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

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

Wed, Jun 26, 2013, 01:00

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.

Fertility cliff
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.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, psychology professor Jean Twenge gets to the root of this notion of a ‘fertility cliff at 35’ – specifically, the claim that one in three women between the ages of 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying.

She discovered the figure is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction, but that the original source is French birth records from 1670 to 1830.

That’s right: the statistics behind the panic date back to a time when there was no electricity, no antibiotics and no fertility treatment.

Twenge cites a more recent and much more encouraging study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004, headed by David Dunson. It found that, with intercourse twice a week, 82 per cent of
35- to 39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27- to 34-year-olds.

Tony Walsh, who is a gynaecologist and the chairman of SIMS Fertility Clinic, describes Twenge’s findings as “interesting”, and says they shouldn’t be dismissed. However, based on his 20 years’ experience working in the field of fertility, he believes age is an issue. “No one working in fertility could agree that age-related infertility is not a real phenomenon. The decline starts from the late 20s, and it can be steadily plotted from there,” he says.

Cathy Allen, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with the Merrion Fertility Clinic and Holles Street, says “alarm is never good when it comes to fertility. There is no one best time to have a baby. Physically, your 20s may be the best time, but psychologically you may not be ready until your 30s”.

At the same time, she says, “it’s important not to underestimate the effect of age on fertility – there is a definite decline in overall fecundity from the mid-30s on”.

It is also worth noting that age does bring other problems: there is an increased risk of miscarriage and of having a baby with chromosomal abnormalities.

Even Twenge, who believes that the panic over the age of 35 is overstated, says it’s best to have your last child by 40.

Pointless anxiety
Twenge writes: “We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a light bulb.”

And for many of us, that’s the point. We have worried endlessly, and possibly even rearranged our lives – and in the end, five in six of us would have gone on to conceive naturally anyway.

The message seems to be that while awareness of your declining fertility is good, panic is not.

In an ideal world, looking after a child might involve being in a relationship, having somewhere secure to live, earning enough money to meet the expenses, being established in a career you’ll be able to return to, should you wish.

In reality, it’s tricky to have all those boxes ticked by the time you’re 30, or even by 35. Many of us never manage them all.

On the other hand, as Allen says, “having a baby with the wrong person just because you’re worried about whether you’ll be able to have one in the future is never a good idea”.

Love, ostentation and ice sculptures
As the news cycle begins to grind to a halt for the summer, you can usually rely on the world’s celebrity population to provide us with a few over-the-top displays of love, ostentation and ice sculptures. That’s right: celebrity wedding season is upon us.

Out of the blocks earlier this month was Napster founder Sean Parker, with a display so eye-popping that he and his new wife, singer Alexandra Lenas, have reportedly been spat at in the street by onlookers offended by its environmental impact.

The celebration had a Lord of the Rings theme, and involved the importation and construction of ruins and a castle into the middle of a redwood forest in California. The whole thing cost €7.5 million – and Parker ran up another €2 million in environmental fines afterwards.

Last weekend brought the €14 million French Riviera nuptials of Formula One heiress Tamara Ecclestone and Jay Rutland, which featured live performances by Mariah Carey and Elton John. Next up: Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who reportedly plan to honeymoon in space.

Don’t call Serena Williams boring
Serena Williams recently said her preparation for big matches involved being “the most boring person you can ever imagine”. Don’t panic, tabloid editors: she doesn’t really mean it.

Her Wimbledon campaign kicked off this week in vintage Williams style, with a public apology over insensitive comments she made about the Steubenville rape case, and the latest phase of what one newspaper dubbed a “love-tangled, word-mangled, rolling spat” with rival Maria Sharapova.

It started over an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, in which Williams described an unnamed rival as “boring” (although, of course, she may have just meant “well-prepared”) and suggested the rival’s boyfriend had a “black heart”. Sharapova decided the jibes were aimed at her, and hit back at a press conference with the suggestion that Williams is involved with a soon-to-be-divorced man.

It’s all very unedifying, and therefore perfect fodder for the editors of red tops, who love nothing more than a public falling out between two women – except, perhaps a public falling out between two wildly successful, photogenic, athletic women. Why is it that when male sports stars engage in this kind of thing it’s healthy rivalry; but when they’re female, it’s a catfight?

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