“There’s 50 and there’s 50,” the fertility doctors like to say, meaning there’s the overweight smoker with diabetes and there’s actress Beverly D’Angelo, who had twins as she was pushing the half-century mark. Paulson’s clinic at USC is known for helping postmenopausal women conceive. Before he’ll treat them, though, he puts them through a battery of tests. A session on the treadmill measures whether a woman’s vessels can expand to accommodate the massive increase in blood volume that comes with pregnancy. An EKG measures the health of her heart, and a psychologist probes her motivations and support system. Paulson will also create in a prospective mother an artificial menstrual cycle to see if her uterus can sustain a pregnancy. Once she clears these hurdles, she’s good to go. “They’re very young 50-year-olds,” he says. “They really are.”
They have to be. Because even for parents in perfect health, 50 is still not ideal, and doctors who earn excellent livings impregnating old women warn against the false sense of security created by the success stories. If you’re willing to carry a child who is not genetically your own, fertility treatment is an emotional roller coaster with mediocre success rates at best. (At 50, prospective parents seeking to adopt a healthy infant face even longer odds.) The University of Texas sociologist John Mirowsky has shown that the perfect age for a woman to have a baby is 30.5. By that point, she has finished her education and found an appropriate partner. She has the maturity to be a good parent, with enough years ahead of her to have more than one child without bumping up against the limits of her fertility.
“I didn’t have any grandchildren. So I decided to make my own.”
But a certain kind of woman—an ambitious woman—is just getting started at that age. And a baby will cost her. There is a direct, positive correlation between delaying childbirth and income level. According to an analysis of census data by Elizabeth Gregory, women with professional degrees who had their first child at 20 earned $50,000 less per year than those who had their first child at 35. A 2003 study of the most senior executives in ten major U.S. companies by the Families and Work Institute found that 35 percent of female executives delayed having children, compared with 12 percent of men. It also found, not incidentally, that three quarters of executive women are married to men who work full time, while three quarters of executive men are married to women who aren’t in the workforce at all. A woman who has to compete with men at work (late nights, weekend conference calls) when those men have wives at home caring for kids is exactly the kind of woman who might find herself in a fertility clinic at 48.
Cruelly, ambition in women is still conflated with selfishness, and the woman who devotes her first decades of adulthood to her career is expected to then waive her maternal impulses. (“You didn’t eat your ice cream when it was on the table. Now you don’t get any ice cream.”) Even gay men don’t face the same judgments as women who decide to become parents late in life, inoculated as they are by the current celebratory mood surrounding gay domesticity as well as history’s long wink at the frisky fertility of men. It’s one kind of punch line when Tony Randall fathers a child at 77, and another, far less kind one when Annie Leibovitz has twins through a surrogate at 56. On the parenting blogs, the cartoon persists, as hateful as the campaign against Murphy Brown: The self-centered female, drinking wine and buying Jimmy Choos for decades, who one day awakens—alone, wrapped in high-thread-count sheets—and remembers the baby she never had. She goes to her doctor and sobs. If she succeeds in achieving her heart’s desire, she’ll just hire a nanny and go right back to work and, in one blog post I saw, refuse to sit on the floor and play with blocks.
Sure, some women are materialistic bitches. But most delay children because they want the independence that comes with work as well as the nontrivial benefits of professional success: a good salary, health insurance, and a stable place in the world. The economic trend lines indicate that the ranks of these women will increase going forward, their decision to put work before childbearing for some period of time not “a lifestyle choice” but a necessity. Men remain disproportionately out of work, leaving the mortgage payments, on top of the child care, to the women in their lives. In 2010, nearly a quarter of wives earned more than their husbands, up from 4 percent in 1970. Women will wait to have children because the conflicting demands they face—have babies! Earn money!—are squeezing them like never before. “We are under unreasonable pressure,” says Angel La Liberte, who runs a California-based website for older mothers. “We are expected to manage a household. We are expected to provide an income, and we’re supposed to have children within a certain age limit.”