May 08, 2013
Mentoring Fertility
Posted by Christine Hurt

OK, that's a weird title.  Once a year, I post something that I suspect makes Gordon cringe.  This will do for the year.

Around 2006, I was on a treadmill ( a literal one, not a figurative one) in Wisconsin watching some morning news program.  One of the bits was about a woman in her 50s who had successfully borne a child using eggs she had frozen back in her more fertile days.  I looked at my friend, a pediatric physician and researcher, and said, "Weird."  My friend didn't bat an eyelash, said, "That is awesome.  I totally would have done that."

In the WSJ this weekend, there was an article that suggests those of us who mentor young professional women should include a freeze-your-fertility discussion in addition to any lessons gleaned from Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In craze.  My first thought again was, "weird," but now I'm rethinking this.  But, more broadly, I think my reaction to the article and its suggestions raise broader questions.

1.  No one ever talks with male law students or associates about when children, so why talk to women about it?  I think this is what bothers me most.  In a perfect world, the questions that male law students ask me would be the same as the ones that female law students ask, but they aren't.  Female law students ask me all the time about having kids and making partner and whether those two things are mutually exclusive.  That's reality.  So, mostly I stick to answering the "making partner" part because I don't feel all that comfortable talking to people who aren't my close friends about making babies.  But I guess I'm not really answering the question then.  When I was an associate, a female partner came to my office and asked how old I would be when (if) I made partner (this was at Baker Botts, and the math turned up the magic age of 31).  She said, "There's the answer.  Don't have kids until then."  I was fairly appalled at this conversation.  Maybe because she was the last person I wanted to talk to about making babies, but also because of point #2.

2.  Having babies is a romantic notion, not a pragmatic one.  Bringing harsh realism into future thoughts of motherhood is icky.  I was appalled at the partner's advice partly because (as I repeated to my friends over lunch) "the moment I start timing my babies because of my career is the moment that I have lost it."  That makes for a great lunch soundbite, but it may not be all that realistic.  One reason for my declaration was that I thought I was the invincible rockstar associate.  I could do anything, including have a lot of babies and make partner, even though other, weaker women, had tried and failed.  But, not only was my impression of my own career trajectory romantic, but so also my visions of motherhood.  I was enough of a feminist to appreciate the ability of modern technology (birth control) to allow women to postpone motherhood until the right point in their adult lives (finishing education, marriage stability, financial stability), but not enough to embrace postponing motherhood for climbing the career ladder.  Because that would mean I was a bad person whose priorities were messed up.

So, my first thoughts when the author (Sarah Elizabeth Richards) suggests that young women freeze their eggs is "ick -- your priorities are messed up."  But I think I'm wrong.  The reality is that to "have it all" or to "have something approaching all" is that a little timing is necessary.  I'm not a doctor, but my guess is that young eggs are healthier eggs, and I've known so many women who struggled with trying to make older eggs do the work of younger eggs.  Would it alleviate that heartbreak?  Some have argued that Sandberg finds it easy to talk about kids and work because she was already very successful when she had her children in 2005 and 2007, both post-age 35.  It is a tricky business to postpone kids.  Technology seems to have made it less tricky.  The 1970s may have given women the technology to postpone pregnancy at their own peril; today's technology may reduce that peril.

Will I ever incorporate this discussion into the many office conversations I have with female law students?  I don't know; that still feels a little too ick.  Maybe they can just read this blog post!

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