What If You Knew Exactly When Your Biological Clock Would Stop?

An artist is counting down the years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds left of her biological clock in hopes of inspiring discussions about fertility for everyone.

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When Mira Kaddoura, an artist and freelance art and creative director who lives in Portland, Oregon, was in her early 30s, she visited her doctor for an annual physical. During her examination, he asked if she was thinking about having children, and warned her, "If you really want to do this someday, you should start thinking seriously about it." Caught off guard, Kaddoura began to think. Not only did she find herself thinking about whether she wanted to have kids, but also about what his question meant in general for women, for men, and for how we talk about that still taboo subject of our biological clocks—whether we want kids, how we want to have them, and what we might do if it turns out it's too late for us to have them naturally.

One of the most inflexible differences between men and women is the looming (yet abstract) end-date after which women can no longer conceive, and because of that, the issue of a "biological clock" comes up again and again. Sometimes it's almost used as an insult, or a point of mockery, as in: "I can hear the ticking of her biological clock across the room." On the other side of that are women who don't really know if they want kids, but who don't want to eliminate the possibility, even as they focus on careers and what appear to be more pressing realities. And another extreme, of course, are women who are "shunned" or must provide excuses for never wanting kids at all.

At the time of that doctor visit, Kaddoura told The Atlantic Wire, "I was just out of my 20s thinking, I'm just building this life, building a career, working. It caught me off guard." The fact that this was her first real moment of realizing after years focused on trying not to get pregnant that there was a new side to this coin struck her—as did the fact that this was not something she heard talked about much in broader circles.

Inspired by that realization, she began to work on The Wonder Clock, a conceptual art project and "living, ticking, breathing piece" (as pictured above) that she showed at Art Basel on Thursday. It's also a website, TheWonderClock.com, as well as a downloadable app available on iTunes. On the home page of the site, which also launched Thursday, Kaddoura's own estimated biological clock ticks down, slowly but surely. It's currently at the 9 and a half year mark.

This may seem depressing, this sort of finite timepiece related to fertility, but the artist means it to be an empowering, enlightening statement for women and also for men, a way to inspire people to talk about the fact that there is an end date at which women can naturally have kids, and to make plans about what they want before they reach that date.

"We were raised like we can do it all," she explains. "I was raised very much equal to my brothers; I never thought there was anything differentiating me. [That doctor visit] was the first time anything came up that made me realize, you can't have everything. If you want to have kids one day, you might have to change a few things, or consider it seriously."

The clock is based on a "stop date" Kaddoura estimated by talking to doctors and calculating back from what's generally accepted as the latest childbearing age, or, as she put it, "the age that is pushing the limit of being able to conceive naturally." She admits it's not conclusive, nor is it accurate for everyone, as there are obviously numerous variables that go into fertility that even doctors don't always completely understand—but neither was it meant to be. Kaddoura told us, "It's not trying to come up with some scientific formula, because there is none." Instead, she hopes to open up the conversation, get people education about the topic, and make more information about it available.

When I asked Kaddoura whether she herself wanted kids, she responded in a way not disimilar to many a single thirtysomething woman I know, those with what you might call "agnostic" biological clocks: "I think, yeah. It's something I've always thought I'd do," she said. "It's something I've always thought would make life better. But I think luck has a lot to do with the way your life goes, and it's kind of one of those things that's out of your hands. You can have kids on your own or with a partner, there are so many different pieces as to how you want to do it. It's totally up to you how you choose to have them."

What we can do, she says, is be informed so as not be struck with realities when it's too late to do much about them: "You're 42 and you find out there's a tube that's closed or a cyst, and then you don't have a choice except to go to science, which is expensive, or adopt," she says. As for why people don't talk about it openly, she says, "It's such an intimate and personal thing, it's still a taboo, a sensitive topic. In the U.S. we are still having a hard time talking about how not to get pregnant. We're just not advanced as a society." She added, "I think media and celebrities put this whole other aspect on things, too. We don't talk about how it's a donor egg; you think, I have plenty of time. But that's only if you have the resources."

Kaddoura declines to answer how old she is herself, saying, "People can do the math. I like that it's part of a mystery. I wouldn't have trouble putting my age out there, but I want this to be about a bigger discussion."

At her presentation of the piece at Art Basel, Kaddoura says reactions ranged from hysterical laughter to dropped jaws. There was also some sadness. "I didn't even know men were going to react," she said, "but some were saying, 'Wow, this is incredible,' or 'That's so funny,' because they could relate that there was this elephant in the room that no one was talking about."

Her hopes are that The Wonder Clock creates not only honest conversation but also builds more supportive communities to talk about the realities of fertility. "A lot of people feel alone when they get to this topic. I would love for this to do the opposite, where you feel like you're part of a bigger movement of people, dealing with the same issues, being empowered with information. We need the information to make good choices," she says. "I'm not the only one carrying this load on my back that time is slipping."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.