If you asked my 25-year-old self about fertility, I would have given you a blank stare. "Oh, the
baby stuff . . . that's not for me." Five years later, I'm running a fertility company. What the heck happened?
Let me take you back. As the middle child of three girls — all of us major overachievers — I grew up where every day was jam-packed with activities, practices, and paper mache volcanoes. In high school, I'd run from the lacrosse field to the stage to rehearse for the school musical. Like any stage-five overachiever, I was also obsessed with getting good grades.
With any other free time I had (ha!), I was bouncing between my a cappella group and high-school chorus. I'm exhausted just thinking about these activities, yet I know that many teenagers shared the same experience. We fiercely believed: "If you can dream it, you can achieve it."
Needless to say, my hormones couldn't have been further from my mind except when I let that existential thought of getting pregnant one day creep into my mind. That's right, even as a teenager, the idea of getting pregnant or having a kid "early" scared the crap out of me because I knew it could prevent me from checking off the zillion things on my to-do list.
Because I didn't want to eff up my life, and because I was also a teenager, I sought out my own solution. One weekend morning, my best friend and I drove to the local Planned Parenthood. There, they gave me little blue pills whose job was to — as I saw it — keep my life on track. I had no clue how they worked. But I knew I wouldn't be getting pregnant, and that was all I needed to know to get me through my teen and college years.
After moving to San Francisco in 2014 at age 24, the hustle I was so accustomed to went into hyperdrive. I was busy (which, if you can't tell already, is exactly how I like it), advancing my career at Google and Uber while making new friends. I started a feminist book club, and started dating Charlie.
Cut to 2016, and I'm meeting Afton Vechery for the first time. She and I met for coffee to talk about a business idea. That's when she started using words like "fertility" and — my least favorite at the time — "family planning." Check, please. Despite having a lovely conversation, the baby stuff was "not my thing." The idea of having kids wasn't even remotely on my radar at the time, and I had no clue how my hormone levels would, could, or should impact my future decision making.
Despite my lack of knowledge on the issue, I couldn't get that conversation out of my head. Trust me . . . I tried. So, I began to think about my body. My bedside table switched from American president biographies (a dorky guilty pleasure, I know) to fertility research. I began running this fertility notion by friends who also also hadn't thought much about their hormone levels. I started to wonder if my feminist gusto — squarely focused on equal pay, representation and rights — should also delve into the information gap that I was just now digging myself out of. What if . . . fertility could be a great equalizer?
After some self-reflection, I came to see fertility as the ultimate creative opportunity — a chance to turn a historically reactive, hush-hush, and sometimes shameful thing into a new, open, proactive, and supported conversation about health and planning for the future — whatever that may be for someone. It was then that I decided to join Afton and build Modern Fertility.
As we launched the company, the science I was inhaling was getting personal. Remember Charlie? Well, he and I got engaged last year, and suddenly everyone began asking 29-year-old me when we would start a family. In these moments, what I really wanted to do was scream my newfound knowledge from the rooftops: fertility shouldn't start when you have a fiancé or when you hit a certain age. It's ongoing, just as your life is.
These experiences only underscored my sense of purpose for what we were building. In the US, younger women just do not get the information we need to plan proactively. Society has good intentions by now encouraging women to have it all, but that doesn't prepare us, nor has it offered us the resources to achieve that. Right now, it's a complete bait and switch. For starters, we need to find better ways to openly discuss fertility long before we're thinking about having kids so we're not compelled to stick our fingers in our ears every time we hear the word "pregnancy."
Our realities are changing, too. We live in a world where families are all shapes and sizes. There's an uptick in single parenting, LGBTQ+ couples with children, and more unmarried parents cohabiting. These types of families need information as well, arguably even earlier. So here I come, full-circle (. . . no, I'm not pregnant): by starting Modern Fertility and learning way, way, waaaaaay more about my body than I ever thought I would, I know that I want my kids to be educated about fertility in the same way they're educated about family, self-image, and growing up. I want them to have the whole story (whether they are born female or male, BTW). They shouldn't have to grow up with the stigma and discomfort that surrounds seeking information proactively. And they definitely shouldn't be blindsided in the ways that I was.
There is so much more to fertility than just the baby stuff. I certainly wish I'd had the vocabulary for it earlier. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to change this conversation for others though and help women and families get the information they desire to plan their futures — whatever may be in store.
Carly Leahy is CCO and cofounder of Modern Fertility.