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Baby Panic

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These are questions it never seemed like Carrie Bradshaw and her tenacious compatriots would be asking, but last season's Sex and the City asked them, and the answers weren't pretty. It was hard not to wince as we watched characters beloved for their frivolity and prurience struggle with heavy issues -- Sex and the City was supposed to celebrate and send up our glamorous single lives, not delve into our nagging fears. Instead, Charlotte struggled with infertility and ended up separated. Miranda is wading into the murky waters of single motherhood. Carrie got the perfect guy, but when Miranda made her try on a wedding dress at a bad bridal store, bribing her with a Tasti D Lite, Carrie started breaking out in a rash. "My body is literally rejecting the idea of marriage," she concluded. That seemed more familiar. (Just when we were breathing a collective sigh of relief that our heroine would revert to her fun single-girl self, it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was pregnant.)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett sees something more nefarious in Carrie's marriage crisis. "In this whole dilemma -- and this is a woman who's portrayed as a 35-year-old -- there's not one mention of the character's biological clock," she says. "Thirty-five is the age where your fertility drops off a cliff, and there she is breaking up a long relationship with this guy who loves her with no thought to what she's giving up -- not only him but probably also a family. I was stunned. I felt like running up to the TV screen, knocking on it, and saying, 'Hey, what about your eggs?' "

It's this question, What about the eggs?, that's been haunting the unhappily single in the past few weeks. "The decline chart of viable eggs is totally freaking me out," complains Wise. "I don't like to hear the word can't. None of us do in New York -- this city is all about can do and will do. You say I can't have a baby whenever I want, well, I'll do it anyway, to spite you! But then . . . the eggs," she says, her face falling. "You can't really get around that."

"It's like everyone has suddenly become hypersensitive about fertility," says therapist Joan Kirschenbaum Cohn, who treats many women in their early thirties. "There's been so much scratching that suddenly all these toxins are up on the surface." She laughs. "Sometimes the focus is on being pregnant, though, not necessarily having the kids. I mean, if you want to be pregnant so badly, put a pillow under your shirt and hang out."

"My patients are definitely panicking," says Audrey Buxbaum, an OB/GYN with offices in the same SoHo building as the pampering mecca Bliss. "There's a sense of pressure, and hurry, and I should get going." Adds Heidi Flagg of Spring OB/GYN: "I've been inundated: I mean, women are coming in here and going off their birth control! I'm wondering if there's going to be a little baby boom in nine months."

For all of our attitudes toward sex, we don't talk about our bodies very often. After all, worrying about reproductive health -- like thinking about the age of our eggs -- isn't very sexy. We know to put on sunscreen and use condoms, and we certainly drink a lot of bottled water, but as with all other health issues, we resolved to think about fertility when we had to. And it shows: Of the more than 12,000 respondents to a fertility-awareness study on iVillage.com last year, only one woman answered all fifteen questions correctly. A mere sliver of those surveyed knew that fertility started to drop at 27, whereas 39 percent thought it fell for the first time at 40. Furthermore, 28 percent of the respondents underestimated the risk of infertility, guessing that 1 in 50 women has difficulty conceiving; the truth is closer to 1 in 10.

I was just as willfully dense about such matters when I started noticing posters for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in buses late last year. They depicted a baby bottle in the shape of an hourglass with a line written out: ADVANCING AGE DECREASES YOUR ABILITY TO HAVE CHILDREN. I distinctly remember seeing it one morning, sandwiched as it was between a technical-college ad and an incomprehensible BusTalk poem. It was a warning I dismissed out of hand, the way a lot of us do the messages on cigarette packs, yet I was still aware of an uncomfortable sense of self-doubt. Did I need to worry about this?

At any rate, I was way too cynical to actually take an ad presented in the guise of community service seriously -- who knew if Rush Limbaugh was footing the bill? The whole notion of warning women about a "decreasing ability" to do anything seemed suspect, fodder for a Susan Faludi book. It reminded me of Newsweek's famous 1986 cover story on a Yale and Harvard study that claimed a 40-year-old woman was more likely to end up killed by a terrorist than married. "That study whipped up a whole other generation of women into a cappuccino-froth frenzy that they'd end up desperate spinsters surrounded by cats," said my friend Pavia Rosati, executive editor of trend-spotting Website DailyCandy.com. "And it turned out to be wrong." Plus, everywhere I looked the covers of celebrity magazines celebrated the victories of modern motherhood for 40-plus stars -- Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, and even Madonna, the woman I spent puberty emulating. In between the splashy photo shoots, there was, of course, no mention of the fact that these women had either defied the odds, or had endured expensive and painful infertility treatments, let alone the probability that some of them had conceived using donor eggs.

Now the information is at its apogee -- you mean the indomitable Geena Davis could have had IVF? -- and as tends to happen in New York, people are taking a yardstick to their lives. "All of a sudden I'm finding myself very interested in how old all the women around me are," says Deborah Hicks, 32. "When I hear that So-and-so's assistant is 23, I want to kill her. Then when I meet someone older than me, maybe even a year older, I somehow can't help but feel a little superior -- I've got more eggs than she does! I haven't been this competitive since junior high."

"What freaks me out is that we're making choices right now that we didn't even know we were making," says business-strategy consultant Claire Hughes, 29. "The other day I was at the gynecologist, and I said in a kind of sarcastic way, 'Well, I've got until I'm 35, right?' And then I sort of started spazzing out: I'm in that high-income bracket that they say ends up childless, and I even have an M.B.A., so that probably makes me another depressing statistic. There was no bedside manner, though -- the doctor said, 'Well, I'm not going to lie, you should start soon, but I do have women who are 42 or 43 who get spontaneously pregnant.' Spontaneously pregnant! Like it's an immaculate conception or something!"

Then there's the appointment with the gynecologist when you're 35. "Suddenly this woman who's been pushing birth control and spermicide into my palm for the last ten years, who has said to me many times, 'You don't want to have a baby,' is asking me if I want to have children," says writer Carolynn Carreño, about her experience at a recent checkup. "She starts talking about being open-minded about guys and letting friends set me up, and then she says, 'Tell everyone you know.' And that's crazy! Because that's the exact same phrase that I use when I'm talking to someone who's looking for an apartment in Manhattan. So smug, with my rent-controlled West Village lease, I tell them: 'Tell everyone you know. Utilize all your resources and those you don't even know you have, because, honey, you are in one serious situation.' "

Meeting Sylvia Ann Hewlett feels a bit like sitting down for an interview with the Wizard of Oz -- you pull back the curtain to find she's one little person at the center of all this controversy, not a straw woman for a larger conservative agenda, nor someone who takes particular glee in sending the greater portion of New York's young female population into an emotional tailspin. It's the day before Hewlett leaves for the European leg of her book tour, and she's sitting in her office in the basement of her brownstone on a perfect Upper West Side street. Trimmed hedges grace her doorway and ivy creeps dangerously close to the bay windows. Dogs prance by on leashes, and some high-schoolers in Fieldston sweatshirts meander down the street puffing on cigarettes.

Hewlett has just returned from a Time magazine lunch at Le Cirque 2000 to celebrate its recent cover story, "Babies vs. Career." Wearing an orange shirt and casual pants, she's a petite woman, well preserved, with a tendency to lift her highlighted mane with both hands and pile it on the top of her head while she's speaking. As she sips a glass of Perrier, she considers the implications of her book. "Young women have had an extraordinary sense of entitlement," she says. "Somehow they think that they have the right to have kids whenever they want. And now we're realizing that there's something wrong with that kind of entitlement. It's obnoxious. It's overweening. And I think it is now over."


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