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The Apathy of Fertility

Fertility apathy - it's becoming more and more common, especially among educated women. But as one PhD who has prioritized her career over children time and again says, maybe it's not apathy, after all. Maybe it's it's own form of motherhood. Maybe it's love.

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I’m excited to introduce Sarah Creel, PhD, the newest contributing author and features editor at Undefining Motherhood. Sarah has a brilliant perspective to share, is working hard to bring in a variety of other voices to this cause, and has been an essential surrogate mother to both me and Jack in the moments when we needed her most. She epitomizes what makes a mother in all the non-traditional ways. Please join me in welcoming her to our team! – Katy

I played with Cabbage Patch dolls incessantly as a child. I asked for them for birthdays, holidays, and saved allowance and any petty money I had to buy more. My nieces still play with the dolls I loved; although, I can’t help but notice that they are more into stuffed animals and other toys than I ever was.

I was obsessed. I played house, dressing my babies and lovingly tucking them in at night.

About thirty years later, I have to ask myself: where did that drive to keep house go?

Why did I never morph into the mother and caretaker I thought I would be?

The answer, of course, is more complicated than simply answering why a childhood dream fell by the wayside. I’ve navigated the labyrinthine byways of being childless since my early twenties when I was first married, and I have to say that I’ve never come to a clear conclusion.

Some of it has been circumstantial: my marriage began when I was 21, and he was 23.

We were still kids ourselves, and we were determined to finish college (me) and pursue a career (him).

In my late 20s, I entered a PhD program, and plans to conceive fell by the wayside as graduate school felt a lot like trying to wrangle a herd of cats while standing on my head—who could have a child in the middle of all that? The answer is, actually, several of my amazing friends, but I think they would tell you, too, that it was in no way easy or ideal.

In the middle of all this, I think my husband and I both felt a lot of pressure to have children even though the time never felt quite right.

Both of my siblings are younger than I am, and by the time I had started my PhD program, my sister’s first child was about five months old. I told myself that the PhD was my child, but seeing my sister raise my niece (and then nieces) always felt a bit bittersweet.

When would it be my turn to read to a child, to love him/her beyond what I even thought possible?

Sarah reading to an incredulous Jack. The very best of surrogate mothers.

Those thoughts usually receded until I learned (usually through social media) that yet another one of my talented, beautiful, smart female friends was pregnant. I always shared their joy, of course, but a small part of me felt jealous.

More than that, though, a big part of me wondered where my desire to actively pursue being a mother even was.

Sarah playing with Katy and Jack, mothering actively like she does with her own nieces and nephews.

I’m certainly not alone in what I’m calling “fertility apathy.”

According to a Pew Research Study, fertility rates among women with advanced degrees have fallen over the past ten years. In fact, “the most educated women are the most likely to never have a child” (Pew). The decline in fertility rates is not limited to just women with advanced degrees, however.

Millennials in their late twenties and early thirties are also opting out of childbearing—in fact, birth rates among women in their 20s fell 15% between 2007 and 2012.

In short, women are actively choosing careers and alternative paths in life that don’t involve motherhood as a central narrative.

And so I plowed on through a PhD in another country (Canada) while my husband supported us from the States.

Eventually, this separation and other problems got the better of us, and I found myself alone after 13 years of marriage. Thirteen years in which I had put the pursuit of a Phd first.

I looked around and took stock: I had an elderly dog, a fantastic support system of family and friends, a job I loved, and I was amicable with my ex. Surely I could make it through this?

And while getting a divorce from someone I had loved since I was 19 was still one of the hardest things I had ever done, I am glad we never had children.

I can’t imagine involving a child in the heartbreak that was divorce.

Plenty of people navigate that with grace and love, and to those moms and dads out there: you have my praise and my respect. I’m just so glad that I didn’t find myself in that position.

Divorce, for me, was a complete paradigm shift.

My husband had always been the primary breadwinner, and for that, I will be forever grateful. He put many of his own dreams to the side to support me as I pursued mine. What this meant, though, was that I was now the breadwinner on a much more meager salary (that, as an academic, I was very grateful to have at all!).

Making it through the divorce emotionally and financially took every waking bit of my strength. I rarely thought about what I was missing in terms of a family because I was so busy trying to teach classes and not fail at adult life.

Most of the time I felt like my life was a complete dumpster fire.

And at age 34, this felt uniquely strange because we had been so successful by societal standards.

I left a large house in a suburban area to live in a small, very modest rental.

I left the potential for children.

For the first time in my adult life, I was single and back to the place where most women in their twenties begin their journeys.

Since then, my heart has mostly healed, and I have a partner who makes me very happy. I am even able to watch my ex (through social media) find new love, and I can honestly say that I am happy for him. But then the old feelings of fertility apathy come floating in again . . . I just turned 36, and I’m still no closer to knowing what I want than I was during my twenties when I had a reason for not trying to conceive.

I’m relatively stable now: I have a job; I purchased a home; and I have a partner with whom having a child could be a possibility. But I still don’t desire it. I wonder often if there’s a magical age when my biological clock will begin ticking loudly enough for me to hear it?

Are you there, biological clock? It’s me, Sarah.

At age 35, women officially become “geriatric” mothers, and a host of risks associated with childbirth appear.

I did some research to find out why 35, exactly, is the age at which risks go up and chances of conception go down, and it turns out that age actually changes the shape of your uterus, making it a less hospitable place for baby. Your progesterone signaling also changes, which can trigger delayed labor. And, of course, the ability to actually conceive declines; pregnancy loss rates rise; and host of genetic disorders present themselves as the mother ages.

With the depressing statistics stacked against me as a 36-year-old, why then do I still not feel pressure to conceive? Just yesterday, I was waiting at a red light when I looked over to see a beautiful little blond girl sitting in her car seat. She was clearly listening intently to her mother, and my heart contracted and swelled with love for children everywhere.

By now I have eight nieces and nephews, and most of my friends already have children between 5-10 years of age. I love playing with all of them; in fact, I look forward to seeing kids at outings while my friends usually apologize for the fact that their kids are there.

When I am home, you can also usually find me at my parents’ kitchen table coloring with my nieces and nephews or outside walking around with them and our dogs. Kids are so innocent, so lovely, so loving. When my three-year-old nephew, Bear, climbs in my lap and asks me to read him a story, I melt. So why don’t I long for children in my own life?

I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer, but I’ll tell you what I do have anxiety about, and it’s two-fold:

#1 I have anxiety that my biological clock will finally start ticking, but by then it will be too late. That I will have to endure multiple tests, procedures, and rounds of IVF. All because I privileged my education and had life changes interrupt what I thought would eventually happen.

But, you know what, dear reader? That kind of thinking serves no one, especially me. You know why?

Because my life is so FULL.

I have three pets I love unconditionally. And a boyfriend whose presence in my life makes me feel warm and supported. I’m surrounded by parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents, and friends whom I love without restraint. And I have hundreds of students every semester that I pour love and time and energy into.

Maybe this isn’t apathetic fertility, perhaps it is just a different form of motherhood.

#2 My second wave of anxiety has to do with the way in which the world perceives me, a childless academic who has been divorced. As a highly competitive, type A personality, to be “less than” in any way is a natural anxiety stimulant.

But am I “less than” for not enduring the sleepless nights that come with a newborn? For not knowing the fear that comes when a child is sick?

The answer is no.

I cringe every time I hear someone say childless folk won’t know love until they have a child. This statement is so unfair and so so hurtful. I watched a childless friend of mine stay up all night lying on the floor with her sick dog. The memory of her lying by the dog is etched on my brain as a selfless act.

That is real love, folks. For me, I worry constantly about my students, my friends, my partner, our democracy, climate change…the list goes on and on.

Guys, I love. I love big. And even if I never know the love of my own child, my form of motherhood will have kept my life oh so full.

This is not apathy, after all, my friends.
This is the opposite of apathy; it is love.

When I first told my mom the title of this blog, she looked at me incredulously and said, “Why undefining? Why not redefining?”

“Because motherhood is a role that’s been defined for far too many centuries,” I say. “And often not even by mothers themselves. It’s been prescribed and defined and changed and redefined so much that I don’t understand how anyone can feel authentic in their experience of it anymore. Not to co-opt another movement that’s happening right now, but time’s up. It’s time to learn to do this authentically, not according to prescription. For years, I’ve studied the history and theory of how motherhood has been defined, prescribed, turned into an institution with a set of rules. And I’m sick of it. It’s time to put that knowledge into action.”

“It’s perfect,” she replied.



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