Tick Tock: A Race Against My Biological Clock


I had always bought into the philosophy that you can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind to it.

LIKE many women of my generation, the lingering ideal of the ‘90s superwoman showed us we could have it all: kids and a stellar career to boot. Reared on the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic and the myth of the domestic goddess-cum-businesswoman, our role models were multi-taskers who could effortlessly juggle motherhood while meteorically climbing the career ladder. Military in my list-making and with a single-minded ambition, I was determined to take charge of my destiny. I wanted to study, socialise, breed, travel; the whole kit and caboodle.

When John Lennon wrote the lyric, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I doubt he realised how significant it would become to the post-babyboom, Generation X (born early ‘60s to ‘80s). We were encouraged to aim high; to have no ties. Independent and defiant, we embraced technology yet raged against the machine. Life revealed a cosmos of contradictions and endless choices, and as the family structure essentially crumbled and divorce rose, many chose to side-step procreation – humanity’s fundamental function – in quest for self-fulfilment and freedom. Now, as middle-age looms over Gen Xers like a neon No Exit sign, many of us are left lonely and wondering: in our efforts to have it all, have we actually ended up with nothing’?

The average age of women giving birth in New Zealand is now 30 years, compared with 26 in the early 1960s. While modern life’s distractions may contribute to the delay of parenthood, the major stumbling block seems to be finding a significant other. Doctor Richard Fisher, a clinician at Fertility Associates – where a third of patients are aged over 40 – says the setback for many potential parents is “a little bit about organising your life, it’s a little bit about organising your career, but it’s mostly about not having the right partner. It is certainly the most common reason. They just haven’t happened to have met the person they want to have a family with. And the problem is that then puts you in the predicament, as you get into your late thirties, of having to start making choices about whether you’re going to have a family by yourself.”

In my twenties I was broody and all too aware of my ticking biological time bomb.

Determined not to become a self-indulgent Gen Xer and miss the child-bearing boat, hankering for a family only fuelled my military list-making: marriage at 23 (check!) after which my husband and I travelled extensively (life experience: check!). Then, in my mid-twenties, when most of my peers were still living like students and enjoying rampant relationship-free sex, I was preparing to forgo youthful abandon for the fairytale family unit. A fruitful 27-year-old, I plotted my first pregnancy –smugly picturing my peers a decade down the line wishing they too had planned ahead instead of frittering away their fertile twenties. I approached my husband, armed to the teeth with folic acid and eager to begin the breeding proceedings, but was met with a disheartening, yet wholly practical, response; we were severely skint, waiting a few years seemed sensible. Sadly the relationship was over before the folic acid reached its used-by date.

Today, a childless singleton staring down the barrel of 35 – that dreaded age associated with female fertility’s drastic decline – my biological clock’s chimes are deafeningly loud. Aforementioned frittering friends are nesting in suburban domesticity, while I (divorced and brimming with jealousy) have mastered the art of feigning happiness when in the presence of pregnant tums. Now, as I grapple with the compelling need to procreate, I can’t help but feel somewhat short-changed.

Fertility Associates’ current ad campaign, ‘Is 40 Really the New 30?’ attempts to drive home the fact that time is not on our side; even though we are living longer than our ancestors, the fertility window for a woman remains the same. “What we want people to understand is that 40 is not the new 30,” says Fisher. “Or it might be, but nobody’s told your ovaries.” It seems that even in this era of egg freezing and IVF (in-vitro fertilisation), no technology can compete with nature’s clock. “The problem is that many women, because of the information around newer techniques like IVF, have come to believe that science will overcome everything else. Sadly that’s not true. Although science is better than trying to conceive naturally, it’s still not particularly good as you get older because you’re limited by biology.”

“Many of the couples that we see in their late thirties are seeing us not because they’re necessarily [reproductively] abnormal, but they’re running out of time and they have to start making choices about intervention, which they might not really choose to make but it’s a choice that their age, of necessity, makes for them.”

Public funding in New Zealand does not cover the cost of fertility treatment for women aged 40 years and over. And IVF – though a physical event – can be emotionally taxing when taking into consideration potential debt, drugs and the pressures of disappointment.

Cassandra Woollett, a natural fertility educator and clinical supervisor at Natural Fertility New Zealand, emphasises the importance of raising awareness. “People sometimes think that IVF’s going to help them if they can’t conceive naturally. I have had women who are 39 and 40 come in really angry because, one, they’re not going to be entitled to public treatment because they’re going to hit the 40 mark, and two, nobody told them that IVF might not be successful. They’re angry that they haven’t had that information.”

Roxane, 48, met her husband when she was 32 and started trying to conceive at 34. After a year they opted for fertility treatment, but following four miscarriages in six years decided enough was enough. “After the third miscarriage I got depressed. I still feel sad about it, but our friends now tend to either be people who are childless or have teenage kids who are off doing their own thing.”

Being childless wasn’t a conscious decision for 54-year-old Kirsty Macnab. “I just thought I’d do it, but in the future. I never realised that the biological clock was actually something women needed to pay attention to. When I left home the last thing I wanted to do was to think about children, and it coincided with being in the mid-‘70s, when women were free to do whatever they liked and you didn’t need to have men or children to define yourself. The feminist movement was in full swing. I went to university, so it never occurred to me to have children at that stage of my life. And certainly there was the belief that you could delay it.”

Fertility experts now report donor insemination is an increasingly popular option for women in their late thirties and early forties who are willing to make the decision that they will be, at least for some of their life, a solo mother.

Raising a kid solo is no mean feat, but – with six months until my doomsday egg decline – the search for Mr Right is cutting into precious reproduction time. In truth, I have come to no resolute conclusions; only to have a baby before biology rules it out. With determination and a degree of faith in destiny I am venturing head-first into unknown terrain, keeping my eyes on the prize: the glorious gift of life.

As my biological limits creep ever closer, stirring up seismic shock waves of panic and fear, Kirsty Macnab’s pragmatic advice – that “you do not need to have children to be a valid human being” – rings clear. “I went through a lot of sadness about not having children because you got a lot of stick from people,” she says. “But you know, when you don’t have children you can actually have an extremely interesting life. And I’ve had a lot of experiences that I would not have had if I’d had children.

“People contribute to society in a whole range of ways, and as long as we all see that, we’re all in it together.”

First published in Sunday Magazine, Sunday Star Times, New Zealand, March 2012.
© Abbey Stirling