My first job out of college I found myself working in the development department at a Reform synagogue in Washington, D.C. I’m far enough into my career to admit what it actually entailed (without giving you the sugarcoated version that was on my resume for years afterward). My day consisted of opening checks mailed to me by elderly congregants in increments of $18, donations made in memory or in honor of friends and family. In turn, I inputted their names in the temple bulletin as donors that week.

It was a painfully boring and unchallenging job; I was stuck for eight hours at a desk to complete a task that involved only about 45 minutes of actual work. In addition, I had to man the development office phone in order to receive those $18 or $36 donations from whoever called in. I received maybe three calls a day. I was left with a lot of time, and thanks to a domineering IT supervisor who blocked practically the entire internet from my work computer, I was more than eager to field those phone calls.

The congregants would tell me all about their lives; they were lonely too. I developed relationships with many of them, and I suspect more than a few would call me weekly to make inconsequential donations just to have an excuse to keep me on the phone. I was an enthusiastic participant in conversations about their lives, their pasts and their families.

It’s funny: In D.C., the first question people ask when they meet someone new is about their job. What do you do, where do you work, how can I leverage a connection with you?

But these elderly congregants, many of whom I spoke to on a weekly basis, never bothered to share that information. It’s not that they didn’t have important and interesting jobs or work experience; many of them did. They just didn’t think it important to share those stories. I did know by the end of our first call how many children and grandchildren they had, and what they were all up to. That was what was most important for them to share: news of their children and grandchildren, not their careers.

There is no avoiding the reality that you are most fertile in your 20s, and that fertility declines into your 30s and drops off a cliff in your 40s.

I also had a colleague, 15 years my senior, with whom I developed a particularly warm relationship. She had two children, and because of the disruptive nature of fertility treatments, the entire office knew she was trying for a third.

Once, while out to lunch with another recent college graduate, she gave us some unsolicited life advice based on her experience that in no small way changed the trajectory of my life.

You’re not as young as you think you are, she told us. Many of your peers will waste their 20s dating and partying; but you should be married with at least one kid by the time you’re 30. You’ll likely want more kids than you think you do now, and you should give yourself the opportunity to keep going while you still are well within a window of relatively high fertility.

We both took that advice to heart, and both were married in our mid-20s and gave birth to two kids before we hit 30. I then kept going and had four more after that, timed roughly every other year. She was right about having more than I had initially wanted to: I planned to have three kids and ended up with double that.

I’m often asked for dating and life advice by single 20-somethings. It feels a bit strange to try to offer a perspective, having never experienced the soul-crushing experience of dating apps, though I did meet a very nice, but not right for me, guy on an app before I met my husband.

Nevertheless, I’m paid to give you my opinion, and so I’ll give it. What advice do I offer young women who are looking to have a family “one day” in the future?

You have to plan for the life you want, and that starts with getting married to the right man. A man who will want to build a future with you, who will hold your hair when you are experiencing the joy of morning sickness for nine straight months, at all points of the day and night, a man who will help you make that first walk to the bathroom after you’ve had a baby. You don’t want just any guy to take this most sacred job in your life, you want a good man. So, how do you find one?

Here’s my No. 1 piece of dating advice that almost no single woman I know has followed: Stop wasting the finite time you have dating for fun. Dating is not fun. If I had a penny for every woman I know who dated a guy for years, wasting their decade of peak beauty, physical health, and fertility on guys with whom they had “fun,” I’d have way more money than I’m being paid for this column.

Egg count over time
Egg count over time

Ladies: Be ruthless. Every one of my happily married friends knew that their husband was “the one” or at least “the one”-worthy by three months into a relationship (I knew two weeks in). If you aren’t sure or close to sure that this is the man you want to be with, even if he’s nice and there’s nothing explicitly going amiss, move on. And do it quickly, before you become too attached. If you’re not comfortable with a three-month cap, make it six months. But you should not hit a year anniversary of dating without a ring on your finger. If he’s not right for you, he’s wrong, no matter how much fun you’re having and no matter how much your friends like him. Yes, this rule applies even if you’re just 22 and fresh out of college (I met my husband at 23, just saying).

Think back for a moment to health class in high school: You were taught all of the ways to avoid pregnancy. You were taught about condoms, hormonal birth control, IUDs, STDs, and how much you don’t want to get pregnant as a teen, lest you ruin your life and all of your future potential.

But did anyone teach you about how getting pregnant actually works? Did you learn about your ovulation cycle, about when you’re at your most fertile and what happens to your body that signals that peak fertility window? If you’re like me, you had no way of knowing. I was put on the pill in my teens because of a history of ovarian cysts, and spent a decade suppressing my body’s natural menstrual cycle. I had no idea what ovulation was or what it entailed, because I practically never experienced it until I was ready to conceive.

There’s another unexpected downside to oral hormonal birth control: It could negatively impact your ability to pick out your “one.” Women are attracted to men in part by their scent, and in two studies in 2008 and 2007, we learned that a woman’s attraction to a man’s scent is altered when they are on hormonal birth control.

The lesson here is one that few people are comfortable considering and admitting: We humans are mammals. We are animals. We are made to reproduce, and any effort to subvert that process carries consequences. Sometimes we may decide that those are tradeoffs we’re willing to make, but often, women make decisions about trying to alter this biological process without sufficient informed consent.

Just as girls and young women aren’t taught about how to make a baby, similarly, we were never taught about our biological clocks. We see news coverage of celebrities like Hilary Swank, pregnant with twins at 48, defying biological reality without any seeming explanation; in fact, asserting that specifically female biology exists at all has become a controversial statement. Many women simply do not know the extent of the technology that is almost certainly involved to achieve a first pregnancy when you are in your mid-to-late 40s. And for every Hilary Swank, there are dozens, if not hundreds of women who were unable to outrun their clocks, and were left empty-handed by even the most advanced reproductive technology.

There is no avoiding the reality that you are most fertile in your 20s, and that fertility declines into your 30s and drops off a cliff in your 40s. Yes, there are exceptions. I, too, have a friend who gave birth to a healthy baby when she was 43 years old. But the fact is, that child’s existence is a statistical miracle.

You may believe there are workarounds, technological ways to avoid the realities of female biology, which society is now telling us does not exist. In reality, we are not gods; we are mere mortals. Egg freezing and IVF aren’t anywhere near a magic bullet. Statistics are difficult to obtain and vary given a woman’s age at the time of egg extraction and overall health, but generally speaking, odds are about 1 in 5 that a woman who has frozen her eggs will then go on to experience even a single viable pregnancy and live birth. Those are not good odds.

In 2018, The Washington Post profiled Brigitte Adams, the cover woman for IVF-powered careerism (literally, she appeared on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek under the headline, “Freeze your eggs, Free your career.”) The Post reported on how it went for Adams,

Two eggs failed to survive the thawing process. Three more failed to fertilize. That left six embryos, of which five appeared to be abnormal. The last one was implanted in her uterus. On the morning of March 7, she got the devastating news that it, too, had failed.
Adams was not pregnant, and her chances of carrying her genetic child had just dropped to near zero. She remembers screaming like “a wild animal,” throwing books, papers, her laptop—and collapsing to the ground.
“It was one of the worst days of my life. There were so many emotions. I was sad. I was angry. I was ashamed,” she said. “I questioned, ‘Why me?’ ‘What did I do wrong?’”

The answer: You were sold a lie, however well-meaning, and you then helped sell that lie to hundreds of thousands of other women, before realizing the depth of the deception you bought into, to the tune of many tens of thousands of dollars.

Which brings me back to that first job, straight out of college, with those dear elderly congregants and my wonderful co-worker who spent most of her mornings while I worked there waiting in an OB-GYN’s waiting room.

Those elderly congregants, who showed me what I would care about most into my twilight years offered me perspective.

My co-worker never did have that third child. The fertility treatments didn’t work out. But she is responsible in part for my six children being here on this earth. She told me the uncomfortable truths that I didn’t want to hear at 22, but desperately needed to be told. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Bethany Mandel is the co-author of Stolen Youth, co-founder of the communications firm Shield Communications and a mother of six. She is based in Maryland with her husband, Seth.

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