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Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

Why India despises ‘geriatric’ ovaries

If you are planning a baby post 35, trust that your body is stronger than stereotypes

I stared at the fertility expert as he explained how my eggs would be frozen. His words gathered around me like explosive dust motes: ovarian reserve…synthetic hormones…egg retrieval…vitrification.

F***, I thought. I can’t do this.

“I prefer my eggs sunny-side up," I joked as I left his clinic. He didn’t smile.

Perhaps there was nothing to smile about. I was 33. Childless. Single. In India, this was a crime worse than murder. Landmines were planted everywhere to remind me of my failure. A casual comment at a party about how women cannot conceive after 35. An interrogation at a wedding about why I didn’t have children at “this age". A colleague spinning a cautionary tale about women who “defy nature". It didn’t matter that I had had a good career, travelled the world, survived an abusive marriage, published two books, and won awards. I wasn’t woman enough until I had a child.

Fertility was like that frog in boiling water. As a teenager, I had been blissfully unaware of it. In my 20s, I had felt the heat, but only a little. By my 30s, the heat had suddenly reached boiling point. I was told that if I didn’t act immediately, I would end up with a wizened frog, as good as dead.

So, I spent the next three years torturing myself. I would gape at mothers with babies and cry. I would take folic acid because it improved fertility. I would go on dates in search of a man who could be a good father rather than a good husband. I spent my 35th birthday locked up in my room, weeping, because I was convinced that it was too late for me to ever have a child.

Fortunately, that year I met a wonderful man. The next year we got married. Almost immediately, I was pregnant. No one was more shocked than I was. I had braced myself for futility. Even more surprisingly, my pregnancy was smooth. I travelled. I went out. I worked till the day of my delivery. I had a normal vaginal birth 10 days after I turned 37. Two years later I got pregnant again and gave birth six months before my 40th birthday. Having been warned ample times of chromosomal abnormalities in late pregnancies, I held my breath till I was done counting my children’s 10 little fingers and 10 little toes.

This led me to the obvious question: Was everything I had been told about pregnancy and fertility a lie?

It would seem so. An increasing number of women around me were giving birth at a later age. I noticed that women in their 20s were, sadly, having trouble conceiving, or birthing children with disabilities, while women in their 40s were having easy pregnancies and healthy children. The writing was on the wall. Fertility was not just about a woman’s age but also her health. Why had no one mentioned that?

It irked me that I had spent almost my entire 30s agonizing over the misinformation that surrounds female fertility. It irked me that my medical file read “geriatric pregnancy" like a warning shot... What a waste! So when I saw actor Shilpa Shetty Kundra’s news of having a surrogate child at the age of 44, I was happy for her, as I would be for any new parent, but her viewpoint that giving birth after 37 is not the “right time" or “right age" for women shook me. It brought back the flood of terrible and completely unnecessary emotions that I had undergone for years. Her recommendation to women to not have late pregnancies reminded me of all the patriarchal drivel that women are spoon-fed by men and other women to keep them in check.

I also knew that young women reading her opinion would feel further pressure to have children early. That was wrong. I had to speak up and tell them the truth. And I did. On Twitter. Aside from a few sane voices, the flood of reactions I got was telling. Men, and sadly even women, went into long rants explaining the biological clock and the female body to me. They were baying for women to reproduce early. They claimed that women’s ovaries died (they don’t, the ovarian reserves accountable for egg count simply diminish with age). They told me that I was the lucky exception and not the norm. How dare I present a truth that diverted from a long-held tradition that led our increasingly regressive country to its 1.3 billion people? In two days I learnt just how much India despised “geriatric" ovaries.

The problem, I realized, is that we do not complete the conversation when it comes to female fertility. We don’t mention that women have alternatives today, thanks to medical advancements. That over 40, even if a woman’s eggs have run out, she can use a donor egg in order to get pregnant. That aside from good old adoption, there are various other avenues for women to have children, such as surrogacy, in vitro fertilization (IVF), frozen embryos and frozen eggs.

We go on about a woman’s biological clock but don’t underscore paternal age and the fact that sperm quality declines after 40. Because that’s not a narrative suitable for mainstream patriarchy, is it?

The truth is that the female body is much stronger than we give it credit for. Lack of awareness has kept this knowledge out of the public domain. Because it’s better to keep women cowed down and fearful, especially when it comes to their bodies, isn’t it? If women delay having children, they will advance in their education and careers, and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?

In India, women deal with vacuous and cruel judgement for everything they do. Everything is designed to make us feel small. A woman’s body is always up for everyone’s opinion. This is the same society that conveniently assumes a wide distance from serious issues like female foeticide, domestic violence, marital rape and miscarriages. It’s time to do away with this selective cherry-picking of inconvenient truths.

It’s time to trust our experience over our country’s stereotypes. Every woman must be told this so she can have children—if she wants them, that is—whenever she feels ready.

Remember, society’s timeline is not yours to follow. People’s rules are not your template to build your life upon. Make your own rules. Follow your own truth, according to your circumstances. It’s your body. And your choice. Pave your own path when it comes to your womb. Because our ovaries do not have an expiration date, only our mindset does.

Meghna Pant is an author, journalist and speaker. How To Get Published In India (Bloomsbury) and Feminist Rani (Penguin) are her most recently published books.

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