Mother’s Day in the UK is celebrated this year on Sunday 15th March with great excitement, as mothers are considered one of the undeniable cornerstones of society. This special occasion stirs many women’s feelings, from those that have children to the ones who struggle to conceive a baby. So often it seems easy for women to fall pregnant naturally, spending that pregnancy calmly and healthily, eventually having a normal birth. Therefore nature looks cruel when so many women are left out in the cold, making all these things seem an almost impossible achievement, with the added difficult of speaking about such a very sensitive feminine issue. The fact is infertility rates have increased worldwide by 4% since the 1980’s and it is not always possible to identify the cause. Is the increase of human infertility nature’s way of controlling the birth rate? Or is it the result of our modern lifestyle?
According to research, the most common causes of female infertility are lack of ovulation, blockage of the fallopian tubes, endometriosis, thyroid disorders and, mainly, advanced age. Many treatments are available, including medication, intrauterine insemination, sperm and egg donation, IVF, as well others, but their effectiveness is still being questioned, as they are complex and expensive.
In biological terms, the best years of your life to conceive are between 20 and 35. It can take much longer to get pregnant when you hit your late 30’s or early 40’s, so if you find yourself now in your 30’s and ready for motherhood, you may be wondering how fertile you are. But, in this case, you are in good company, as the average age when women have their first baby continues to increase in many countries, whilst the number of those having their first births when under 30 and under 20 years old has declined.
By way of illustration, I am typical of an older mother living in a modern society, where most graduate women wait until they hit 35 before having their first child, which is almost a decade later than those who do not go to university. Following this pattern, I didn’t become a parent in my early twenties because I was single and studying at two universities at the same time: Law School and English Language and Literature succeeded by postgraduate studies. In those days a baby wasn’t one of my priorities as I was exploring all my future possibilities as a career woman. And I really ended up doing my best in my job until the age of 38, when I married the man who turned my world upside down, making me much happier than I was before. I had four healthy children, the first one being born when I was 39 and the last one when I was 45, all of them delivered by caesarean section.
Of course many have given birth later than myself, including celebrities like Susan Sarandon (baby at 46), Holly Hunter (twins at 47), Helen Fielding (baby at 48), the photographer Annie Lebovitz (baby at 51), and Martin Scorsese’s wife, Helen Morris (baby at 52). All these births can be considered a wonder.
Although late motherhood may seem easily accessible, the truth is that the need for assisted reproductive technology strikes from the late 30’s, even for mothers who never had fertility issues previously. The older a woman gets, the more infertile she will be, so if you want offspring, all the sensible advice for women is to drop everything and have a baby before they hit 35 to avoid later infertility. But this statement is easier said than done, as modern life is not that simple; young men and women expect to settle down in a stable relationship and establish a career before starting a family but these things are now happening later in our modern society.
Nowadays in the UK, the peak range for all births is 30 to 34, yet many females put off having children until the time feels right for different reasons; their freedom and independence, career, travelling the world, financial matters, fulfilment of personal goals, illness. Besides, some get divorced or widowed and decide to have their first or later children in a second marriage, when they are inevitably older.
Many people can live meaningful lives that don’t involve children. But if you can’t make peace with childlessness and are no longer young, it is wise to listen to your heart and give maternity a go, without worrying about being judged by other people, as your age shouldn’t matter. Having a baby is often a blessing anytime in life, so, thinking in this way, as youth is no guarantee of life expectancy, just giving a child a loving home is the most important thing. Most of the time, females who delay having a baby have satisfied their targets and don’t feel they are missing anything, so they make good mothers. In many cases, they are more resilient, emotionally mature and less dependent on others, having also settled down in a stable relationship with secure accommodation.
We just can’t ignore that there are health risks to older mothers and babies, mainly greater chance of chromosome abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome, but the good news is that most babies develop normally with relatively few birthed by women over 45 presenting problems. So many people choose not to give much thought to the health risks, even though having a baby later in life, women need to accept they may be in their 50s or older before finding their pre-birth independence again.
Many countries have set age limits on allowing post-menopausal women to have a baby via assisted reproductive technology, usually for health and religious issues. For example, most clinics in the UK do not support IVF for women in their 50s so British ladies have been undergoing these procedures in countries like Russia and Ukraine. Most people are sympathetic towards women who spent years trying to conceive but experiencing only inexplicable and devastating miscarriages. These women may fall pregnant only in their late thirties or forties, with the help of assisted reproductive technology. But it seems that people have far less compassion towards women who decide to have a baby when they are near or over menopause, regardless if this is their first baby or not. These women might be criticised as being selfishly presumptuous and full of self-regard, since they act against nature to pursue the dream of motherhood. Pro-life groups argue that if a woman can’t conceive naturally due to her age, then science should not intervene.
As if conforming to the views of people who are against late motherhood, although all of us are now living longer, our reproductive window has not increased in line with life expectancy. So women over menopause could choose to be the favourite aunt, or the hottest grandma, not necessarily the mother. The fact that doctors are able to assist post-menopausal women to have a baby, doesn’t mean they have to do this job. Besides, IVF doesn’t compensate for the effects of ageing. Actually, even for young women, there is only a 30% success rate. By the age of 44, the success rate goes down to 5% using the woman’s own eggs. Freezing old eggs is no guarantee of a viable pregnancy as their quality is not the same as the young ones.
There is still the issue of not being able to cope with a toddler or a teenager when the mother is over 70, without the resources of rich female celebrities, who can afford expensive childcare. An older woman might be living further away from her extended family and not be sure if her friends will be willing to help her. Besides, for a woman who is far from childbearing age, there may be the choice of adopting, which is also a wonderful way to become a mother, transforming a child’s life and hers. And there is no upper age in the UK for adoption. Some females get pregnant without thinking it through, just to prove that they can, but carrying a baby for 9 months makes a woman only a biological mother. Are these women prepared for the challenge of raising a child? This challenge comes after birth with many sleepless nights, raising, loving and caring for the child, helping it develop to achieve its potential, supporting them when making friends and settling their arguments. There are many women who manage all these things beautifully, without ever being a biological mother, as in their maturity they know that love is not a superficial feeling which just happens, instead, love takes work.
If you keep tearing your hair out trying to have a baby, throwing good money after bad, putting yourself and your partner under emotional and physical stress through such a tough journey and nature keeps reacting with “no”, then it really is time to do something about it. Consider that to respect nature is a matter of wisdom. If you choose to draw a line under all your dreams of being a mother, that also means taking some action to help yourself. Should all dreams be pursued to exhaustion irrespective of the personal and societal consequences? What most of us want in life is to be at peace with ourselves and valued for who we are. Living the happiest lives we can will involve suffering and frustration along the way, becoming more tolerant towards grievance and disappointment. If you can take meaningful action despite receiving refusals from nature, better feelings will follow. Admitting defeat when necessary means to introduce balance and resilience in your life.
If you get stuck in an unsuitable relationship and also stuck fighting for a baby, as if your happiness just depends on finding the right person, or giving birth, perhaps it is time to cease chasing your high ideals and learn to value simplicity. It is up to you to manage your life, to change your behaviour and get rid of your inner chains. If your thoughts are not being helpful, don’t dread the future, as you can modify them, aiming to influence your own actions and beliefs. Happiness doesn’t depend on big achievements, but it is all about how you react to what happens and enjoy moments of pleasure, such as the celebration of a job well done or reading whatever you fancy. Little things do mean a lot and learning how to appreciate them and also be kinder to yourself will lead to wellbeing. The future will be bright, bringing to us, mothers and non-mothers, what all women really deserve: happiness and inner joy.