When I first went to the gynecologist, 13 years ago, the doctor reached inside me with her gloved hands and made a noise that was as comforting as the sound of your heart exploding.
“Huh. . .” she said, with a tilted head and an exaggerated gaze that was not unlike that of the pensive thinker looking into the abyss.
I instantly felt nauseous.
“Huh?” I replied. What does “huh” mean?
She responded to my question with a question: “Does it feel weird when you have sex?”
Of course it felt weird. I was 18 and only had sex for the first time a few months prior. I was honest in my answer: “I’m not an expert, but no, I don’t think so,” I vulnerably responded.
“Do you wear tampons?”
“No. I can’t get them to work,” I said, wondering if I did some internal damage in my multiple attempts to insert cotton pickles into my vagina.
“I think I know why,” she said, as though it were a compliment. “You may have two uteruses.”
Think? I thought. What does she mean “think”?
“What do you mean think?”
“We won’t know for sure until you get an MRI.”
“But I’m pretty small, how can there be extra organs in there?” I innocently asked.
She laughed and said we should talk more after the x-rays come back. The ease in which she spoke should have made me feel better, but it didn’t.
The following week, my mom took me to Plainview Hospital on Long Island, where a woman with a white lab coat, dark hair and pink lipstick dyed my insides, dressed me in a magnetic smock, maneuvered me into a tube and took a picture of my—possibly—two uteruses.
The week between my visit to the gynecologist and the hospital, my head felt like a blender, with thoughts that a senior in high school—a catholic school senior, nonetheless—shouldn’t have to think about until after she at least graduated, got a job and was married (or so my upbringing taught me): Will I be able to bear children? Do I even want children? Of course I want to have children, it’s what women do. But what if I can’t? If I know I can’t, is it a sin to have sex? Will I go to hell? Wait, I’m already going to hell, I had premarital sex. And is there even a God? How can there be a God? If he is, how can he let 911 happen? How can he let my Grandma die? Eff him. I don’t need to have children. But what if my mind changes?
Knowing my personality, I am quite certain that I will ONLY want children if I know I can’t have them and it is for this reason alone that I was really hoping my extra reproductive organ wouldn’t pose that threat.
Two weeks later, the results came back: I only had one uterus.
“This is good,” I said to my doctor. “Right?”
She continued to tell me that even if I were to have two, it would be possible to conceive and give birth. It is even possible to get pregnant in both, and give birth to multiple babies a few months or weeks apart.
“It’s quite common,” she said.
I was frustrated that she didn’t tell me this during visit number one, but even then I knew that focusing on that frustration was not going to get me anywhere.
“You are anatomically special, though,” she said.
She showed me the x-ray and drew across the shape that was my uterus with a pencil. She explained that my uterus was shaped like a heart, instead of a pear like normal women’s. During the development of fetuses, she said, every organ starts out as two and eventually merges to form one.
Mine, though, never fully joined, which is why my insides look more like a chaotic Picasso than an ordered Mondrian: I have two pancreata (the plural word for pancreas), a misshaped uterus and two cervixes, which is why tampons never worked. I could, she said, wear two tampons at once if I wanted to.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
My mom, who felt as though this were all her fault, asked the question that I was asking myself for the past week: “Will she be able to have children?”
“It is possible,” the doctor said, “with surgery.”
The way in which she described the surgery, in which the doctors would laser away the pinched part of the uterus to re-form it into the appropriate shape, made it seem as though it were a relatively simple surgery. Even so, it changed my thoughts on whether I was meant to ( or want to) have children.
This could be a blessing in many ways, considering that my passions lend for a more career-driven life than a family oriented one. Or, it could simply be an excuse.
Still, one of my biggest fears is that I will regret not having children. I am told by many that I still have time to change my mind—I am only 31—about both voluntarily having surgery and bearing a child.
But are they just being optimistic? After all, once a woman reaches the age of 35, she is considered to be of “advanced maternal age,” which means they are associated with certain biological pregnancy-related risks—such as preterm birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, chromosomal defects, labor complications, and cesarean section—and social risks, in which the mental state of the mother is compromised due to views of others about the acceptable age for raising a child.
Despite these known dangers, women of my generation are planning to have families later in life, which, it has been argued, may be the reason that birth rates in the U.S. are declining. According to a 2012 report from the Center of Disease Control, birth rates declined among women in their early twenties between 2011 and 2012 to a record low. The rate was also down for women aged 25–29, but it increased for women aged 30–44. This finding caused something of a hysteria that year. Following the report, New York Magazine published an article that cited a number of studies whose findings were seen as a push to encourage women to have children early on in life, resulting in what they call the “Baby Panic”:
[The panic] all started with a 60 Minutes episode on a new book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett titled Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. It had scary statistics about the rate of childlessness for women over 40 in corporate America (42 percent) and provided hard facts about the lack of social services for working mothers. But more upsetting than anything else was the science: A woman’s ability to bear a child, Hewlett maintained, drops at 28, goes way down after 35, and diminishes to nearly nothing by 40. By 42, most of the time, you’re cooked.
Since this broadcast, many publications have worked to prove that this fear (of a decrease in fertility after the age of 35) has been oversold and that the statistics on women’s age and fertility—used by many to make decisions about relationships, careers, and when to have children—was nothing more than the mainstream media’s failure to correctly interpret and report on scientific research.
According to an article in The Atlantic, for example, “millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not.”
The article cites a modern study of 770 European women, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 and headed by David Dunson (now of Duke University), that found the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about four percentage points.
It is true that fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child, which gives me a few more years to decide if I want to re-shape my uterus out of its God-given shape of a heart.