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Just Want You to Know: You’re Still a Fertility Anomaly

As the rest of the world fights about whether or not women can get pregnant later in life — They can’t! That’s why we should have babies as soon as possible.  They can! Take time to plan out your career and then have babies — we are infertile.  That’s all I could think of while reading the latest brouhaha over Jean Twenge’s article in the Atlantic about how women really can wait later in life to have kids.

All those statistics, they’re meaningless when you’re on the other side of the statistics fence.  Twenge, a psychology researcher, writes, “82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds.”  And that is well and good, except I have never been part of that 86% or that 82%.  I am part of the 14% or the 18%.  And from here, I think we’re too wrapped up in a numbers game.  A game where there are no guarantees, and we don’t even really know the odds since we’re all individuals inside a general population.  And those statistics are only speaking about the general population.

That is the place where I agree with Twenge, who states that the research is lacking to make any sort of firm statement about fertility decline.  That we need to stop thinking that we can control this because there simply isn’t a concrete answer we can arrive at and feel comfortable setting in stone.  She recommends, based on her research, for women to wrap up by 40.  But if we accept her argument, the research isn’t strong enough to direct us toward a cut-off age.  So I’m not sure why she negates her own argument and provides one.

Have children when you’re ready to have children because there is no controlling for infertility.  It’s not advisable to try to procreate before you’re ready emotionally or financially to raise a child just because you’re worried about age-related fertility.  And it’s foolish to believe that because an 82% statistic exists that if you wait, it’s pretty much a sure thing that you’ll be able to have children.  You don’t need a magazine article to tell you what you know in your heart: that life, health, and bodily functions are finite, and we need to balance that reality with our needs and mental preparedness.  Plus there’s that other reality: infertility exists, and not all of it is age-related.

All in all, the article was fine.  It contradicted itself a lot, and it was no more helpful than that ad in England.  But it was food for thought, and if all she says is true, then more research should definitely be on the table.

The place where I find Twenge smug and unhelpful is when she recounts the Saturday Night Live sketch at the end of the article and points out that “Eleven years later, these four women have eight children among them, all but one born when they were older than 35. It’s good to be right.”  Good to be right?  About what?  That all five of you randomly support your thesis?  And if they hadn’t supported your thesis, that story wouldn’t have appeared in the article at all?

And then I remember that these articles don’t apply to me.  They are for the 82%.


1 Rachel { 06.23.13 at 7:42 am }

I remember having similar thoughts as I read it… that those statistics are all nice and pretty, but I started my infertility “adventure” at around age 27… so what does that mean?

I also couldn’t help but think back to a conversation I had about two years before I got pregnant with my twins… I was, I think, about 30 or 31, and my friend was 40… she was wondering if she should have another kid or not, and I was thinking of whether I wanted to stop trying or not… the next time I spoke to her about the subject, a mere two months later, she told me she got pregnant while “thinking” about whether to really start trying.

Age isn’t everything, that’s for sure.

2 mrs spock { 06.23.13 at 7:49 am }

The SNL bit bothered me too. All that means is that 5 out of 5 SNL actresses were not in the unlucky 15%. And that supports…what? Pretty much nothing.

3 Katherine A { 06.23.13 at 7:56 am }

Thank you for this. This post really makes a good point about how numbers just don’t apply the same way when you’re in the 14 or 18 percent.

I especially love this line – ‘…infertility exists, and not all of it is age-related.’ So incredibly true. There is so much misinformation about infertility in one’s 20s or early 30s. A fair number of people have looked at me when I’ve admitted I’m infertile and essentially gone, ‘but you’re only 30, surely you just need to relax and let it happen, you’re too young.’ Not true in my case, or plenty of others.

The part that gave me goosebumps though was the closing line about how these articles don’t apply to the infertile, that ‘they are for the 82 percent’. It captures that profound sense of alienation I so often feel when I’m among fertile people. This isn’t the same as the irritation or even resentment I sometimes feel among fertile people. It’s the feeling of ‘huh, we aren’t even on the same planet in terms of worldview’ that sometimes washes over me when fertile people talk about planning exactly when to conceive their next child so it works with vacation plans or work, that they are certain they will get pregnant and have another child when they want to. At those moments, it’s not an angry or upset feeling, it’s just that I so cannot relate to that mindset that it’s absolutely foreign to me.

And I agree with both you and Twenge that we could definitely use more fertility related research.

4 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 06.23.13 at 8:34 am }

YES. THIS. Exactly what I thought when I read that article. Hey, people, guess what? (Unless you are someone with a known medical issue that impacts fertility,) until you start trying, you don’t even know whether any of these stats apply to you! You could very well be one of the 18% who won’t get pregnant, regardless of age! And yes, in this case, time DOES matter. It may not matter as much as we’d like, but like she points out, if IVF is (sort of) a numbers game (this many eggs, less many are “ripe”, less many fertilize, less many keep developing, less many are good enough to transfer, less many implant, less many become a live baby), then starting out with the biggest pool possible, even if it’s retrieving 15 eggs vs 10 eggs, can be the difference between the take-home baby or not. Which she acknowledges.

What she doesn’t acknowledge, but seems to sort-of-incorrectly-allude to, is that you don’t know whether you will end up being infertile. She just states that overweight women have worse odds than the general population, which I could see leading people to think that as long as they are of a lower weight, they won’t have difficulties. Which is wrong.

Ugh. Yeah, this article got me for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I *know* people who read this and used it as support/justification for why it’s probably okay to put off trying to start a family. And my experience colors my reaction accordingly.

5 a { 06.23.13 at 9:05 am }

As someone who doesn’t believe in getting worked up about things when I have no control over whether or not they will happen to me, I mostly liked the tone of this article. That last line – it’s good to be right – was bothersome and smug, though.

6 loribeth { 06.23.13 at 9:54 am }

It did give me pause to read in the article that the stats are based on research that was done in the 1700s in France. I think an update is in order. :p That said, I agree, it’s not much comfort when you’re among that 18%.

Also — how does she know whether any of those SNL actresses used ARTs to get pregnant? (Maybe they didn’t — but maybe they did….)

7 gwinne { 06.23.13 at 11:04 am }

Yeah….I started trying young (comparative to most SMCs, that is) because I didn’t want to deal with age-related infertility. Dealt with APA and RPL instead, starting in my 20s. And by the time I started trying for my second (at 35), I had DOR on top of it, despite a seemingly normal FSH. Lovely.

I shudder to think, honestly, what would have happened if I’d waited to start trying for my first.

8 jjiraffe { 06.23.13 at 11:45 am }

You covered most of my objections. But, I also didn’t care for the way she didn’t address PCOS as a cause of infertility ( a BIG whoops) and the way she brushed off the increased risk of miscarriages over 35. All in all, I got the feeling that this article was solely written to explain her own good luck. Which made it seem smug indeed.

Its only valid (perhaps) point? The really old study everyone seems to be using, as Loribeth mentioned. I’d like to hear more about that.

9 loribeth { 06.23.13 at 11:49 am }
10 knalani { 06.23.13 at 5:03 pm }

I struggle with this. My infertility IS age-related (at 34, I have diminished ovarian reserve), BUT being told constantly that my biological clock was ticking didn’t make infertility any easier when it came. I don’t remotely wish that I had procreated with one of my twenty-something boyfriends. I don’t wish that I had skipped grad school and starting my academic career. I don’t wish I had rushed my husband to the altar and poked holes in condoms… And when my twenty-year old sister asks me for advice, I want her to feel confident that she can have the life – the career and the family – that she wants. For that reason, I’m grateful that Jean Twenge is out there telling women that the odds are in their favor…even if I lost at the age-related infertility roulette wheel.

11 fifi { 06.23.13 at 7:14 pm }

I was v concerned about age-related infertility when I married at 36. Turns out I didn’t have a problem, but my husband did! It was a shock for both of us. Male infertility is like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expects it.

12 Esperanza { 06.23.13 at 9:29 pm }

Being diagnosed with DOR at 32 I definitely feel that starting earlier helped my ability to get pregnant exponentially. If I had waiter until 35 I probably would not have had any biological children (especially since we were also dealing with MFI). Of course I’m in the 18% so maybe my experience is not relevant to this article? It definitely felt that way as I read it. I definitely felt very isolated reading that, reminded again that I’m the one with something wrong with me.

I did appreciate hearing where those stats come from and realizing how important more studies on fertility decline are. But I suppose in the end, the reality will always be the same: you won’t know if you (or your partner) have a problem until you start trying. And if you do end up having trouble conceiving time/age is definitely a huge factor. It’s not that I expect people to make family building choices based on the possibility that they might be infertile (which I actually did) but if having kids is a big priority, maybe more people should understand what their chances would be at 38 if they do fall into the 14%.

13 Chickenpig { 06.24.13 at 6:18 am }

Too true. My husband was probably infertile by age 13. Infertility just lying in wait to bight us in the ass. While women in my family have been known to have children at nearly 50, I’m glad we started trying at 30. If we hadn’t started trying until 35 we’d be up shit’s creek now.

14 Ann Z { 06.24.13 at 1:37 pm }

I had pretty much the exact same thoughts about the article. As a librarian, I love that she actually went back to the original studies and looked at where the numbers came from. I’d never really thought about how birth control has made it much harder for these studies to be done, so I found the parts talking about the different ways of studying this, and the fact that we don’t have good numbers, to be fascinating. But the rest, all I could think was, well, good for you if you’re in the 80-some percentage, but that’s still a big chunk of us that are left out. I think your point that we’re all individuals, and in the end those statistics won’t tell you whether or not you’ll conceive, is really well stated. A magazine article, heck, even a well-designed population-based research study, is not going to tell you whether you’re going to get pregnant easily, with difficulty, or not at all.

15 Battynurse { 06.24.13 at 6:34 pm }

You’re right. Not much consolation when you’re on the wrong end of the numbers. I’ve always felt that if I had tried earlier I could have managed a successful pregnancy but truthfully I will never know if that’s true or now. It’s not like I get a do-over.

16 Sharon { 06.24.13 at 7:47 pm }

So, in my case, it’s likely that my infertility IS age-related. (I’ll never know for sure, as we were “unexplained,” but I didn’t start TTC until age 36.) But before I TTC’d, even though I knew that fertility decreased with age, I believed that I would be one of those women who could readily conceive after 35. And I think that many women think that age-related infertility is something that happens to Someone Else, not to them.

17 loribeth { 06.25.13 at 3:38 pm }
18 notwhenbutif { 06.25.13 at 8:14 pm }

100% agree. And I particularly found myself nodding along to Katherine A’s comment up-thread.

In her comment Katherine raises two very important points. Riffing off of your comment that, “…infertility exists, and not all of it is age-related,” Katherine adds, “A fair number of people have looked at me when I’ve admitted I’m infertile and essentially gone, ‘but you’re only 30, surely you just need to relax and let it happen, you’re too young.’”

I started trying at 25 and had exactly this experience. But, discouragingly, the people tossing around such platitudes the most were my medical care providers. As my health declined over the course of 18 months I was ignored routinely because one of the many bullet points on the symptoms’ list that brought me back time and time again to my doctors’ offices was my inability to become pregnant. In my case, not only was my very real infertility ignored because of my relative youth, so too were several serious and life-impacting health issues. It took nearly 2 years, dozens of appointments, and waking up one morning and not knowing who my husband of 5 years was for my Hashimoto’s to finally be diagnosed. And that turned out to be just the tip of my IF iceberg.

And, to circle back, this is one of the primary reasons why articles like this frighten me. Life in the 14% is difficult enough already. We don’t need to make it harder by continuing to have tunnel vision toward age-related infertility. At 25 I started trying, at 27 I had my first miscarriage, at 29 I had my third, and at 30, just a day removed from my latest negative beta, we’re discussing child-free not by choice as a means to getting our lives back once and for all. Focusing on the “true” statistics and lifestyle implications of age-related fertility decline does nothing for me and for countless others in the IF community. Broad-based societal and medical generalist recognition of infertility as a disease that strikes all ages might have.

This is where Katherine’s second point enters the picture. Speaking as one of the 14%, I can’t even begin to imagine what this article might mean to those in the 86%. Our world’s are different and that permeates every thought, feeling, and cringe I had while reading this article. It’s a foreign language to me.

Unfortunately, it was also forwarded to me multiple times by multiple women colleagues in academia. My outspoken-ness about my IF has had many overwhelmingly positive results, but perhaps the hardest negative consequence to swallow has been the onslaught of otherwise intelligent women that now view me as some sort of reproductive fortune teller. With each forward I felt my skin crawl as I read multiple different versions of the same thinly valed question – “I won’t have to deal with what you’ve been through, right? I’m not infertile, I’m *just* old!”

Fact is, none of us know which side of the stats we’ll fall on until we’re in the trenches, and I can (just barely) find it in my heart to hope that the same mid-thirties women who are currently asking me to predict how much longer they’ve got will be holding their newborns long after we’ve walked away from infertility treatments and accepted our child-free life.

So, in absolute agreement, this article has absolutely nothing to do with my life. If only I could get the others around me – from my doctors to my peers – to accept that.

19 Em { 06.26.13 at 9:08 pm }

“It’s good to be right?” What an odd thing to say. Ugh. I haven’t read the article, but that line alone makes it lose quite a bit of credibility in my mind.

You’re so right about the fact that this article doesn’t apply to us. She may be right or she may be wrong, but what good do mass stats do when making such a personal decision that’s based solely on your body? I have to admit that I get really nervous when my friends talk about wanting to wait quite a while before attempting pregnancy. I certainly hope they don’t have problems like I do, but it feels like a risk.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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