‘Your Fertile Years’ offers eye-opening facts

Your Fertile Years: What You Need to Know to Make Informed Choices by Professor Joyce Harper, Sheldon Press, 2021.

Back in 1969, Dr. David Reuben published a little book titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. People couldn’t wait to read it because frankly they were afraid to ask. Joyce Harper, professor of Reproductive Science at University College London and a longtime fertility researcher, has written a 2021 version that includes everything a woman or man could possibly want to know about sex and reproduction. Loaded with research and study results, it’s not easy reading, but here are the facts about menstruation, fertility, how to have good sex, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases, how a baby gets made, egg freezing, in vitro fertilization, menopause, and the future of reproductive science–artificial wombs that could be implanted in men?!!! Everyone with reproductive parts should have this book on hand.

Harper, who has three children conceived by IVF, is very frank about age and reproduction. Men are blessed with millions of sperm and keep making them throughout life. Women come with a limited supply and a deadline. If you want to get pregnant the natural way, she says, you should do it before age 35. In your 20s would be even better. To make things worse, she cites studies that show fertility begins to decline at a younger age for women who have not had children.

She writes: “In my view, women need to decide if they want a family in their late twenties to early thirties, and, if they do, they need to make some important life choices. If they have a willing partner, they can decide to start trying soon, or if they have decided on solo motherhood, they may wish to start donor insemination An expensive alternative is to have their eggs frozen. Or they could decide to wait, in the hope that they will be one of the lucky ones.”

Worldwide, young people are delaying childbirth. They are anxious to finish their education and establish their careers. They want to be in a stable relationship, preferably with the house and the picket fence before they attempt to get pregnant. Totally understandable. Times have changed and women have more options, but their ovaries have not changed. Even those who decide to freeze their eggs in the hope that they will find the perfect partner later on are encouraged to do so in their 20s, when their eggs are the most healthy and plentiful.

“Freezing eggs gives women more time to try to find Mr/Ms Right, rather than rush into a relationship with Mr/Ms Second Best. Some of those women who have a partner freeze their eggs to take the pressure of the relationship These women are usually older than the ideal age to freeze eggs, with the majority being over 35,” Harper says.

Couples who run out of natural options can turn to Assisted Reproductive Therapy (ART), which includes IVF, donor insemination, and other techniques. It’s stressful, expensive, and frequently not covered by insurance. In her book, Harper describes all the options in detail, along with the side effects and the odds of success. It’s not something you want to go into without thinking hard about it. How much is that baby worth to you?

Circling back to our theme here at Childless by Marriage, ART is not even an option if your partner doesn’t want a child in the first place.

The biggest lesson of Your Fertile Years is that you need to decide early how important it is to you to have children. If you can’t imagine life without them, you need to take action, whether it’s convincing your partner that you can’t wait, finding someone else to donate sperm or egg, freezing your eggs, or ending a childless relationship in the hope of finding someone new who wants to have children as much as you do.

This book goes way beyond having babies. Even if you decide not to have children, it offers extremely useful information about periods, PMS, birth control, STDs, and more, all that stuff your mom probably never told you. I know mine didn’t. Thank God for books.

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My interview at the UnRipe podcast with Jo Vraca is online now. Listen to it here. Jo asked some hard questions. At the end, you hear a woman singing in the background. That’s me.

Our Nomo Crone Childless Elderwomen fireside chat last Sunday went very well. We are some rowdy ladies, all proof there is life beyond age 55, even if you never had children. Here’s the link to listen to the recording.

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It’s All About Eggs and Expiration Dates

You know how the egg cartons from the grocery store have expiration dates stamped on them? Living alone, it takes me a while to use a dozen eggs. I usually ignore the dates and keep using the eggs until they’re gone. If it’s really getting dicey, I’ll hard-boil them for sandwiches because I don’t want them to spoil. Eggs cost money, and, judging by the noises my neighbor’s chickens make, they aren’t easy to lay.

But I’m not talking about chicken eggs today; we have to talk about our own eggs, the ones we women produce in our ovaries, the ones that occasionally hook up with our partner’s sperm and make babies. I’ve said it here before and you don’t want to hear it again, but our eggs have expiration dates, too. Sometimes you can stretch things out a bit, but the time will come when if you don’t use them right now, they’ll be no good.

A recent Radiant Menopause podcast made the human egg situation very clear. In a Nov. 23 interview titled “OMG, I forgot to have a baby,” Joyce Harper, a professor of reproductive science at London’s Institute for Women’s Health, gave us the depressing facts on eggs and fertility.

Harper spoke from experience. When she was 28, she was ready to have children, but her husband was not. After they split when she was 32, she got into a relationship with another man who was also not ready. At 35, with a new guy who was ready, they started trying for a baby, but nothing happened.  Tests and IVF followed. Just before her 40th birthday, she gave birth to a son. They wanted more children and had twin boys via frozen embryo transfer two years later. Easy, you think? No. Harper did get her children but it took seven years of high-tech trying at great financial and emotional cost. The trauma of all those years when she couldn’t have a child will never go away, she said.

Fertility does not wait for us to be ready, warned Harper. She is on a crusade to make people understand the math. At 35, fertility dives and the chance for miscarriage rises. Most miscarriages happen because something is wrong. The baby wouldn’t survive due to chromosome abnormalities or other problems. The eggs decline in quality as we age, so we’re more likely to miscarry when we’re older. We feel young, but our ovaries act the same way they did a hundred years ago, Harper said.

Gateway Women guru Jody Day wrote on her blog, “Most doctors agree that by the time a woman is 40, her chances of getting pregnant each month are approximately 5 percent.” That’s pretty poor odds.

There are exceptions to every rule, but for most women, conception after 40 will be difficult if not impossible. Menopause may not come for another decade—51 is the average age–but the factory is already shutting down. The age when your mother hit menopause is a good clue as to when you will, Harper said.

Here’s something crazy and seemingly unfair. Men’s fertility only declines slightly with age. Normal ejaculate contains more than 100 million sperm. Women are born with 300,000-400,000 eggs, but by puberty most of them have already died. During a lifetime, we ovulate about 500 eggs; the rest just die and slough away. What was God thinking?  

What can we do if our relationship situation does not allow us to get on with the baby-making before our eggs expire? Harper said more women are using donor sperm every year, but that’s not how most want to have their families. Freezing one’s eggs is a viable option. The ovaries may shut down, but the womb stays quite healthy. As you get older, pregnancy poses more risks, and you have to ask yourself whether you want to have a baby in your late 40s or 50s, but it can be done, just not in the usual way. When we hear about older women having babies, we can assume they had help. They usually have a willing partner, too.

According to an article in the AARP magazine (for people over 50), the majority of 50-plus women who become pregnant use donor eggs fertilized by sperm and implanted into a womb. It’s  expensive, $25,000 to $30,000 for one attempt. You could put a down payment on a house for that. Insurance rarely covers it, and it rarely works the first time. In fact, Day’s post said IVF fails in 77 percent of cases. You cannot count on it. You may go through a lot and still end up childless.

Bottom line? You can’t just let the years go by and hope for a miracle. The eggs won’t wait.  

Big sigh.

Harper has a new book, Your Fertile Years: What You Need to Know to Make Informed Choices, coming out in April 2021. It’s available for pre-order at Amazon.com now.

Feel free to share this post with your partner. Listen to the podcast, buy the book, and make an informed decision.

I know this isn’t a happy story. But with eggs, it’s use them or lose them.

As you think about whether or not you’ll ever have children, do you worry about your age and your eggs? Do men really understand how this works? I welcome your comments.

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The new book, Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both will be here next week. I will offer the ebook for a ridiculously low price during December so you all can get your copies. All the info will be in next week’s post.

Guest Post: Natascha Hebell Shares Her Story

Readers: In response to my invitation to share stories, I received this piece from Natascha Hebell, PhD, who lives in Mesa, Arizona. Although she’s not exactly childless by marriage, much of what she says applies to all of us.

We were so looking forward to having children! As soon as we got married, we expected to be pregnant right away because we were both young and healthy.

Well, it just never happened…

Disbelief and disappointment month after month, year after year. Hidden tears, suppressed anger, feelings of shame, hurt and envy and feeling utterly alone, unheard and completely invalidated about my feelings of loss, grief and distrust in my body and my life.

I just kept on “counting my blessings” and “getting over it.”

In my early 40s, I had a real midlife crisis. I asked myself: Why am I even here? What is my life’s purpose?

During my infertility journey I discovered acupuncture and I always felt so at peace afterwards. That prompted me to change my career in my 40s. I had a background in scientific research and business development, but I did a complete 180 as far as medical principles are concerned. I was able to graduate and get my national board certification as acupuncturist in record time, and I founded a very successful acupuncture clinic.

I have been able to help many people with their health concerns from a natural and holistic perspective. I love that I am able to share my nurturing and caring nature with my clients.

Looking back, I realized that I was overcompensating for my perceived failure as a wife and mother by being a perfectionist and overachiever.

Once I established my acupuncture practice, I continued further studies in integrative medicine and many different certifications to the point of exhaustion. I had a profound aha moment when I was participating in a “soul-story” exercise. I realized that I had never truly processed my childlessness. I had not allowed myself to grieve, accept and move forward in a healthy way.

I had tucked the grief and despair away. It did not exist for anyone that I knew, and so I subconsciously did not truly acknowledge my emotional pain. And I had done a pretty good job with that because only occasionally would I feel extremely sad and weepy when seeing little children, seeing young families and finding out about my friends and family getting pregnant and celebrating kids’ birthdays.

When I became an acupuncturist, I avoided treating infertility cases and women expecting children. I could just not handle it from an emotional perspective. I would treat women that were getting ready for IVF and especially for treatments before and after the transfer (with a 100% success rate!) and they agreed to see another acupuncturist who specialized in pregnancy and postpartum.

One month, two of my patients came in for their pre-IVF transfer treatments in tears. They said: It is my last chance to get pregnant and I am so anxious. They were sobbing, they were feeling guilty for not having given their parents grandchildren, for letting their partner down; they felt shame because they thought that they hadn’t tried hard enough.

It touched me to the core because I saw how much they were hurting even though they had dedicated months going through the difficult process of IVF treatments and they were exhausted physically, mentally and financially.

This was an important moment for me because I realized that I needed to speak up. It is okay to NOT have children. My life is rich and wonderful, and I have been able to leave a positive impact on so many people’s lives, something that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had children.

So that prompted me to start sharing my story from the perspective of someone who is in her 50s. This has been eye-opening to me. There are so many women, especially in their 50s, 60s and older, who have never been able to share their grief and their story. Also, many younger women who are childless want to hear from my perspective and get some help.

I do hope that I can give inspiration, hope and courage to women whose heart aches because their dream of a child has not been granted in this lifetime. I can be found online at The Golden Sanctuary and a free FB group (Beyond Infertility and Unintended Childlessness)

Thank you, Natascha! As always, readers, your comments are welcome.

Another COVID-19 Loss: Fertility Treatments

Coronaviruses Close the Fertility Clinics Across the Country

When I read this headline yesterday, I felt sad, but I also thought: of course. In this time of crisis, making babies is considered an elective procedure, just like my friend’s postponed hip replacement and the dentist appointment I was supposed to have yesterday. It appears that most clinics are finishing procedures they have started but not initiating new treatment cycles.

I feel sad for the people whose fertility journey has suddenly stopped. It’s a big leap just to try to get pregnant via IVF and other methods. Many of the people doing it are at or near an age when it will soon be too late. But of course when people are dying of COVID-19, when hospitals are filling with patients struggling to breathe and health-care workers are risking their lives every day to treat them, dare we complain?

In history, fertility has dipped in times of crisis—wars, depressions, epidemics. Now is no different. In the animal kingdom, animals stop reproducing when conditions are not right, when it’s not safe or there isn’t enough food. Humans are no different. Look at how many couples put off having children because they can’t afford them or because they want to buy a house first? Right now, with so many people out of work, the economic future isn’t looking too good.

It’s a rough time. We’re “social distancing” by staying home far more than we’re used to. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting cabin fever real bad. Last night, I got in my car and drove around for a few minutes just to GET OUT, but everything was closed and all the wonderful parks here on the Oregon coast are barricaded. There was nowhere to go, so I looked at the bay for a few minutes then drove back home and watched three episodes of “Good Girls” in a row.

Most of you are younger than I am. You may be staying home with your partner. Maybe both of you are trying to work from home, or you’re going out to work, worrying constantly about getting the virus. You may be hearing your friends whine about staying home with their kids. I’m sure that is challenging. I don’t envy them, but does it make you feel worse about not having any children?

Let’s talk about this mandated staycation. How are you doing? Have you put having children way in the back of your mind until the pandemic is over or are you thinking why not get pregnant now? Has this whole situation changed how you feel about becoming a mom or dad? What’s going on at your house these days? Please share. I’m lonely, and Annie just says “feed me, pet me, and walk me.” So let’s talk.

I wish you all health and peace of mind.

Books offer discouraging view of IVF

Fertility treatments aren’t necessarily relevant when you’re fertile enough but one partner just doesn’t want to have children. However, in some couples, the problem is physical. You both want to make babies, but due to problems with sperm or eggs, it’s not happening. Should you try in-vitro fertilization and other high-tech procedures? Would it work? The books I’ve been reading lately suggest the costs are high and the chances are poor.

Avalanche: A Love Story by Julia Leigh, WW Norton & Co., 2016

This book was sent to me to review. If you’re considering fertility treatment, you might want to read it. Or you might not because it could scare you out of it.

When they can’t get pregnant the usual way, novelist Julia Leigh and her husband resort to science. When their marriage fails, she continues alone with sperm donated by a friend. She is already in her 40s, and the odds are not great. Hormone injections, freezing eggs, embryo transfers—none of it seems to work. How long can she support her dream of having a child? Reading this book confirms my personal belief that success is rare and it’s not worth the misery. Leigh, an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, is very clear about the odds—not great—and the treatments—not fun. But it is a gripping story, easy to read in a day or so.

You can read a longer review of this book at Jody Day’s Gateway Women site.

Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies by Miriam Zoll, Interlink Publishing Group, 2013

Like many modern women, Miriam Zoll wanted to get her career well-established before she had children. She thought she had plenty of time. Finally married and pushing 40, she was ready. When the natural way didn’t work, she went to a fertility specialist. She soon learned that fertility assistance treatments such as in-vitro fertilization and using donor eggs were not the guaranteed route to parenthood most people believed. This memoir takes us on her harrowing journey to become a mother, trying every possible way. As it tells her story, this book also serves as a warning to anyone who thinks technology will lead to pregnancy. Not only is the success rate depressingly low, but no one knows yet what the long-term effects will be. This book, a little long but well-written, successfully blends memoir and research and should be required reading for anyone considering procreation after age 35.

The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness by Eliot Jager, The Toby Press, 2015

This memoir emphasizes Jager’s complicated relationship with his father and his struggle with being a childless Jewish man. Jager and his wife could not conceive. Fertility treatments failed. They did not want to adopt. Meanwhile, his religion told him a man was not complete without children. In addition to his own experiences, he shares conversations with other childless Jewish men and offers the scriptural view of childlessness. I would have liked him to talk more about his personal struggles with not having children, but the narrative kept veering back to his father. It is also mired in footnotes and Hebrew words. Still, it’s an interesting read.

So that’s my book report. Read ’em if you dare. Meanwhile, the comments have been pouring in on previous posts, especially, “Go or Stay” from Aug. 31. Take a scroll back through the posts and see if you want to add to the conversation. Thank you all for being here.