Elizabeth Keenan

Columnist at vitae

The No-Baby Penalty

Full 06192014 motherseries indigo

It's Day Four of our four-day series on pregnancy, motherhood, and the academy. Monday: Sarah Kendzior asked, Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? Tuesday: Rachel Leventhal-Weiner described the myth of The Perfect Academic Baby. Wednesday: Kelly J. Baker ponders, Are Children Career Killers?

I don’t know what it’s like to be an academic mother. I do know what it’s like to give up the “best years” of my fertility to an extremely foolish, six-year job search that has left me with neither a tenure-track job nor a child.

I know what it’s like to sit in a doctor’s office and hear that you will have to do in-vitro fertilization if you want to have a baby. I know what it’s like to be told that my age is going to be an increasingly large factor in my chances of success, even if it’s not the root cause. I know the humiliation of having a transvaginal ultrasound every other day for two weeks, usually done by doctors who don’t know my name and don’t bother to look at my face. I know the irritation of being called “young lady” by a doctor who’s trying to be nice but is unintentionally rubbing it in with that whole “age factor” thing. I know the devastation of going through a painful, expensive process in which you’re treated like a broodmare, only to find out on Valentine’s Day that you are most definitely, distinctly, without a doubt, not pregnant.

I know what happens when you wait for the perfect time to have a baby, and it doesn’t work out at all.

I don’t blame my fertility issues on going to grad school, since I was still on the “right” side of 35 when I finished. But the culture of academia certainly shaped my perception of when I could have children.

I heard it on the first day of grad school, and many times after: Don’t have a baby while you’re here. No one will think you’re serious. It’ll kill your career. Better to wait until you’re in a postdoc or, better yet, have tenure.

At any rate, I listened. I was young, I was single, and my fertility did not matter to me. In fact, I thought about selling my eggs to make a few extra thousand bucks—I even got accepted into an egg-donor program. I backed out at the last minute when I thought it would be weird to have someone with my genetic material running around, unknown to me. (And so the great cosmic joke begins!)

I worked hard. I won some stuff for some things I wrote; I published; I did service work. I dated a truly horrible guy for four years. I didn’t even think about having kids with him, and, in retrospect, I’m very happy with that decision. I broke up with him during my fieldwork on the West Coast, and I returned to New York to write my dissertation.

I met my husband in my last year of grad school, when I was 31. When we met, we fell instantly in love; we’ve been inseparable ever since. He is right for me, in a way that is indescribable.

We both knew we wanted kids, but I wanted to get into a tenure-track job first. My department has a very high placement rate (I’m in the minority without a tenure-track job or steady employment), and I kept getting to the final, on-campus interview stage. My husband really loves his job, too, and was traveling a lot. So we put off the baby project in favor of developing our careers, in the hopes that maybe next year was my year to score a job.

Finally we decided it was time. I had just turned 36, which is a little old but not ancient. After six months, I happened to go to the gynecologist for unrelated reasons, and she ordered some blood tests “just to be sure.” They were fine, but further testing on my husband and me showed some, shall we say, “issues.”

Our primary issue—which is between the doctor and us—is not age-related, but age is an increasingly large factor as time goes by and things don’t work out like they’re supposed to. My body’s response to the first IVF cycle was, as the medical director of the clinic said, “good, but not great.” I had two embryos transferred (with no extras making it to freezing), and I waited. It didn’t take.

My response in the second cycle was worse. The third was gangbusters, it seemed at first—15 eggs!—but only one fertilized. It didn’t take, either.

One of the many possible reasons for the low fertilization rate is oocyte quality—that is, my eggs are old and defective. At the end of the day, the doctors don’t really know for certain why we have such an abysmally low fertilization rate, and they think we’d still have a chance with another cycle.

But the clock is still ticking, and it gets louder. Our chances go down with every month. There’s no easy solution, and there may be none for us at all. We’re out of insurance money and, at least for right now, I’m out of the ability to begin another roller-coaster cycle of hopes and heartache.

On Monday, Sarah Kendzior wrote: “But I know far more people—men and women—whose lives were derailed because they sacrificed what was most important to them for an academic career that never materialized. They were told again and again that these sacrifices were ‘worth it,’ only to find, in the end, that ‘it’ was nothing.”

I don’t know Sarah, so she’s not talking about me personally—but she could be. I feel that derailment every day, and I wish that there were some way of getting back on track.

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