Saturday, 29 January 2011

on reproductive panic

I'M not saying it's impossible for a thirtysomething woman to be completely unaware that fertility declines with age. I mean, in theory, you could have missed the whole 'forgot to have a baby? tsk tsk!' debate: you might never have read a newspaper, or a women's magazine, or seen any films starring Jennifer Aniston. You might not have any thirtysomething female friends at all, or a mother who wants grandchildren, or any nosey elderly relatives ("will we be hearing the patter of tiny feet soon?"). You might never have dated someone who ran scared of the possibility of your ticking biological clock; or never have had a boss who mysteriously started passing you over for promotion when you turned 30 (lest you go on maternity leave). You might even have survived the whole of your wedding without someone 'jovially' mentioning the need to get on with it. I mean, it's possible. Just unlikely.
Which is why there is something impossibly quaint about the advice from two eminent obstetricians (at least one of whom has form on this subject) in the latest issue of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology house journal, that young couples be told to have kids by 35 if they want to be sure of having them. It's not exactly letting them in on a huge secret.
There is one group that probably could do with reminding: existing mothers who, having beaten the odds and got pregnant easily in their mid-thirties, can easily get complacent about how long they can wait to have a second. This stuff is too often pitched at single women and too rarely at a group vulnerable to secondary infertility (where you've had one baby but can't conceive again).
But it would be nice if we could now move on now from trumpeting the benefits of early motherhood to tackling the reasons why women hesitate and delay - a rather messier story about how much happiness parenting brings, compared to other things one might do; how much having a baby changes women's lives, and careers, and marriages, and friendships.
Meanwhile, for worried thirtysomethings tempted to marry the first loser who asks, here are three statistics worth knowing.
1. While it's true as reported here that miscarriage is more likely than a healthy pregnancy in 40 to 44 year olds, the balance is tipped by one percentage point: ie, you have a 51 per cent risk (it's 24 per cent for 35 to 39-year-olds).
2. Yes, you are six times as likely to have trouble conceiving at 35 as at 25: but that still means a cheering 70 per cent of 35-year-olds don't have trouble (ie, they get pregnant in the old fashioned way in under a year). And some of the rest may well go on to conceive but just take longer.
3. Of course it's tougher at 40. But the paper notes that 'only two in five' - ie 40 per cent - of women at this age can have a baby. They're not exactly terrible odds - and rather better than the odds on divorce, should you be propelled into marriage by reproductive panic alone.


  1. Excellent reality check. I got involved in a stupid row with someone on Twitter about the Daily Mail coverage of this story. If only you had written this yesterday morning!

    My contention was it seemed to imply that women should have kids 'early' irrespective of circumstances, whereas she's of the view that if you're with someone you want to have children with, just get on with it and stop hand-wringing. I'm 43, she's in her 20s.


  2. I'm a reasonably intelligent person but I was surprised when a younger friend told me to get on with having kids when I hit my thirties! She knew there were no guarantees and though I know this is true regardless of age, I kind of now wish I'd started earlier as my back starts to give out and having two small children when I'm 40 is truly knackering!

    However, everyone is different and others may be fitter, bendier and more patient than me whatever their age!

  3. As someone who had to endure the emotional and physical pain of fertility treatment and recurrent miscarriage in my mid to late 30s (I am one of the lucky ones - 2 kids via ivf and one in the normal way at 42) I advise anyone who thinks they have met the right partner to get the hell on with it. I know far too many women (and men) who thought they would be on the good side of the stats and found they weren't. I couldn't get to the paper itself but I'd be wary of nos on birth rates for women over 40. There is a big difference between first babies over 40in comparison to 2nd, 3rd or 4th over 40.

  4. With you on the secondary infertility thing, it was one of the reasons we had our two close together just in case (and then of course it happened far faster than the first time around)

    The point you touch on that's interesting is the reasons women leave having children until later given everything we know

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  6. Current advice to British women about getting pregnant:
    STAGE ONE, puberty to mid-twenties: don't do it, it will ruin your life and/or career prospects.
    STAGE TWO, mid-twenties to thirty-five: find the love of your life and have all the children you want (regardless of what else might be going on in your life).
    STAGE THREE, 35 and over: you didn't have kids/enough kids? you fool, why did you leave it so late?
    I.e. in the long lifespan of the average British woman (80ish years), you need to have kids within about an 8-year window. If you don't hit the deadline woe betide you.

  7. I'm all for women being able to choose to have kids when they want to but there seems to be a real problem with reality checking this in a proper fashion. It's a simple fact if you leave having babies until your late thirties or past fourty it's going to be much tougher for a reason - our bodies are not designed to produce babies with ease after a certain point in time. Why does it seem controversial and bitchy to state a fact of nature?


  8. Ah, wimmin. Always delaying having babies until it's possibly too late. It's sad, you know, what with the hoards of eligible twenty-something men out there just gagging to have kids *right now* and be househusbands...