science of us

One of Life’s Great Injustices

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A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with NYU Langone fertility specialist and OB/GYN Dr. David Keefe. We were talking about whether hormones are what’s behind my (and others’) urgent desire to have kids in our late 30s. Almost as an aside, he mentioned that one of life’s “great injustices” is that the window of fertility closes for women much sooner than it does for men. Although many women can have babies well into their 40s, he said, men essentially remain fertile until death. (Their sperm may decrease in quality, but it still basically works, until “very late in life.”)

We went on to talk more about hormones and existential fear, but this turn of phrase stuck with me. At first the idea — that men’s and women’s lopsided fertility windows are a big cosmic joke or cruelty — made sense and felt reassuring. In theory, it would be nice to do whatever I wanted, for the rest of my life, including have children. To an extent, the idea of it as an injustice felt like an absolution, too: I don’t need to feel guilty about having put this off for so long; it’s just fundamentally unfair, imbalanced.  

But then the more I thought about it, the less it seemed like an injustice, and the more it began to seem like a gift. It’s a complicated gift, but I feel lucky to be grappling with the questions it’s forced me to ask myself. I feel grateful for the pressure I wouldn’t have applied on my own, and for the self-knowledge — I want a child, I want a family — that this pressure has produced. These are the kernels I plan to build the rest of my life on. I even feel something like empathy or pity for men who might not grapple with this feeling of an approaching biological deadline until much later — who won’t know the weird, cold, hard feeling of having to turn something in, finish a test, come up with an answer. (Child or no child? Who am I? What am I doing? What do I want?) I know it’s different for men, largely because it’s harder for them to have children on their own, but this biological pressure is surprisingly lively, colorful, jolting.

I’d figured it would be repellent and pity-inducing to go around talking about wanting to get married and start a family, but instead it feels like standing up straight. I obviously have no idea what will happen, but it’s also been surprisingly fun and powerful to share this information with people. The world shifts when you know what you want. Unexpected doors open. Others close.

One of Life’s Great Injustices