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Is it OK to have a child later in life?

With technology stretching our fertility window to 50 and beyond, we take a look at the effect this has on the children

12 May 2013 | 08:12 pm
  • 'At the end of it all, it’s an individual’s personal choice when they have their child.'

    Source:Supplied picture

Emily Baker*, 40, is yet to embark on motherhood, but definitely sees it as part of her future

I recently celebrated my 40th birthday and while it was an amazing occasion, I’m certain that a good proportion of my guests were wondering if I might break down in tears and begin rocking in a corner. You see, despite hitting the big 4-0 I still haven’t experienced motherhood. The pitter-patter of tiny feet was always something I assumed I’d get to down the line after cementing my career, obtaining financial security and meeting the right man. But just over a year ago (while celebrating my last birthday), I had an epiphany when I realised that two out of those three boxes were already ticked (career and finance), so I was simply waiting for Mr Right to sweep me off my feet.

Well, I’m still waiting. I’m what’s known as ‘emotionally infertile’ – a phrase coined to describe women like me who are childless not by choice or because of biological reasons, but because of circumstance. Initially this realisation devastated me. I was kept awake agonising about my ageing ovaries and grieving for the child I feared I’d never have. A speedy stab at internet dating followed, which only served to reassure me that it’s not possible to meet the man of your dreams in a hurry.

Then I decided to get proactive. Technological progress now makes it possible for a woman to conceive long after eggs, hormones and womb have given up the ghost, so why should I let Mother Nature stand in my way? I decided to freeze my eggs late last year and I can honestly say it was the best decision I ever made. Taking away the pressure of parenthood has allowed me to enjoy life again without being driven to distraction by the sound of my ticking body clock. I’m no longer lamenting about missing motherhood or sizing every male suitor up as a potential daddy (and scaring the life out of him in the process), so the chances of me meeting the man of my dreams are that much stronger. In short, technology has allowed me to buy time.

Some people may think I’m selfish, because realistically I will probably be in my mid-40s before I become a mother. It’s difficult to refute scientific claims that complications such as high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia, diabetes, foetal distress and Caesareans increase with maternal age, but studies also show that babies born to older mothers have advantages. I read about a recent survey from the University of Iowa of IVF children aged eight to 17, which found that the older the mother, the brighter the child. I also feel that when I become a mother I will be much better equipped to deal with it because I will be more emotionally and financially secure than I was a decade prior.

Of course, there have been times when I’ve fantasied about how if I could go back ten years, I might tell my younger self that she should hurry up and start a family sooner rather than later. The mental images that spring to mind when one considers late parenthood are enough to put anyone off – pregnant mums with thinning hair; toddlers whose mothers need a zimmer just to get round the park – but logic tells me that’s not a true representation. After all, the life expectancy of an average baby girl born in the West today is 100, so is it really so absurd that she might embark on motherhood at 50?

Ultimately the number of women giving birth in their 40s and 50s has risen dramatically in the past decade. With this in mind, I think it’s really about time we stopped looking at older mums as an oddity and accept that they are becoming the norm – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rachel*, 50, says she wishes she’d had her daughter Emma, now three, 15 years earlier

When I was in my early 30s and my girlfriends and sisters started dropping like flies off the social scene – and off the career ladder – and into the abyss of motherhood, I was busy enjoying my freedom and building my career. “There’s loads of time for all that,” I thought. And there was simply never a good time to have children – there was always another holiday to plan, another personal goal to achieve, another promotion to strive for.

However, when I married my husband at 40, I suddenly became aware of a clock ticking inside my ovaries. Six years and a few rounds of IVF later, I fell pregnant with Emma and became one of the 250,000 British mothers older than 40 giving birth every year – a figure that has risen by 15 per cent in the past five years.
But ask me my thoughts on having children later in life and I will, perhaps somewhat hypocritically, furrow my brow. I am lucky enough to still have my mother around – she is 74 and bright as a button. Hopefully she will live long enough that Emma will remember her, but realistically it will be a vague memory. So Emma will grow up without grandparents.

More important to me is the realisation that my daughter and I won’t enjoy the long relationship I have enjoyed with my mother. The National Vital Statistics Report in the US states that when a mother gives birth at 50, she’s lucky if she sees her child’s 32nd birthday. If the father was 50, he’s lucky if he sees his child’s 30th.

OK, it’s not like she’ll be raising herself from ten, but there are definitely implications – emotional and physical – of having older parents. According to US magazine The New Republic, once you hit 40 your baby has a 30 per cent chance of having an extra chromosome appear – and Down’s syndrome is a possible result of this. They also suffer higher risk of premature birth, spontaneous abortion and other issues. And it’s not just the age of mothers that increases risks – babies of fathers aged 36 are twice as likely to suffer from genetic mutations than those born to fathers aged 20; and babies of 50-year-old dads have nine times the risk of autism and three times the risk of schizophrenia. And don’t get me started on the risks associated with fertility treatment – one fertility drug, Clomid, has been linked with 500 birth defects, says The New Republic.

Emotionally, ‘last-chance kids’ suffer from feelings of a generation gap between themselves and their parents; embarrassment about their parents’ ages and appearance; fear of parents’ illness and death and, of course, loneliness owing to not having grandparents or siblings and cousins their own age**. Not only that, but they will likely end up being forced into caring for their ageing parents.

At the end of it all, it’s an individual’s personal choice when they have their child, and I’m not judging anyone but myself. But the fact is, I probably won’t be here for her wedding – and if I am, I’ll look more like a granny than a glam mother-of-the-bride. I don’t regret having Emma – she is the sunshine in my life. My only regret is putting my enjoyment of my youth above her enjoyment of hers. When I look back at my motives – my important career and my high-living lifestyle – it seems so selfish to have spent my springtime years living it up, only to dedicate my autumn years to my child. It was frivolous, idealistic and a decision I now regret bitterly.



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