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Soc Sci Med. 2006 Sep;63(6):1550-60. Epub 2006 May 19.

Rethinking the biological clock: eleventh-hour moms, miracle moms and meanings of age-related infertility.

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  • 1Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UC San Francisco, Box 0612, 3333 California Street, Suite 455, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA. Carrie.Friese@ucsf.edu


Over the past generation, aging and female reproduction have been lodged within the gendered and gendering debates regarding women's involvement in the workforce and demographic shifts toward delayed parenting that culminate in discourses on the "biological clock". Technological solutions to the biological clock, specifically in vitro fertilization, have led to clinical attempts to assess "ovarian reserve", or qualitative and quantitative changes in the ovary that correlate with aging and with successful infertility treatment. Rupturing the longstanding historical connections between menstruation and female reproductive capacity by specifically focusing on the aging of a woman's eggs, the clinical designation of "diminished ovarian reserve" has come to imply that a woman has "old eggs". This is associated in practitioners' and patients' minds with the eclipse of a woman's reproductive potential and with hidden harbingers of menopause. In an ethnographic interview study of 79 couples in the US who conceived after using donor oocytes, we found that women voiced two different narratives that described their experience and attitudes when confronted with an apparent age-related decline in their fertility. The "eleventh-hour mom" narrative was voiced by women who initially tried to become pregnant with their own eggs and turned to donated oocytes as a second-choice option, whereas the "miracle mom" narrative was expressed by women who were generally older, some of whom had entered infertility treatment hoping to conceive with their own eggs, but some who knew from the outset that it was not going to be possible. Through their narratives women not only embodied and made meaningful "diminished ovarian reserve" in varying ways that connect with cultural, social, structural/organizational, symbolic and physical aspects of aging, they reproduced the socio-biological project of the biological clock, but rooted this social project in the metaphor of "old eggs" rather than menopause.

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