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Baby Panic

The city's single women knew we could do everything men could, even in our Jimmy Choos. But while we were busy with business, bars, and Barneys, did we miss out on motherhood? For the Sex and the City generation, it looks like the rules of the game have changed.

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Most of the time, Dina Wise is a very happy person. She's 29 and originally from Toronto. She lives in Murray Hill and has worked in publicity for the city's top firms, like 7th on Sixth, Nike Communications, and Harrison & Shriftman. She wears bright, fashionable clothes, puts kohl around her eyes, and throws her head back when she laughs. As it did to a lot of single women her age, life seemed like it was going pretty well until a few weeks ago.

"Honestly," says Wise, "I've never felt worse."

It all started with a 60 Minutes episode on a new book, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. It had scary statistics about the rate of childlessness for women over 40 in corporate America (42 percent) and provided hard facts about the lack of social services for working mothers. But more upsetting than anything else was the science: A woman's ability to bear a child, Hewlett maintained, drops at 28, goes way down after 35, and diminishes to nearly nothing by 40. By 42, most of the time, you're cooked.

"Watching that 60 Minutes episode, I was like, What the hell!" says Wise, her pretty brown eyes getting bigger than any kohl could make them look. "Then I thought, Calm down, calm down, it's one show, it's fine. But I wake up the next morning and it's on the Today show and on the cover of Time magazine and The View. Everywhere I go, everyone's talking about the baby panic. It's like an epidemic! It's as though a disease broke out in New York and everyone's trying to alert you. 'Stay indoors! Emergency Broadcasting System: Your eggs are declining!' "

Wise laughs and throws her head back at this last line, but she's not really in a joking mood. Like most of the other women of her generation, she's been offered little in the way of life advice, but what has registered tends to emphasize that all good things come to those who wait. Just hold out for Mr. Right. You can have it all -- the perfect man, the perfect career, the perfect kids. "Now I'm getting the message to reevaluate my life as a woman," says Wise. "Meaning that if I want to have children, which I do, I need to have them when I'm younger and worry about my career later. It's completely contrary to everything I've been brought up thinking."

So, over Jack and Cokes at the bar at the Mercer Hotel, Wise takes a little time to reconsider things. She talks about abortion: "I used to say if I got pregnant by accident, I'd have an abortion -- wouldn't even flinch. Now I'm not so sure." She considers the way she deals with guys: "I'd always thought, We might not be each other's soul mates or life mates, but so what? Sex could be good." She worries about how she could even take care of a baby: "In my two-by-two apartment -- there should be laws against it. I mean, I wouldn't bring a dog into my apartment! I wouldn't bring a fish into my apartment!"

Wise polishes off her drink.

"You know, being here in New York, doing what I do, I'm living my dream every day," she says. "But then people are thinking, Do I need to get another dream?"

Somewhere along the line, while New York single girls with designer handbags were feeling like the envy of the country, we all forgot about the biological clock, or at least made some Manhattan-wide pact to ignore it. With the streets full of liberated women baring their midriffs and an endless assortment of men offering short, semi-monogamous relationships, the dating scene didn't seem like it had changed a lot since college. While Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary introduced us to the notion of Smug Marrieds (couples who cannot understand how anyone can live without a partner and a good set of china), New York had its Smug Singles, men and women who saw no compelling reason to get hitched and start procreating at an early age. "Let's face it, you don't see sexy mommies all that often," says Lucinda Rosenfeld, 32-year-old author of the dating-and-the-single-girl novel What She Saw . . . "Sometimes in SoHo you see women with babies and cute shoes, but mostly they're in Brooklyn and tired."

And who wants to be tired in Brooklyn when you can still stay up all night in Manhattan? As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Thirty is the new 20, and 40 the new 30" -- and the new 30, everyone agreed, was a perfectly acceptable time to have kids. Hardly anyone is tracked into a career straight out of college anymore; few of us live in apartments with real closets, let alone a bedroom for a baby; and I even know someone whose parents insisted that they wouldn't pay for her wedding if she tied the knot before 30 (the real 30). With boyfriends glued to their PlayStation 2s, and the concept of a "woman of a certain age" getting more and more distant, it seemed retro to husband-hunt in your twenties, and silly to waste time in your thirties worrying about babies -- that was time better channeled into building a career, shopping, and another round of cocktails. There was a time for families: later.

I'm 28 and grew up in Manhattan, attended a competitive private high school and a liberal-arts college, and at no point did anyone bring up the notion that the sexes were anything but equal. To me, it seemed like ideology was going to triumph over biology, and if I could keep my head screwed on straight, there was no question that I could be as much of a success as a man. It was just a matter of steering clear of bathetic girly pathologies -- following the Rules, jettisoning a man after a couple of dates if he didn't show husband potential, making time-sensitive "life plans" that revolved around a phantom boyfriend. But that's easy stuff to ignore when you're around other ambitious women with their heads screwed on straight, too. Instead, I concentrated on my own life plans, which involved some very male and redoubtable pursuits. They were about conquest and adventure: becoming a better writer, traveling the world, experimenting as much as I could before settling down at the last possible moment to start the perfect family, the one that I was sure to get if I lived life as I wanted to.

These days, the independence that seemed so fabulous -- at least to those of us who tend to use that word a lot -- doesn't anymore. It's not only the fear of missing the motherhood boat: In the past year, a generation that never knew war or economic downturn found itself moving from a time of seemingly endless opportunity -- romantic, sexual, financial -- to an era of dot-com bust, recession, and, not least of all, September 11. It's hard to find anyone who was alone during the World Trade Center attacks who didn't think seriously about making family a higher priority. Friends of mine, people who I have never known to have a problem getting dates, were starting to sign up for Internet matchmaking services, uptown going for Match.com and downtown for Nerve.com. I even have a couple of single female friends in their early thirties who talked openly about hitting the sperm bank.

In the meantime, our post-feminist, let's-go-to-Scores culture was no match for these impending realities. Even the swaggering "sister-goddesses" of Mama Gena's School of Womanly Arts -- a wildly popular Upper West Side institute dedicated to helping professional women get what they want through the power of sexual desire -- have started to cave. "People are talking about finding the husband right now, so they can have the baby right now," says Mama Gena.

"I was watching TV the other day when A Streetcar Named Desire came on, and suddenly it hit me that I am Blanche DuBois," says an acquaintance, 30. "The younger married and pregnant sister, the predilection for jasmine perfume, the endless chain of suitors, unknown by the family, whom I only meet at night in dimly lit places -- I've got it all! Financial independence might allow us to buy our own fox wraps these days, but it doesn't necessarily make us any happier or healthier than someone in the same situation 50 years ago."

Just when the single girl is finding herself in desperate need of a little positive reinforcement, her pop-culture partners in crime have up and left the Zeitgeist. We'll leave the question of whether Jennifer Aniston is pregnant to the tabloids, but at the very least, the character she plays on Friends, the serial dater and fantastic shopper Rachel, has found herself having . . . Ross's baby. Fox's Ally McBeal, with the miniskirted litigator on an ongoing search for Mr. Absolutely Right, is getting put out to pasture this month. Bridget Jones and her fellow chick-lit protagonists have been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a few years now. "There will always be a place for books about women who are making their way in the world, but we are seeing something of a progression," says Pamela Dorman, editor of Bridget Jones's Diary and a VP at Penguin Putnam. "There's been a movement to the next stage, with novels that ask what happens if you do get the guy? And if you do have the baby?"


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