Baby Panic

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 and downtown for 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?”

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 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 “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.”

Hewlett is a former economics professor who currently runs a nonprofit for parents’ rights out of the New School, but foremost she is a mother. She has five children herself, including a 24-year-old, who lives on the brownstone’s top floor, and a 5-year-old, Emma. Emma was born when Hewlett was 51, after four years of expensive fertility treatments; which would seem to upend her central thesis of female infertility after 42 – “I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess,” she says.Though her message may sound anything but pro-woman, Hewlett likes to cast herself as a feminist champion. She sees herself as picking up where second-wave feminists who fought for abortion and the ERA left off, an advocate for child care and protections for women in the workplace. In a clipped British accent, she talks almost completely in policy-speak, spitting out statistics to support her larger claims, using anecdotes of friends’ and family members’ regret over childlessness as case studies. Her advice to young women is blunt: “Be intentional.” “You all figure out what you want in your professional lives and then go after it, and you must find a way to do that in your personal lives, too,” she says.

When it dawns on her that I am most probably one of the entitled, overweening young women she’s railing against, she looks me in the eye.

“Look, there are two approaches you can take,” says Hewlett. “You can either stand on the sidelines and be critical. Or you can say: This is the game, and it is a game I want to play, because I want to end up with a husband and a child.”

What, exactly, is it we’ve felt entitled to? Economic parity with men, certainly, and the freedom to sleep with whomever we choose with impunity – the feminists who brought us to this moment had many other points, but in the end this is what came over the transom. Our contributions to the movement are scant, like rebelliously referring to women over 30 as girl when we were admonished in college to call each other woman. We didn’t need to make a political issue of our gender; we already knew we were exceptional – we were as clever as men, much more sexy, and with the exquisite capability to make babies, too.

With all these hallmarks of equality, romantic parity between the sexes seemed like the logical next frontier. A mate would not be someone with whom you had to play a game but rather a peer, an equal, someone who had spent as much effort developing his own individuality as you did yours. It wasn’t a Blanche DuBois, “I don’t want realism, I want magic” fantasy but rather a natural goal. Sure, there were doubts about whether Mr. Right actually existed, especially when we got older. Upon breaking up with my last serious boyfriend, I had a moment: Was I getting too old to throw away yet another relationship? Should I have made that one work, warts and all?

For an apelike Darwinian hand to suddenly fasten around our well-shod ankles right now seems downright cruel. “Mentally, I’m not at the point of babies and motherhood yet, but at the same time I worry I’m going to get left behind the curve and wake up in five years and realize that I’ve put too much emphasis on myself,” says Dina Schonfeld, at 30 the director of research at an investment firm. “I really like the idea of being able to support myself and not having to depend on anybody else. I’m finally making money here. What was the point of going through the whole charade of 60-hour weeks and continuing-ed classes if it had to end so soon?”

It does seem like an exercise in futility if all the hard work and girl power and pretending that you were as likely to succeed as a man turns out to be just that: pretend. Even now, the story about female infertility has been played as a woman’s issue, stuck in the same CNN half-hour as “How Pedicures Can Sometimes Cause Sickness.” “Guys don’t have to do anything,” continues Schonfeld. “Meanwhile, we work as hard as they do, plus we have to worry about primping and is it peasant season. And now this. It’s so unfair.”

Single motherhood, adoption, and any number of other solutions to the problem at hand are all workable, but let’s be honest, they’re not the first choice. It might be no great strain to have a kid on your own if you’re Calista Flockhart, but Alison from accounting probably can’t afford a night nurse. Even if there is a young husband to count on, who can make do for three in New York at our age, especially when every new parent has a report of toddlers getting wait-listed at $17,000-a-year kindergartens? Once again, we’re put in the position of wanting – needing? – to look for what our mothers referred to as “husband material.”

Last weekend, on the way to pick up a puppy a friend of mine had bought from a breeder in Connecticut – “even if it’s not a man-magnet, I’ll have a loving companion,” she joked – we talked about what all this might mean for the future. The news was definitely making us feel like men had more power over us than they ever had before, but it didn’t necessarily mean that anyone was going to alter their behavior. Would it change the social order? Was it a harbinger of a new dating scene, one that looked less like Sex and the City and more like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?

For many of us, like Dina Wise, the game may not be one we want to play – husband hunting, settling for less, trading in a high-powered career to maximize the returns on our ovaries. “My grandmother used to use one of those made-up Yiddish words that meant ‘for shit,’ ” says Wise. “It’s like, ‘I went out to dinner hoping to meet a guy I could have babies with, I put on an outfit, blew out my hair, and for what? I could’ve been at home watching Will & Grace.’ ” She looks out from those kohled eyes. “That’s not a way to live your life.”

So Wise isn’t going to put any part of her life on hold. “Maybe – not that I want to go there – I’m looking at a turkey baster,” she says. “Or adopting a child from Cambodia. I’ll figure it out. I’m a New York woman – I’m resilient.” She laughs again, throwing back her head. “I know I can have it all.”

Baby Panic