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The Otherhood: Single women face 'circumstantial infertility'

March 4, 2014 at 11:26 AM ET

Video: Author Melanie Notkin and psychiatrist Janet Taylor discuss the pressure some women face to have kids when they’re past the typical childbearing age. They say womanhood should be defined by who you are as an individual.

Melanie Notkin wanted love, marriage, and then the proverbial baby carriage — in that order.

By the time she reached her early forties, the entrepreneur and author was still single and appreciated the likelihood that, despite wanting desperately to be a mother, she might never give birth to a child on her own.

Like many women her age, Notkin, 44, a Montreal native, expected to reap all the social, economic, and political equality that her mother’s generation didn’t have. At the same time, in addition to her education and her career, she anticipated a traditional family track.

In her new book, released today, "Otherhood: Modern Women Finding A New Kind of Happiness,” Notkin uncovers the personal stories of women like her, who are part of a growing demographic trend and suffer what she calls “circumstantial infertility.”

Often, people presume that when a woman like Notkin is childless, it’s probably by choice. But many of the childless women in their thirties and forties simply want to do it the “old fashioned way,” she says, and find the right relationship before making a lifetime commitment to have kids.

Notkin, who lives in Manhattan, recently talked with TODAY Moms about her personal experience and her research. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Otherhood
Melanie Notkin

Q. Who are the women in the "Otherhood?"

The "Otherhood" is made up of well educated, happy and financially independent women who find, that as their fertility wanes, they are still single and childless.

There’s this myth that women in the Otherhood are overly romantic, and waiting for the fairytale or prince charming to come along, that we have this naiveté about our fertility. But that’s not so. Women in the Otherhood are holding out for love and we hope that some day, we will get married and have a baby, before it’s too late. In the meantime, we’re nurturing friendships, building careers, and are active in our nieces' and nephews' lives. These are not women who sit around and feel sorry for themselves or wait for life to happen to them.

Q. We hear about the pain of infertility, but you say single women who are not actively trying to get pregnant can also experience the same emotions?

Yes! This is the crux of what the women in the Otherhood feel and we’ve been taught to hold it all inside, or what psychologists sometimes call disenfranchised grief.

It’s as if the only people who suffer from childlessness are married couples who are trying to have a baby. But single women can feel the same kind of sadness and loss over not being able to be a mother. Like I say in my book, there’s the pain of trying to have a baby and you can’t, and then there’s the pain of not even being able to start trying. The single woman’s infertility grief is “circumstantial” — she hasn’t met the right partner yet—and it’s entirely unacknowledged.

Q. What’s your response for women who get told “you’re just being too picky” and that’s why you aren’t married yet?

That’s another one of the common myths that women in the ‘Otherhood’ get all the time, that they don’t know what a huge compromise and sacrifice marriage is, or that we should just settle already or that we would have if we really wanted to be a mother. I say, be honest. We are never going to change the conversation, if we keep following the same script. Answer from your heart and express your authentic desire. For me, that means saying, I’ve always had the expectation of love, and marriage, and motherhood, but I’m unwavering in my desire to find the right person and I don’t want to have a baby on my own.

Q. Would you advise a woman in her early thirties to freeze her eggs then? In case she meets the right man later than she expected?

I would never tell a woman what to do. But when I spoke to women in their early thirties about egg freezing, some of them said, it feels like throwing in the towel, like they are giving up hope. It can cost $12,000 to $15,000 dollars to retrieve your eggs, plus you have to pay for storage, and that’s certainly not a cost many women in their early thirties can take on. But in my case, it all goes back to the expectation that I always wanted love, and marriage and a baby with a man — and I still do — in a traditional way.

Q. Isn’t that anti-feminist?

Not at all. If you go back to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” ground zero for the feminist movement, it was never meant to eschew love, marriage and children if that’s what a woman wanted. Feminism was meant to give women the freedom to live our lives to our fullest potential. And I defend any woman who wants to remain child-free or who wants to have a baby on her own, but for me, there is this emotional bias towards a traditional experience when it comes to love, marriage and motherhood.

Jacoba Urist is a health and lifestyle reporter in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist. (link:https://twitter.com/JacobaUrist) 

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