It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway; the pandemic changed everything. It touched every aspect of our lives from how we work to who we see. It introduced a whole new category of functional fashion (the mask, of course), and created previously unheard of phrases like ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘social distancing’. But one unexpected change as a result of Covid-19 has been its profound impact on family planning timelines.
The birth rate fell in the U.S. for the sixth straight year to a record; in 2020, the general fertility rate was 55.8 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, per NPR. People are understandably less willing to have a child when there is uncertainty surrounding jobs, wages, and general health (and healthcare) — all things the pandemic exacerbated.
Wedding planning website, Zola, and Modern Fertility, a reproductive health company making personalized information about fertility more accessible, partially through their at-home hormone fertility testing, recently released a report called “Modern State of Fertility 2021” and it has some interesting findings. 31% of surveyed couples who were scheduled to get married in 2021 delayed their timeline for having children, for example, and 27% said they don’t feel like they need a partner to become a parent.
For some, these changes and cancellations have been devastating but for others, it has been a liberating realization that they aren’t beholden to some arbitrary timeline, largely dictated by outdated societal norms.
Here we spoke to Carly Leahy, co-founder and chief creative officer of Modern Fertility, plus two Modern Fertility customers, Sarah and Kelly, about how the pandemic changed their family plans in unforeseeable ways.
Carly postponed her wedding three times (the first postponement was pre-pandemic) before she and her now-husband, Charlie, finally settled on the idea of an elopement. Two weeks before the wedding, Carly found out she was pregnant (surprise!) and that Charlie was facing a colon cancer diagnosis, news that completely rocked their whole world (and their carefully crafted plans).
On May 1, 2021, Carly and Charlie welcomed their baby girl, Octavia. Here’s Carly’s story.
Sunday Edit: How did you balance all the emotions that came with finding out about your pregnancy and your husband’s cancer diagnosis?
Carly Leahy: To be honest, there really was no balancing. In the time between detecting the tumor in Charlie’s colon and getting his CT scans back, we were both just — numb. We tried to keep busy (we built a bench!) but being in limbo (especially as a planner!) was torture. The day that Charlie had his appointment to review his CT scans and find out [whether or not the] cancer had spread was the day of my first ultrasound to [determine] if the baby had a heartbeat. We were bracing ourselves for either a great day ever or the most devastating day ever. But at least we’d have some sort of news, guidance — some next step. Luckily, there was a heartbeat and the cancer was (as far as they could tell on the scans) localized, so we felt like things had gone as well as they possibly could have. We were still oscillating between excitement about the baby and the big question mark for Charlie on how deep the cancer was, which we wouldn’t know until surgery.
We had our elopement shortly after that, and we chose to tell the guests (mostly our close friends and family) what was going on. We insisted on picking up two of our good friends from the airport and kind of laid it all on them: “I’m pregnant! Charlie has cancer. We wanted you to know.” We knew that if either of these things went sideways we would need the support of our closest family and friends — so we decided to let (all 10!) of our wedding guests know. Plus, we were at a winery — so I would have to do a bit of explaining about avoiding the wine anyway.
During the ceremony, our officiant, one of my best friends, spoke about the baby, illness, and my dad who we’d lost to cancer a few years prior. It was intense but really intimate. We were surrounded by people who knew what was happening and were rooting for us as a unit.
It was a strange but clarifying period where we were like, “wow, life just keeps on rolling with or without what you had in mind, and through a pandemic no less”.
SE: How did the pandemic alter your timeline?
CL: There was, of course, the constant pushing back of our wedding. We initially planned to get married in 2019, but we decided to push it out because the timing didn’t quite work out, especially with Modern Fertility being just a year old. We then pushed to June 20, 2020. When it became clear that June wasn’t going to work, we pushed to August. When it became clear August wasn’t going to work, we just decided to do a small ceremony with our immediate family and friends.
We didn’t necessarily plan to get pregnant before our marriage, but with Covid pushing everything back, we became a little less beholden to “the first marriage, then baby” timeline. We planned on trying for kids after the wedding, but that was kind of a moving target. I got my IUD out; we thought we’d see what happens. So I wasn’t getting my period by August and took a test just in case.
Spoiler: It was positive.
Covid-19 has been a forcing function for people to reprioritize plans and, often, shed long-held beliefs about how we “should” sequence major life milestones. That’s not a bad thing.
SE: Do you think there will be a return to a more “conventional” family planning timeline or are these changes for good?
CL: I think the pandemic has permanently changed our sense of timing. There will always be people who want to be sure to be married before they have a kid, but this last year has really catalyzed a change. We found in our Modern State of Fertility report that 70% said they don’t think it’s taboo to have a kid before you’re married (and note that only 27% said that they felt this way growing up).
This year has opened our eyes to the many different and valid variations of an “acceptable timeline.” This could be a touch existential, but when a global pandemic upended every piece of our lives, it seemed very silly to be worrying about a wedding. I think we all started to focus on what really mattered. For some of us, being married before starting a family just wasn’t high on the list.
SE: How is your husband doing now and how is your pregnancy?
CL: We’re doing great. We came home after our minimoon (in the throes of my first trimester, so I slept and threw up through almost all of it. Romantic.) and Charlie went to surgery almost immediately to get a foot of his colon removed. The surgery went well, and he recovered. He later [had to] do three months of chemotherapy, which was largely preventative. He finished the chemo in March, and now we’re due with a baby girl in a few weeks. We both just feel really, really lucky.
SE: Do you still plan to have a party for your wedding at some point?
CL: We’re planning to host a party in 2022! It’ll look a little different than we originally planned since we’ll have an almost-one-year-old. It will just be a celebration of life and friends. Charlie and I are toying with the idea of giving each other performance reviews from our 2020 vows.
SE: What have been some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences over the past year?
CL: This whole journey has really made both of us think about access to information about your own health, and how important it is to be your own advocate. Of course, my own pregnancy was against this backdrop of building a company focused entirely on women’s health and knowing how challenging and unexpected fertility can be — even when you’re a fertility company founder! We still live in a world where so many women don’t have the information about their bodies to make the [right choices for themselves] — not just with pregnancy, but more generally. The pandemic and my pregnancy have really made me think about how access to information allows you to be your own advocate and make the choices that are best for you, which is all the more essential when the world is turning upside down.
I’m hopeful that, with the pandemic [totally changing some] of these conventional timelines, [we feel liberated to] map out the lives we want, and not just the ones we think we’re supposed to have.