I’ve been hearing a lot of the phrase “geriatric pregnancy” lately. Curiously, I never hear it in my hospital or GP appointments; instead, the only people who ever mention it are the ones who are affronted that the term (given to pregnancies carried out by women aged over 35) exists in the first place.
The narrative goes a little something like this: having babies after 35 is a risky endeavour. It means you've waited too long, and might be subjecting yourself to a dangerous and complicated pregnancy and/or delivery. The older the mother, the higher the probability of chromosomal abnormalities, too. Even Meghan Markle (37) wasn't immune to scrutiny when she announced her pregnancy: "Fertility falls off a cliff at 35, duchess or not", one newspaper reminded us.
Some or all of this indeed may be scientifically accurate, but there’s little room in the overall conversation for the other possibility: that an older mother can enjoy a healthy pregnancy and go on to have a child with no chromosomal abnormalities. The risks of men delaying fatherhood, incidentally – and there has been some sporadic chat about the male biological clock – rarely get the same airtime.
Yet, women are staying younger for longer. Actress Jean Alexander was 36 when she took on the iconic role of Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, making her two years younger at the time than Kim Kardashian is now. Why wouldn't it stand to reason that a 35-year-old's reproductive system is similarly sprightly, and no longer still wearing a hairnet and tabard?
As Jean M Twenge noted in a landmark essay in The Atlantic: "The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830."
Our ideas around women, age and fertility are due an overhaul.
Science is coming around to the idea that being of advanced maternal age isn't necessarily a hindrance
The reality is that the only person who seems to worry about my “advanced maternal age” around here is me. I mention my age as a “risk factor” in appointments; the experts shrug and move swiftly on. I go into ultrasound scans anticipating bad news based on nothing but my date of birth. I bombard technicians with questions about blood vessels in placenta cords, kidney function and “soft markers”. “Someone’s done their homework,” they murmur, patient but weary. Sometimes, it seems that having a healthy child with no health issues feels like the biggest miracle in the world.
As it happens, science is finally coming around to the idea that being of advanced maternal age isn't necessarily a hindrance, and can actually be beneficial. An ongoing study, the New England Centenarian Study, has found that having a baby later in life can help women live longer. Another study, published in 2011 in the Population and Development Review, posits that older parents can be happier in general.
When I started writing this column, literally dozens of women contacted me to say that they'd had children at 44, 45, 46, not a bother on them. "Ahhh, the oopsie pregnancy," was a recurring refrain; like me, they'd been led to believe by a whole swathe of literature that you're not likely to find an ovarian reserve of any note inside a 40-something woman. If you're lucky, you might find an old Teasmaid up there, and maybe a copy of the Beano instead of ovaries. Surely it's okay, some of them reasoned, to relax a little on the contraception?
The more I think about it, the more the “biological clock” deadline annoys me. It’s generally accepted that 35 is make or break time for women thinking of settling down and having a family. I see it in my friends of that age: the ones who are single are weary with resignation, little realising that they might have whole decades of flings and strings-free fun ahead of them. Others resign themselves to staying in below-par relationships, figuring that their emotionally stunted plus-one will have to do (plus, they don’t have the time to start all over again with a new partner).
The whole biological clock conceit has created a less-than-level playing field
Another friend does the maths over and over, panic rising in her voice every time: “If I met someone tonight, I’d probably have to wait six months before we move in, and maybe another six months before I get pregnant, and sure by that stage I’ll be 39.” Another friend, in her mid- to late-30s, is worried that she’s a weirdo for not feeling more of a call to action when it comes to dating. Whatever the circumstances, there is often a sense of deadline looming.
And it’s why dating as a thirtysomething woman is such a toxic faceache. The whole biological clock conceit has created a less-than-level playing field, because many men don’t feel as though they’re on the clock in the same way. There’s a niggling sense, a panic even, that men are holding the proverbial cards. Some women (I know I was at some point) are so afraid to command respect and basic decent behaviour from men in case they scare them off, simply by coming across as too eager. I don’t miss those days for a second, but try telling a woman in her mid- to late-30s that things aren’t as gloomy, nor as urgent, as they seem.
Does being older make someone a better parent?
I often think that 21-year-old me – selfish, hedonistic, impulsive – would have made a terrible mother. Yet perhaps suggesting as such does everyone a disservice. There are fertile women at 25 and 45, and reproductively healthy women at all ages. It’s likely a 21-year-old is going to feel every bit as tired or as overwhelmed as I will as a new parent.
It’s high time we ditch the sweeping generalisations, for all our sakes.
Tanya Sweeney's pregnancy series
Part 1: More chance of Bosco getting pregnant
Part 2: First came the shock, then the advice
Part 3: I'm pregnant and have a glass of wine
Part 4: People have never seen me like this
Part 5: Baby bump makes a woman so visible
Part 6: No more well-meaning advice
Part 7: Facing the financial shock
Part 8: My last child-free Christmas
Part 9: Being a mum but not having a mum
Part 10: I have a baby name in mind
Part 11: 'Biological clock' deadline annoys me