Goodbye Fertility: How I Pretty Much Ran Out the Clock on My Ovaries

Illustration for article titled Goodbye Fertility: How I Pretty Much Ran Out the Clock on My Ovaries
Illustration: Angelica Alzona
AntisocialThe society column for people afraid of society, written by The Root's Editor-in-Chief and resident Bipolar Disorder expert/sufferer.

A long, dusty time ago I saw an article title that jokingly—but seriously—said: “Oops, I Forgot to Have the Baby.” It was about 40-something-year-old women who were without children and coming to grips with the reality that they may never have children. In most cases, they’d “chosen” a career over family—as if that’s really a choice in a nation where there’s no social safety net, often no paid maternity leave and little support for working mothers. It’s not so much a choice as a box you’re shoved into and can’t escape. You can theoretically climb as high as you want if you don’t have kids, but if you do decide to become a mother, you suddenly need to tailor your dreams to the ceiling you’re now bumping your head against.

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Contrast this with my very career-oriented father, who simply could say “my wife’s got this,” and get to enjoy children largely on his own terms with it never, ever impacting his career. In fact, like most men, I think he actually benefited from having children in that he could always use his breadwinner status as a reason why he worked so hard and pushed for raises.

“I have a wife and three little girls at home,” he would say over and over.

I don’t have kids. And from my parents, there was never any pressure to have any. They never wondered where their grandchildren were and never asked if I was seeing anyone. In fact, both my parents seemed almost hostile to the idea of me seeing any man, as the few I brought around them were dismissed, mocked and belittled as soon as they were out of earshot. I don’t think marriage was “discouraged,” but all three of us got the message it wasn’t really important as our parents were highly vocal about literally everything else but this. College, making money and having a career were the only things they pushed or planned for. If you deigned to date or fall in love, it was treated with so much hostility you just started hiding it from them, as if it were something to be ashamed of. “Oh, I’m such a pathetic, weak, stereotype for wanting love and a family!”—even though my parents had taken it to the bonus round of their 40-plus-year marriage.

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I guess they thought we’d just figure it out from osmosis or something.

But this sense that it wasn’t important was so ingrained that when my then 31-year-old baby sister got pregnant by her then-long-time-boyfriend almost 8 years ago she was afraid to tell anyone, especially our parents, for fear of their response. Our mother being Miss Havisham who somehow made it down the aisle (but was still amazingly salty on men despite having one), had her classic response of enraged befuddlement mixed with terrible advice, while our father suddenly went from being a stoic to a complete 180 of “I thought I was never going to be a grandfather” mushiness. Then the baby showed up and both of them were so happy I wondered if someone had issued us new parents—parents who wanted grandchildren. Parents who actually had opinions about the gender of babies and baby names.

The “why” of this, I will never know. My mother is dead, so I can’t really ask her. My father, when I brought it up with him over the phone the other weekend, was perplexed. “Why would we talk to you about that?” said the man who once had a very detailed conversation with me about the number 10 and all its magical properties so I’d be prepared for algebra in junior high. Of course, he’d teach me math, how to balance a checkbook and how to punt a football, but talk about discerning good people from the bad and the importance of the interpersonal relationships they constantly mocked? That seemed crazy. He eventually accepted that he might have screwed the pooch on that one for the three of us, but my parents and how they raised me are only a very small part of the problem.

The bigger “not helping” came from my female peers with children who made it clear that nobody cares if they have children to care for, or how most of the burden of rearing children falls on them, something that has only been exasperated by COVID-19 and everyone working from home. I’ve read story after story of men first asking, then demanding their spouses leave behind careers to watch children now out of school and home around the clock due to the pandemic.

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But even that’s not the real reason I don’t have kids.

I don’t have kids because during my prime “should have had a kid” years I was fighting to stay alive.

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From age 23 until about 32—essentially for 9 years—I was too mentally ill to even think of having a family. I was struggling against my bipolar disorder, out-of-control anxiety and suicidal ideation. By the time I started thinking about having kids I was 35, single and broke, living in Washington, D.C. My OBGYN at the time was dismissive when I tried to talk to her about my fertility, telling me it was pointless to do any testing to see if I was healthy enough to have kids if I didn’t have a partner. What I didn’t know at the time was how we don’t have a health “care” system in our country, but a “sick” care system—as in, something has to be already obviously wrong for a doctor to care half the time. Instead of preventative care or giving me a talk about healthy family-planning practices, I got shut down because, according to her, I needed to have sex and “try” to get pregnant first, then she’d talk to me about my fertility if I had trouble getting pregnant. But, I was very, very single. And I wasn’t about to have unprotected sex with strangers, sooooooo, not the best information I could have gotten.

With this bad advice under my belt, I went about living my life, focusing my energy on me, my mental health and my career. I wouldn’t think about fertility again until I was promoted to managing editor of The Root in 2016 and one of my then-bosses pulled me aside telling me to seriously consider family planning. I told her I was, at the time, 39 years old and she was shocked, as she’d assumed I was much younger. At 39, I was relatively depressed due to the death of a close friend and my mother’s deterioration from dementia and had decided that I probably was never having kids. Again, I was super-duper-single. Dollar bill single. I was unencumbered, unbothered, footloose and fancy-free, and having a family seemed like a faraway, impossible dream. Moving from D.C. to NYC made it seem like even less of a possibility as I went from a large, 1-bedroom basement apartment to a shoebox in Midtown East. Never mind the fact that, again, I was man-less and had that bad advice from my former OBGYN still in my head.

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As I sat around depressed, basically waiting to fade into obscurity, I forgot about kids because I knew I wasn’t having any. Then, I woke up from my depressive slumber after my mother’s passing in late 2018 energized and ready to live life. I started traveling. Started dating. Started losing weight. Then the pandemic hit and I, a hardcore extrovert, was stuck in the house quite suddenly, learning how to live in solitude with the glaring silence-of-self. The first few months were rough as evidenced by my own writing for this site. But then, I reached a point of peace with it and it got markedly easier. And then, I suddenly had so much spare time I started focusing on self-improvement and self-acceptance. And then, while rewatching old reality shows to decompress from work, I realized that I was going to lose a year or more of my rapidly disappearing youth to a pandemic after already losing my 20s and 30s to mental illness.

When I was 22, my father told me to take advantage of it, as I would only be 22 once. My “take advantage” was to get married a year later, quickly lose my mind, get divorced, then fall into a severe depression that lasted, again, until my mid-30s, so there is this feeling that I somehow screwed up my chances of having a family or a healthy, loving relationship by simply being too unstable to have one. I told myself after I emerged from this fog I’d never lose another year, let alone several years, to anything, but coronavirus gave me no choice. The world had stopped even though the eggs in my ovaries continued to age like a Trader Joe’s banana. Twenty years later, my father’s words still ring in my head; only now the urgency has gone from a slightly annoying alarm to a sound barrier-breaking sonic boom—“You’ll only be 42 once!”

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At the top of 2020, any and everything seemed possible. I was dating someone who I thought was a nice guy. I was in good shape. My career was blossoming. Then the great interruption of everything happened, the guy went poof and now I’m forced to the sidelines, along with everyone else.

Again, I have my self-improvement projects and I can, of course, focus on my job, physical fitness, writing and various side projects. But I was already doing that. What was new was all the dating and the possibility of meeting someone and maybe, just maybe, wanting to have a kid with them. (I’m also open to just being a couple without kids, but this post is about me realizing I “might” want a child if the right person or situation came along. Not the various compromises I would consider absent motherhood.) All the things I wanted to do that could have increased my chances of meeting someone—taking in-person screenwriting classes, swiping through Hinge to go on dates and networking my ass off at events—went to hell along with the rest of society.

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Now me and my dwindling, diminishing count of possibly (at this point) vodka-infused eggs, are facing the harsh, ugly reality of my weak-ass fertility that is really about my weak-ass mortality. I survived Bipolar Disorder and severe anxiety. I survived being broke. I survived a divorce. And my reward for my survival is I’m 42 and I have a great career—which is more than some can say, but damn if it doesn’t feel shitty to be faced with the reality that you really, truly can’t have it all.

Editor-in-Chief of The Root. Nerd. AKA "The Black Snob."

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DISCUSSION

esmeraldapippin
Esmeralda Pippin

Great article, really sets out what so many of us face (as well as your individual challenges).

One question for you, as I don’t see you really discussing this:  Do you want kids?  Or are you ambivalent, but realizing the choice may no longer be up to you?