlantic lady-story machine is churning out content as irresistible as ever -- with added empathy. There are no three words more seductive to modern women than, "You have time."