Whoops! Forgot to have a baby in your twenties? Don’t panic yet
It seems those dire warnings about the ‘fertility cliff’ we topple over at age 35 are based on 300-year-old data
Biological clock: since the furore over Baby Hunger, we have tried to build lives, careers and relationships, with a great big ‘35’ flashing in neon over our heads
I had my feet up in stirrups when I heard the news that would change my life. It was two weeks before Christmas in 2005, and I was in my gynaecologist’s office, about to undergo a routine procedure to treat precancerous cells on my cervix. As we chatted before the treatment, I confessed that I had been feeling sad and tired for weeks.
Earlier that year, I had been diagnosed with an unrelated hormonal condition, polycystic ovarian syndrome, which causes a host of unpleasant side-effects, one of which is reduced fertility. Since the diagnosis, I’d been reading everything I could find on the subject and I had worked myself into a state of semi-panic.
I was already 30. In five short years, I would be 35 – the age at which female fertility, or so we’re always being told, falls off a cliff. If I wanted a child, or even two or three, I knew I couldn’t delay.
The fact that my husband and I hadn’t been actively trying for a baby for long didn’t enter into my anxious calculations. Neither did my gynaecologist’s reassurance that she regularly saw women exactly like me having healthy babies into their late 30s and even their 40s.
Maybe it was the fact that I had mentioned my exhaustion, but my gynaecologist decided to run a quick ultrasound before the colposcopy, just to be sure.
And there she was, the tiny, nebulous, 14.8 mm smudge on the screen that would become my daughter. All the while I had been busily obsessing about my declining fertility, I was quietly growing a baby.
Seven years and two children later, the near-panic I felt about my fertility in my early 30 looks like a ridiculous overreaction. But it wasn’t unusual – nor was it very surprising.
In 2002, the year before I got married, Sylvia Ann Hewlett published her book, Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, which advised that women should have their children while they’re young or risk having none at all. It grabbed headlines around the world and opened the floodgates for a decade of media hysteria over the ‘fertility cliff’. It also frightened the life out of me and all my friends. For much of time since, we have gone about trying to build lives, careers and relationships, with a great, big ‘35’ flashing in neon over our heads.
After 35, we are told, we’re six times more likely to have trouble conceiving. After 35, the chance of becoming pregnant in any given month falls to 30 per cent – or 20 per cent if the father is also ‘older’. After 35, one in three will take a year to become pregnant – compared to one in 20 25-year-olds. After 35, we’re more likely to suffer from pre-eclampsia, miscarriage, stillbirth or chromosomal abnormalities.