Monday, December 03, 2007

Delaying first childbirth until mom is past age forty?

The other night, I saw a TV news feature about Hollywood actresses who are delaying having their first child until they are past the age of forty or even past the age of forty-five. I'm sure the feature caught my attention as I had two mid-life miscarriages, myself, despite having had healthy, full-term pregnancies earlier in life. I love to hear of other "older" moms whose outcomes were more successful.

I think it's wonderful that so many mothers today do continue to have babies into their late thirties and into their forties. There was a time when many mid-life parents were made to feel silly for announcing that they were going to experience another happy event.

I also think it's great that we have a climate that is encouraging to parents, who, for one reason or another, do not or can not have children until they are over thirty-five.

When I was carrying my second child in my late twenties, some-one's grandmother said in my presence, "You know; they say you should have all of your children before you turn thirty."

Later, I came to wonder if this might have been a commonly held belief of that generation. If so, this was despite the fact that their mothers and grandmothers commonly became pregnant in their late thirties and in their forties. Back in the day, women generally had children for as long as they remained fertile.

Lest we are too hard on the older lady's generation, we must remember that she and her peers lived during a time when medical science made the greatest leaps forward of mankind's history. She was born in an era when many women died in childbirth or lost their vitality through repeated pregnancies. Few women received what we now think of as adequate prenatal care, and the infant mortality rate was high. Similarly, healthy young people often died of diseases that we can cure easily today -- such as pneumonia and strep throat. Not only that, but outbreaks of childhood diseases -- such as whooping cough -- often struck down more than one child in a family at a time. Plus, there was a real danger of being killed, crippled, or forced into iron lungs by polio.

During that lady's lifetime, medical science conquered many of those dreaded killers. The medical advances of the twentieth century changed the world in ways that people my age and younger find hard to appreciate.

If we are ever tempted to forget the wonders of antibiotics, vaccines, and of modern maternal and infant care, we would do well to stroll through graveyards from the 1700's and 1800's and even early 1900's. I've personally found that such strolls are a lesson in thankfulness for some medical advances.

So, we can understand why people of a few generations before mine embraced "modern" and "scientific" ideas about childbearing and child rearing. Based on their experiences, they thought it best to have fewer pregnancies, finishing by age thirty, and with a higher probability of favorable outcomes than might have been common in prior generations. Whether you agree with their reasoning or not, that kind of thinking did permeate our society.

I've even heard a few women of my age and younger speak with pity or censure of a woman who finds herself pregnant in mid-life. Often, you can tell that some one's first gut reaction is, "Oh no! What were they thinking!", instead of "Isn't it wonderful that God is sending that family a new gift?"

However, I'm concerned in a different direction these days. It seems that the opinion has swung so that many women expect to delay having their first child into their late thirties and even early to mid-forties. They want to have a career first and, then, to have a baby. They are confident that if they follow this plan, everything will turn out just as they dream it will.

These days, we have an opposite line of thought from that dear old lady. A favorite sentiment of our culture seems to be, "You should have all of your babies after age thirty".

That was the gist of the news feature that I watched last night. The message was, "Hollywood's forty-something moms-to-be not only reflect the new trend towards later childbearing in America, they send a positive message to young ladies. These women show that you can "live your own life" during your twenties and thirties. Then, when your career is established in your forties, you can add in that one thing that's missing from your life -- a baby." The article went on to imply that waiting until you are in your forties to have your first baby is good for the child, because the mother in her forties has "finally figured out who she is", and, thus, she will have a more mature outlook as she raises her child.

I loved seeing the shots of glowing mothers and children featured in this article, as well as the positive encouragement for older women who want to become mothers. However, I also felt this TV feature was misleading for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the feature (which was supported by an interview with a glamorous-looking Hollywood gyn/OB) made it sound as if the woman who delays childbearing until she reaches her fifth decade will automatically and easily get pregnant -- once she decides she wants to. Sadly, despite advances in fertility treatments, women cannot count on this to be true.

Sure, some women naturally retain some degree of fertility all through their forties. And, we all know that the Lord can send blessings no matter what a woman's chances appear to be. Haven't we all met the happy woman who thought she was in menopause, only to discover that she was, in fact, pregnant. In fact, I heard about a woman who conceived naturally in her fifties!

But, we also hear often of the woman who hoped to have a child in her forties, only to be told the devastating news that her window of fertility has passed. The statistics are just not in favor of waiting to conceive for the first time -- with your own eggs -- until you reach your fortieth birthday. The stats are even more dire for the woman who has passed her forty-fifth birthday. In fact, the numbers show that the average woman's fertility begins declining in her late twenties. Sometimes, even women who try to have their first child after age thirty-five have unforeseen troubles.

While it's seldom mentioned in the media, I did read an article that said that many of
Hollywood's older moms achieve their pregnancies by using donor eggs from younger women. Also, I've read a few mentions of actresses who suffered repeated miscarriages on the way to successfully giving birth.

I don't know how reliable that bit of news about celebrities really is. But, in doing some research for this article, I did happen upon the web site of a fertility clinic. It stated unequivocally that for a woman past age forty, her best chance of having a child is to use eggs from a younger donor. This is not only because the older woman's fertility has declined so dramatically, but because she has at least a one in three chance of miscarrying if she should beat the odds and conceive with her own eggs.

In light of this, I wonder if it's fair for so many media articles to imply that it's no big deal for a woman to wait one or two decades before trying to conceive? Should women be led to believe that they can easily become pregnant with an egg of their own, once they reach the age of forty and beyond?

Shouldn't young women be made aware of the risks of waiting so long to start a family? It's one thing for a young woman to take a chance with her fertility if she understands what her future odds of success and failure will be. It's another to make the same gamble based on false hope.

Similarly, Hollywood's older moms are applauded for setting this example: Have your career first and, then, have your baby. But, these high profile actresses have advantages that the average working woman does not. They can afford to pay for expensive fertility treatments. They have nannies and secretaries and chauffeurs and press agents and physical trainers and stylists and cooks and maids and gardeners and other people who handle the personal details of their lives. They can afford live-in nurses, if needed for mother or child. Their work demands that they stay in shape, and they enter mid-life having spent a lot of time and money on their health -- time and money that the average working wife cannot afford to spend.

Plus, here's the kicker: Unless it's on the front page of the Enquirer, we never see Hollywood's mid-life mamas throwing up from morning sickness or with bags under her eyes from lack of sleep. Even if she has now happily come to terms with using donor eggs, we don't necessarily hear about the heartbreak a particular actress felt when first told that her days of true fertility are over.

What we see are carefully photo-shopped cover shots of a beaming mother and baby. Likely, both of them were dressed, groomed, and made-up by a team of professionals.

Now, I'm not saying that actresses have an easy life; I imagine that pursuing a career in the entertainment business can be quite stressful -- perhaps even more so for those at the top. I also don't envy the fact that if high profile entertainers do have children, they will be raising them in the Hollywood environment. Worse, they will raise children with all of America -- even the whole world -- watching their every move. That's got to be hard!

But, I am also imagining the slightly out-of-shape forty-five-year-old accountant in Hoboken, New Jersey, who is either struggling to get pregnant or who is adjusting to first-time motherhood in mid-life. Is it realistic for her to form her expectations of conception, pregnancy, and motherhood based on how easy it all seems to be for celebrities? In fact, is it wise for a mom of any age to compare her situation to what she thinks a star's experience might be?

Most women hear the message today that it's important to get your career going before you have children. Actresses, however, are under extra pressure to build their careers in their twenties and thirties. The TV article suggested that actresses forget to have children in their twenties and thirties. They are simply too busy to think about children one way or another during their youth. Also, since their livelihood depends on both their appearance and their availability to work, some actresses are reluctant to experience the body changes of pregnancy in their twenties and thirties. Once their career is established, they have time to remember that motherhood is missing from their life. So, voila, they simply add a child into their schedule.

Again, I ask is all of this really a great message to send to younger women? Hollywood has an incredibly young "sell-by date" for actresses. True, there are more roles around for older actresses than there were a decade or so ago. Even so, most actresses experience a great slowdown in their career by the age of forty. Then, they do have time to reflect on what they might have missed in the days when their careers demanded all of their attention. It's not surprising that many seek to fill this hole with a child.

Yet, most other careers play out over a longer span of time. Women who have invested their youth in building a career may find it harder and harder, not easier, to take time out in their forties to have children.

Also, do we really want to teach younger women to value appearance over having babies? What are a few stretch marks compared to the wonder of carrying and raising a child? God made women to be beautiful, but isn't part of our beauty the fact that we can carry and nurse children? Besides, if you think that not having children preserves your youthful looks, you're in for a shock when you hit middle age. Time eventually touches our faces and our bodies whether we have children or not.

Moreover, do we really want to teach younger women that they must, somehow, "live their own life" for at least two whole decades before having children? And, must we wait until we reach age forty before we "have figured out who we are" to the point that we can now think about raising someone else?

Sure, there are advantages to maturity. I've learned some things through over two decades of parenting, and if I could go back and raise my now-adult children over again, I would do lots of things differently. On the other hand, I might make other mistakes if I were just starting now on the adventure of motherhood.

There was a time in my youth when it would have been disastrous for me to marry and to be a mom. But, the issue wasn't that I hadn't found out who I was. The issue was that I hadn't yet found out who God is.

I've never seen children as an impediment to "living my life" or a hindrance to "knowing who I am". Of all my endeavors in life, I have found motherhood to be among the most satisfying - far more satisfying even than my enjoyable writing career. True, I could have achieved more career-wise if I had chosen not to have children and to be a keeper at home. But, for me, no amount of success in my chosen field would have been worth giving up the joys of marriage, parenting, and making my home my primary vocation.

As far as figuring out who I am, motherhood is the classroom where I, personally, have learned the greatest lessons. Not every woman is intended by God to be a wife and mother, and that's OK. He operates many schools in life. But, for me, parenting has has been a huge part of my education in life, in who I am, and in learning to know God more deeply.

Finally, do we really want to tell younger women, "Having a baby is all about you -- about whether it will hinder your life or about whether it will fill a hole in your life at this present time?" Of course, we all think about these things when we are on the brink of having children.
Parenting is a responsibility that requires sacrifice and change on our part. By the same token, parenting adds richness and meaning to our lives. I'm not saying that we should never ponder these issues.

However, there's a larger picture here. Parenting, should it be the Lord's will for our lives, has its true meaning in the context of a life lived for Him. The fact is that having children is not all about us. It's about the fact that we are stewards of precious little lives, lives who ultimately belong to their Creator -- just as we also do, ourselves.



Joanna said...

Interesting post...having (finally!) had my first child in my late 30s, I know that I spent many years doing automatic math in my head whenever I read about an "older" Hollywood star and the ages of her children, trying to calculate how old she was when the first was born -- to see if there was any hope for me.

One result of this, however, has been that my daughter only has one set of living grandparents, which is something else that doesn't seem to considered.

Elizabeth said...

Congratulations on your child, Joanna!

Thanks for your comment, as well.