The clock-watcher

How do you know when – or if – you should have a baby? Paralyzed by indecision, Corrie Pikul discovers why waiting for a sign from her biological clock could be a huge mistake

Last May, five of my friends had babies. My husband and I spent the month dropping off pasta salad for bleary-eyed parents and playing Hot Potato with their swaddled infants. There were suddenly so many new children in our lives that we kept mixing up their names, so we just referred to each of them as The Baby. Each time I held one of The Babies, I felt a rush of tenderness and affection. But when we went home to indulge in the sleep our new-parent friends were missing, all of the little ones blended into one in my mind. As I slept, The Baby would swell to grotesque proportions, as if his bottle had been swapped with Alice’s drink me potion.

Until recently, babies weren’t my priority: I had to find a career, a partner, myself. I’d deal with the motherhood question later. Now I’m 35 and married. “Later” has arrived – and I’m still solidly, intractably ambivalent. My husband, also undecided, looks to me for guidance and motivation. I figured the issue would somehow resolve itself: Like Alyson Hannigan’s character on How I Met Your Mother, I’d grab my husband one day and half sexily, half scarily demand that he “put a baby in me!” Or, after many heartfelt, wine-soaked conversations, we’d decide we were too selfish/broke/inept to have children of our own, and toast to a future of aunt – and unclehood. Instead, now that I’ve entered the five-year period when fertility experts strongly urge women to get busy, the indecision is agonizing.

In 1978, Louise Brown became the first infant born via in vitro fertilization. Over the next decade, women flooded the workplace, psyched about new educational and career opportunities and also fortified by this baby backup plan. Yet many were

disappointed to find that getting pregnant in one’s late thirties or early forties wasn’t necessarily so easy, even with science on their side. That’s when the concept of a biological clock – a use-it-or-lose-it time bomb of female fertility – went from trend to trope. Unmarried career gals heeding the clock’s call became a familiar plotline on smart sitcoms like Murphy Brown, Moonlighting, and Designing Women. Remember a then 28-year-old Marisa Tomei irately stomping out the beat of her ticking clock in My Cousin Vinny?

Growing up, I wasn’t into dolls or babysitting, but I still assumed my body would one day issue some kind of warning – both psychological and physiological – that its eggs were approaching their sell-by date. But while scientists have never been more certain about our short-term fertility window, it turns out the notion of the clock – our signal that the window’s about to shut – is almost entirely anecdotal. According to Jani R. Jensen, MD, an assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic, there’s no proven bodily sign that “it’s time.” In the medical world, the term “biological clock” refers as much to circadian or basal rhythms as to babymaking. As a fertility buzz-phrase, it’s “more of a press term,” Jensen says.

What, then, is making the very women with whom I’ve spent years critiquing the American institution of parenthood – say, the fact that 40.2 percent of married women with children under three didn’t work full-time in 2009 – show up at brunches and book club meetings and gleefully announce their pregnancies? Something must be helping them push past pragmatic baby concerns, right?

Enter baby lust.

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The clock-watcher