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A Dream Denied : They wanted it all. Now some women are finding they've lost something precious --motherhood.


Another generation of women might have just sighed and moved on.

But today, women in their late 30s and 40s are often stunned when they run up against the prospect of not having it all. When their lives are finally in order and they are ready to start a family but learn they cannot give birth, it is a shock, some say, they will never get over.

Some believe the women's movement encouraged them to postpone motherhood for careers or personal exploration without pointing out that they could wait too long. Others blame modern science for sucking them into a whirlpool of exorbitant but unsuccessful fertility treatments. Some cite unbearable social pressures fostered by the "family values" wave of the past decade.

"We have this unique thing: By the time we're ready to have a kid, we're ready to enter menopause. We're getting sandwiched," said Marilyn Shenker, 44, who experienced baby lust in her early 30s but never found the "right relationship," even during a brief marriage in her late 30s. After dating for several years in her late 30s, Shenker had to choose between a "wonderful man" who didn't want any more children and continuing the search for someone who did. She chose the man in hand. Now a therapist intern, she runs support groups in Sherman Oaks and Brentwood for midlife, childless women.

Age is only one of many factors that reduce fertility. But for those who have waited too long, even adoption may not resolve the anger, hurt and frustration, Shenker said. Some childless women, she said, grieve years later over an earlier abortion or miscarriage.

Likewise, Anne Taylor Fleming, 44, a magazine writer and commentator from Los Angeles, deferred pregnancy with her husband, journalist Karl Fleming, a man 20 years her senior, until she was in her mid 30s. She spent seven years and their savings account to treat her infertility, which she called "the most emotional and painful experience of my life."

To understand why she and others of her generation ignored for so long what she called an "animal-like" biological urge, she wrote a 256-page book, "Motherhood Deferred" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994), tracing her attraction to the women's movement and the "mixed and complicated messages we've been given."

"One reason so many women like me were not ready to make that commitment, we were adamant about redressing the lives of our mothers, the desire to be somebody, have work that mattered, to have our own money. To make good on that rhetoric, as incendiary as it was, was huge," Fleming said in an interview.

While she has no regrets and does not blame the women's movement, she said she still grieves. The writing exercise brought little relief. "The resolution for me is one of irresolution. I don't think I will ever be done with it. When I'm 60 or 70, I will always feel lonesome for the child I didn't have," she said.

When women today find the door to motherhood not only shut, but locked and bolted, they feel panic most of all, said Linda Hammer Burns, the chairman of the American Fertility Society's psychological interest group. "They think, 'This can't be happening.'

"Other generations said there's nothing that could be done and that was the end of it," Burns said. But women today, she said, have grown up thinking, " 'I can choose parenthood, I can choose it when I want it.' But no one said, 'Choose it when you're most fertile because it's a time-limited thing.' "

In 1988, the most recent rates available from the National Center for Health Statistics, 21.4% of women 35 to 44 experienced some form of impaired fecundity, compared with 13.4% of those 25 to 34 and 4.1% of those 15 to 24.

"In the early days of infertility, you used to feel like, if only these people had more choices. Now it seems with more choices, it's only worse," Burns said. "Now women have a great sense of guilt if they don't pursue in-vitro fertilization" or pregnancy with a donor egg, she said.

"Ellen," a 52-year-old Los Angeles television producer, said it wasn't until she was found to have cancer nine months ago that she began to seriously consider stopping infertility treatments. "Before I thought, 'I should go through with it.' It's never 100% final. I kept reading about women 60 years old who did it."

When she was in her 20s and 30s, she thought it was important to fulfill her destiny professionally. "If I wasn't a real person, how could I have a child to perpetuate another non-person?"

In her 40s, she believed it was important to get pregnant. "It's like feeling you're not a woman. You can't do the most basic thing that every little girl is doing without thinking about it. You cannot be a fulfilled human being. . . .

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