Baby panic

Posted: May 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Amazing what counts as news these days: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist, social democrat and pro-family feminist, made screaming headlines with her new book, "Creating a Life," in which she pointed out that as women age, our ability to have children decreases. Fertility begins to decline at age 28 and drops markedly after age 35. After 40, your chances of taking home a baby are less than 5 percent.

Intense interest, anxiety and finally (on the cover of New York magazine) full-blown Baby Panic ensued. "The decline chart of viable eggs is totally freaking me out," complains Dina Wise, a 29-year-old Manhattan single. "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."

"My patients are definitely panicking," adds Audrey Buxbaum, an OB/GYN.

So pervasive has the interest generated by "Creating a Life" been that its failure to make the best-seller list actually became a front-page New York Times story this week. "Why would anyone go pay money for something that's going to make them feel worse?" asks bookbuyer Leslie Graham.

What is interesting, of course, is that 40 years after Friedan, the idea of not getting married and having babies still makes many women feel bad. "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.

Here is my question: How could we mothers have raised a generation of smart, competent women, the most educated in human history, so ignorant about sex they do not even know the biological basics? How could we have raised our daughters to be so ashamed of the female body that this news provokes panic, anxiety, outrage at the unfairness of it all?

"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," complains Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of the New York magazine piece. "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. ... 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."

Here is one of the great ironies of contemporary feminism: Elite young women these days take their cues about how to behave primarily from unmarried (and therefore adolescent) males. Why is sexual promiscuity good and domesticity bad? The connecting link is the idea of needing another human being. Women who need people (especially men) feel this need as an admission of weakness, a failure of nerve. The properly independent woman abandons sexual partners as readily and heartlessly as any Victorian roue. For elite, educated young women, to admit that you want a husband and children -- or worse, to actually go out and seek them -- feels unbearably retrograde.

Where does the angst come from? Sylvia Ann Hewlett has done a great service in forcing us to confront these cultural contradictions. "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.

For those of us raising children, there is a similar message: If you want your daughters (or sons) to get married and have children, let them know that market performance is not the only thing that matters.