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Testing My Fertility at the End of My World

The pandemic robbed Millennial women of peak years of fertility. The least we deserve is a space to process the grief—and reimagine what can come next. RISE25 honoree Rachel Hislop explores what that might look like.

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*In 2022, Rachel Hislop investigated how grind culture failed women in what became Pocket’s most-saved collection of the year. With this collection, Rachel—one of Mozilla’s RISE25 honorees—kicks off a six-part series exploring what it sounds like to say the quiet part out loud. Her first-person essays delve into the nuanced experience of women’s lives in the 2020s—naming, demystifying, and navigating the often tabooed situations silenced by the noise of mainstream. *

Sitting mannequin still, I watch the deep red blood travel through the needle in my left arm, up through the plastic tube, and into the vacutainer. The nurse fills the red-capped tubes, one by one, before dropping them onto the medical tray where they land with a slight rattle. As she slides the needle out and swiftly puts the too pale bandaid on my arm, I do what I always do when I am slightly rattled–I tell a joke.

I’ve put this appointment off for a straightforward reason: I thought I had time. Who doesn’t? We always think we have more of this finite resource. But after being robbed of years by the pandemic, an all-consuming career, and dead-end relationships, time has become more of a novelty. The realization struck me last May, on the Mother’s Day just after my 34th birthday. Physically, I was on vacation—sitting in bed at a beachfront hotel, wrapped in a robe and staring at the ceiling fan. But behind my gaze, I was spiraling about the concept of motherhood. How did this time come so fast? I wasn’t ready to think about wanting kids. I thought more frequently about external factors: our warming earth, rising sea levels, simultaneous global pandemics, war, racial inequality, stripped reproductive rights, and the general feelings of unease about the state of the world. How could I be ready to commit another life to this?

I brought these fears to my therapy appointment the following day. “Put it on the shelf,” my therapist said, “and plan to revisit this with some action in six months. Mark it in your calendar and give yourself time to live without worrying.” And so I did, setting an alert in iCal for November. I dismissed the reminder when it rang six months later.

Fast forward to Valentine’s Day. My almond-shaped nails are bright red. I bought myself tightly budded red roses from the bodega; I love to watch them bloom throughout the week. But now I’m watching the blood pool in tubes, hints of my future lurking within. This appointment has been scheduled and rescheduled for months since that alert went off. But here I finally am, at the OBGYN, sitting on a paper-covered examination chair during an unseasonably warm winter as part of what I told myself would be a day of self-love; I am getting my egg reserve tested.

I left the appointment feeling at ease with whatever the results would be. After a train ride home, I settled the roses into their new home in a vase on my coffee table and answered a FaceTime from my friend; she was oddly formal. As I told her about my appointment, she told me the man I recently spent four years in a relationship with was expecting twins—my second ex to follow our relationship with not one but two babies. I laughed at the irony and then felt a sharp pang of sadness at the reality. Here I was, 34, counting eggs as the news tells of a warming globe, AI takeovers, an unstable economy. But my mind stayed trained on a single question. What about the life I once held so tightly in my fist? The one with babies and marriage and success I thought I would get?

If years of therapy have taught me anything, it’s that usually, the first reaction isn’t the emotion but an expression of the emotion we have buried. And so, I let the waves crash, felt the feelings of the news, and became inquisitive. I didn’t care about my ex having babies; I didn’t wish it was me having them with him, so what was I actually mourning?

I thought about the going-nowhere relationships and the targeted fertility ads. About my friends—those trying and failing to get pregnant, the ones whose eggs were already frozen, the ones who have made their peace, the ones who still have hope and the expectation that looms with that. What I was feeling was anger for all of the hurdles women have to consider, the clocks that tick for us, the time stolen from those clocks that we pay for with pain, loss, or money (the average cost of egg freezing in America is $20k). I was angry, but under that anger was disappointment; not for the loss of love, or for the longing for motherhood, but about the inequity of time.

In a recent New York Magazine feature, they asked New Yorkers about their ideal lives. Despite the constant reminders that we are living in a Lemony Snickett-level state of unfortunate events, most people fantasize about the simple things: life with a partner and kids—preferably in a Brooklyn brownstone. The article pointed a big red arrow at what they called a craving for “high-end domesticity.” In a word, stability. Safety.

The spiral with my therapist on vacation wasn’t really about fertility—it was about the loss of time, the deferment of dreams. Since 2020, so many of us have watched our plans slowly leak through tightly grasped fists. We’ve had to spill out the ideas we once held about relationships, family, and career, but worse yet, we’ve had to do it without a real space to acknowledge the loss. Why aren’t we discussing what happens when we lose years of living and fertility to pandemics, careers, and dead-end relationships? And why are we still, while living on a rapidly dying planet, asked to be so hyper-fixated on following an old script of love, marriage, and a baby in a baby carriage?

There is no clear way to have this conversation. No elegant script for talking about the unsavory feelings that come up when you have to accept that your life is going to look different than you thought it would. When you realize that the timeline you had for yourself might need reworking. When you know that you may have to accept the responsibility of building a new reality to exist within. But buried within that uncertainty, there is beauty. There are buds, poised to bloom. There is the possibility to change our minds about what we thought we wanted, to accept the grief about the loss of time, and to build new dream castles.

Since my appointment, I’ve spent time thinking about new ways to fall back in love with the reality of now. I’ve sought out stories of people walking new paths—podcasts, books, articles, and folders of saved Instagram posts that serve as reminders of new realities. I’ve gathered them here for you in a first step toward these difficult, often repressed conversations. I hope these pieces ignite you to reclaim how you spend and share your time and what stability can look like.

Two weeks after the test, my results came in. A lower than average egg reserve, they said. I should consider taking action in the next year and a half, they said. But this time I didn’t set any alarms to ignore or mark any days on my calendar. I simply loosened my fist and opened my hand, palm exposed and ready to accept whatever the next phase of the unknown would bring.

There are so many ways to be, and I am committed to seeking them.

Image by We Are / Getty Images

Rachel Hislop

Rachel Hislop is a New York City native, writer, editor, strategist, and public speaker whose knowledge of digital culture has aided in the growth of some of the biggest brands and celebrities to date. In October 2023 she was named one of Mozilla’s RISE 25 honorees.

Most recently, she served as the VP of Content of OkayMedia and Editor-in-Chief of both Okayplayer.com and OkayAfrica. Prior, Hislop ushered in the unprecedented and now-historic growth of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s digital footprint as Digital Content Director for Parkwood Entertainment. As a speaker/moderator she has captivated audiences at Instagram, Google, Global Citizen, AdWeek, and Stanford University, to name a few.

Currently, Hislop is somewhere behind her MacBook consulting with mission-led businesses and brands helping them tell effective digital stories. You can find her on IG @Amazingrach.