The Myth of Ageless Motherhood

On Mother’s Day, a story called “Ageless Motherhood” dominated the front page of my local paper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. The cover photo featured Joyce Bond, 53, with two of the triplets she recently bore. Births to women over 40 are “soaring” according to the article, with the birth rate to women 40-44 growing 45% between 1995 and 2006, and births to women 45 and older doubling during the same period.

Because I am part of that statistic myself, having given birth at age 40 in 2005 (and at 43 am expecting another baby next month), one would think that I would be applauding this story as a welcome bit of good news for women like myself. While I’m thrilled for Mrs. Bond and others like her, the issue is more complicated than the New Mexican article implies. Mrs. Bond became a mother for the first time in her fifties, and this is extremely unusual. It is even unusual for women in their forties to conceive and carry to term a first child. The “soaring” birthrate to women over 40 includes a lot of women like me, who had their first child or two when they were under 40, and then had another child (or children) past their fortieth birthday. It is more common for a woman like me (or 41-year-old Michelle Duggar, now pregnant with her 18th child) to conceive over 40 than it is for a woman who is trying to conceive for the first time.

Sylvia Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, makes this point cogently and with statistics to back it up. Her book demonstrates that a great many women who put off childbearing during their twenties and thirties, secure in the belief that they can always have a baby past forty (don’t all the articles like “Ageless Motherhood” and all the aging celebrity mom success stories say so?) end up bitterly disappointed when their lives don’t turn out like Joyce Bond’s or Jane Seymour’s. I have several friends who ended up in this situation. Some adopted children, others conceived with donor eggs, and still others simply reconciled themselves to a life of childlessness. Having a first child past 40 is certainly a possibility, but it is most definitely not a certainty.

And yet that is exactly what my generation has been told for decades. We were encouraged to put off marriage, establish our careers, travel, enjoy life, and leave childbearing to some distant future when we had done everything else we wanted to in life. I was very nearly a casualty of this bad advice myself. I dodged the bullet of childlessness, but I had five miscarriages because 30-something and 40-something eggs aren’t as good as 20-something eggs. All my children were born when I was at what the medical profession dubs Advanced Maternal Age (over 35) and so I spent much of my pregnancies worrying about whether I was carrying a baby with Down Syndrome (I don’t have amnios since I won’t abort). The daughters I bore at 36, 38 and 40 were perfectly healthy. I’m still worrying and praying about the one I’ll bear this summer at 43. Ageless motherhood indeed!

I extend my heartfelt good wishes to Joyce Bond and all the other lucky women who beat the odds and had their first child after 40. But for all the women in their twenties and thirties who think they’ll be that lucky too, I have only a warning: don’t bet on it.

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