Thinking About My Future and My Fertility at Thirty-Six (and Eight Months)
The desire to be a mother is now something that lingers inside of me, an omnipresent hunger.
This is My Future, My Fertility, a monthly column in which Karissa Chen wrestles with her questions about fertility, motherhood, and future-planning after thirty-five.
After I walked away from my partner, those active dreams disappeared. In their place, a trickle of insidious whispers slithered through my head: What if you’ve made a terrible mistake? What if you’re alone forever? What if you never meet anyone else you love as much? What if you never have babies? Are you willing to be a single parent? Are you willing to give up on finding love?
You were so close to having all you ever wanted.
In the wake of these voices, that internal clock I had ignored for years and years made itself known as I imagined my eggs, nestled in my ovaries, withering away.
When the technician called me into the small examination room, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was there to do. She used a word I didn’t understand. I stared at her blankly. Finally, she said in English, somewhat impatiently, “Ultrasound.” I was directed to pull down my jeans and underwear, and then I splayed out on the table, no cloth covering my nakedness. The technician put a condom over the ultrasound wand, coated it in lubricant, and warned me, “This will be cold.”
It was less uncomfortable than I expected. On the screen, blobs of dark and light appeared. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I’d never seen the inside of my uterus before. It had never occurred to me that I might get an ultrasound without being pregnant. In my known world, ultrasounds were for the pregnant—for seeing a fetus, for hearing a heartbeat, things people might ooh and ahh and cry over.
“This is your uterine lining,” the technician explained as she took pictures. “It’s healthy and thick.” She swiveled the wand around and I felt a slight pressure, a bit sore. “These are your eggs,” she said, pointing at some dark clusters. A surge of—something—ran through me. Pride? Protectiveness? Wonder? Later, I would tell a friend that I’d felt empowered.
“Everything’s fine,” the doctor, a man, later told me. “You have a tiny cyst forming that is probably just an egg follicle getting ready for ovulation. Otherwise, everything is okay for pregnancy.”
For weeks I obsessed that the cyst might be cancerous, that I’d find out they’d have to remove my reproductive organs and I’d lose my ability to ever conceive. But I went back for a follow-up a couple of weeks later, after my period was over, and the cyst had disappeared. I should have been relieved. Instead, I thought about my vacant womb, perfectly functional. I thought about that little egg that I had, for a moment, seen alive on the technician’s screen—healthy, budding, gone.
If you Google “pregnancy after 35,” you get row after row of hits. The large box that shows the most relevant preview announces: “One large study looked at pregnancy rates for women if they had sex on their most fertile day. . . . Women age 35 to 39 had a slightly less than 30 percent chance of getting pregnant.” Below that, the words challenges, risks, complications, birth defects, miscarriage appear in hit previews, over and over again.
I was eleven years old when I learned that pregnancy is treated differently depending on age. My mother, at thirty-eight, was pregnant with my baby sister, and I accompanied her to a routine doctor’s appointment. We saw the ultrasound of my sister’s little blobby body, heard her heartbeat, and then my brother and I were ushered out of the room into the hallway. A few minutes later, a nurse appeared, holding the largest needle I had ever seen—an amniocentesis test—and disappeared into the room. I was horrified. Was this normal? Did all pregnant women need this?
Later, my mother explained it was because she was over thirty-five. “More things can go wrong because I’m older,” she said. “We’re just checking to make sure everything is okay.” It was all I needed to know to internalize that line in the sand, an idea that would be continuously reinforced into adulthood: Thirty-five is the age when your reproductive health begins to die.
Since then I’ve known many, many people over the age of thirty-five who’ve given birth to healthy babies, and yet the insidious messaging still presses on me, a cacophony of fear: Thirty-five is the age at which babies that make it to term have more challenges. Thirty-five is the age at which pregnant people have worse morning sickness/higher blood pressure/gestational diabetes/more difficult labor. Thirty-five is the age at which hopeful parents miscarry at a greater rate. Thirty-five is the age at which a person hoping to be pregnant will be lucky to get pregnant at all.
I thought, See? Your life is wonderful. Why would you want to have a baby when you could have all this?
I have a thirty-year-old friend whose gynecologist suggested during her annual exam that she “better get on it” if she planned on having children. More than one pregnant friend has laughingly told me their doctors use terms like geriatric pregnancy and advanced maternal age to describe their condition, conjuring in me images of my friends as little white-haired ladies bent over their bulging bellies. Every woman I know has heard, at least in passing, of studies demonstrating the risks of trying to reproduce at an older age, whether it be through a magazine article on why one should freeze her eggs or a well-meaning auntie pushing for babies. At the heart of all of this is a terrible warning, at least as I can’t help but hear it: If you’re past thirty-five and anything turns out to be “wrong” with your child—or if you can’t have a child at all—you have nobody to blame but yourself.
I’m past thirty-five now, yet the number still looms and lords over me. It elicits panic, an idea of some goalpost I was supposed to have reached but have failed to—as if, the further I get from this number, the harder I am failing.
In the months following my breakup, I overcame depression by throwing myself into other areas of my life. I picked up running and joined a running group in Taipei, where I suddenly found a whole new set of friends. I hiked many mountains, including one that led to a 330-meter suspension bridge, which I crossed despite my fear of heights. I learned to scuba-dive. I became comfortable riding a bike in the city. I improved my Chinese. I traveled. I tried new foods. I read books, and more books, and wrote and wrote and wrote. I was, in many ways, happier than I’d been in a long time. And I thought, See? Your life is wonderful. Why would you want to have a baby when you could have all this?
There’s a part of me that thinks the amount of emotional energy I spend focused on this question of when or if I’ll ever have a baby is not feminist. Why am I reducing any part of my value to my ability to reproduce? Why am I being swayed by fear-mongering meant to diminish me, when I’m angered by those same pointed fingers that follow parents after they give birth? And for that matter, isn’t it anti-feminist to want a baby this badly? Am I giving in to pronouncements from the patriarchy about my role? Am I letting societal pressures win over my free will; my right to be a successful, happy woman fulfilling her own dreams?
But then, I think: What if my dreams truly, honestly, include having a baby?
“Those reports about pregnancy after thirty-five are outdated,” a friend once told me, someone my age who was considering putting off baby-making to get her professional life in line. Her (extraordinary) gynecologist reminded her that science is incredible; that adoption could be considered; that there are many options for people who really want babies, regardless of their age. “Those studies were conducted thirty years ago, by men whose interests lay in preventing women from advancing their careers,” she said.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is true that the panic I feel is augmented by society’s messaging about my value as a woman—messaging that conflicts at times. I’ve always maintained that there are only two things I want in this life: to give birth to a book, and to give birth to a baby. Career and family, life and love. Some women can have it all. But what if I can’t have it all? What if I have to choose? And if push comes to shove, what will I choose?
Of course, right now, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I’m not quite ready to let go of my dreams for a partner. I’m not quite ready to have and raise a child alone. So I spend my days feverishly working on a novel, because this, at least, is a dream I can work toward right now.
On my thirty-fifth birthday, I put on a tight dress, curled my hair, and applied red lipstick. I took myself out to a fancy sushi dinner, and then met up with friends old and new at a swanky hotel bar. There were cocktails. There was cake. There were presents I didn’t expect to receive. There was me, switching between Mandarin and English depending on which friends I was talking to, navigating the dual worlds of my life.
There’s a part of me that thinks the amount of energy I spend focused on this question of when or if I’ll ever have a baby is not feminist.
Later, I’d have midnight ramen. Later, my favorite bartender at my local piano bar would ply me with whiskey shots. Later, I’d belt out several hours’ worth of Mandarin pop songs at a karaoke lounge and stumble home at eight in the morning. I’d forget until many hours later that as I sped home in a cab, I texted my friend: “Thirty-five is the new twenty-five, apparently!”
But in the middle of that party, before the alcohol hit me, I stopped for a moment and looked around at my friends, laughing and talking—these players in the life I had newly built. Even as I felt a twinge of longing for all I had let go, it was replaced by gratitude, warm and full.
This is thirty-five, I thought, and felt content. The feeling wouldn’t last, I knew. But for a moment, it was enough.
Karissa Chen's fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Gulf Coast, PEN America, Guernica, and Longreads. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Taiwan in 2015-16 and received a 2019 Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and is a proud Fellow of both Kundiman and VONA/Voices. She currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief at Hyphenand a Contributing Fiction Editor at Catapult. She is working on a novel.