Time magazine isn't typically what my friends and I page through in the supermarket checkout line (preferring instead grainy photos of a star exiting a plastic surgeon's office). But last year, when the newsweekly's cover story about conception after 35 hit the stands, the tabloids momentarily lost their lurid thrill. Each of us took an unpregnant pause to scan its contents; the buzz at work began the very next day.
What we'd all been startled to read was that a woman's shot at conceiving starts to decline at age 27. At 42, her chances of having a baby using her own eggs -- even with the latest medical advances -- is 7.8 percent. Soon, I'd learn that when women find they may no longer be able to give life, their reactions often mirror those familiar stages one's said to face when losing it: denial, anger, grief, acceptance.
We were one of the first generations to be told we could do whatever we wanted -- whether it was running a company or letting the dishes pile up in the sink -- without feeling we'd betrayed our gender. Now, we were discovering the catch: We could accomplish everything men could, except (God bless you, Tony Randall!) have children whenever we felt like it.
Not that any of us were so naive as to think we could conceive at 40 without a hitch. But who'd have thought that by that age -- my age -- half our eggs would be chromosomally abnormal? We had been either too dumb or too busy or too stubborn to admit the truth. Now, those of us who had told ourselves that of course we'd have children one day silently vowed to get rid of our birth control. We would not, we decided, be one of those weepy, 50-plus CEOs who would give her seat on the stock exchange for a baby to dandle on her Burberry-clad knee.
And that's where things began to get a little weird among my friends who were on the brink of 40. This sudden, aching desire to have a child transformed us -- smart, ambitious career women -- into thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Derby. We were running as fast as we could toward the prize, all wearing blinders so we wouldn't be spooked by the competition.
After years of discussing every detail of each other's lives, the nitty-gritty of babymaking was now off limits. Of course we couldn't help ourselves from monitoring the collective progress, however discreetly. We hooked up at coffee shops and laughed about the tribulations of temperature charting -- but when one of us declined a glass of wine, we would merely raise an eyebrow. We traded names of fertility doctors, but tried to avoid any real discussion of how it was going.
The silence yawned. We'd gone through crappy first jobs and stupidly wrong boyfriends and marriages and promotions together. But this time, some of us would win and some would lose at something desperately important, but something not within our control. How would we react? Joy? Envy? Resentment? Some imperfectly human combination of them all?
I'd heard stories about women who, having exhausted their fertility options, chose to join militant non-mommy support groups. Maybe I would wind up that way. But I hoped not. I told myself that this quest to bring more love into the world, cell by splitting cell, didn't have to diminish what was already there.
At 42, my friend Annie crossed the conception finish line first with the help of in-vitro fertilization. Given the risk of miscarriage, she didn't tell us for months. When she did break the news, I was filled with happiness of the whooping, high-fiving variety. Sure, when I searched my soul -- as gingerly as I would touch a loose tooth with my tongue -- I felt a twang of despair. I'd been trying for months with nothing to show. But here was my friend, who had something she never thought she would. How could I not be overjoyed for her?
And yet I agonized for my friend Hope who, having spent months trying to conceive, listened while an acquaintance who got lucky on the first try regaled her with every pregnancy-related ache and pain. "The insensitivity boggled the mind," Hope told me after she'd finally conceived.
Then there were those of us who, once the first wave of panic subsided, rethought motherhood altogether. My friend Caroline was convinced she'd get pregnant right away, since she'd had an abortion a few years earlier. But she didn't. After a few more months of trying, she decided that she was more ambivalent about having a child -- and giving up late nights with friends -- than she'd realized. Having just turned 39, she dropped out of the race. At least for the moment.
And what about me? My life had been dizzyingly full before I'd started down this road. But the more I considered sharing what my husband and I had -- late-in-life love stumbled into with the cold-water shock of utter surprise -- the more I knew I wanted to. I was less sure I wanted to go through fertility treatments. But we figured there was no harm in trying the old-fashioned way for a while longer.
After five months of squinting at plastic sticks, we got a hit. (A souvenir from our vacation on Cape Cod, my husband said laughingly.) When I experienced unexplained bleeding early on (causing my doctor to briskly type "threatened abortion" into my medical file), I decided to wait and receive my amnio results before I told anyone. The call from the genetic counselor came on my forty-first birthday. Now I was the one hesitating to reveal what I was bursting to share.
At a Christmas party thrown by my husband's friends, the women guessed my secret. "Have you told Jill?" they asked. A few years earlier, Jill, then in her early forties, had started a course of IVF; she subsequently discovered that she had breast cancer. Saving her life took precedence over the baby she would now never be able to conceive. "Be sure to tell her soon," someone said. So I did. And Jill responded graciously, grateful that I hadn't patronized her. "Congratulations," she said. "And thanks. Thanks for telling me."
I remembered this lesson as I made a lunch date with my friend Catherine. Part of me dreaded the meeting. I shouldn't have. She gushed. She insisted on seeing my belly and then told me with a laugh that I must be having a boy, because, according to the old Irish wives' tale, "girls steal your beauty." The blinders were off, but it didn't matter. Or maybe it wasn't a horse race after all.
"Are you okay about all this?" I asked her. Four months after getting married, she was just starting to give herself hormone shots in preparation for a procedure so daunting that even the vocabulary used to describe it -- harvesting, implantation -- terrified her. "You know, I really don't feel any agonizing sense of competition," she said. "I wish I'd had the chance to start trying sooner. But I don't wish it were any different for my friends."
Her reaction turned out to be more common than I'd even hoped. Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to believe that all my friends were unequivocally thrilled. (As one woman who'd tried and failed to conceive before adopting put it, "You feel happy, but you also feel guilty because maybe you could feel happier.") But in the end, every one of them managed to make me feel good. Who knows how things may change as we each square off against the unknown? For now, at least, I knew I could count on these women.
Having pretended for so long, I found it hard (despite my funhouse-mirror belly) to admit to myself that I was actually pregnant. So, one wintry day, I walked into a Baby Gap store to fondle footed onesies and fuzzy striped caps. Banishing my superstitions, I decided to buy a tiny wisp of fabric that would one day hold my child. "Is this a gift?" the clerk at the register asked. I stared at him for a moment. Pregnant at age 41, despite the dire predictions? Plus friends facing the same odds who were cheering me every step of the way? My eyes filled with tears. And though I shook my head no, what I meant to say was: Yes. It is all definitely a gift.
Hilary Sterne is deputy editor of InStyle.