Tuesday 27 September 2016

How Green is My Valley? The pros and cons of delaying motherhood

Thirty-six and childless, Siobhan O'Connor was panicking about her fertility. So she decided to be proactive and had her egg reserve checked. As she nervously awaited the result, she spoke to some so-called 'geriatric mothers' about the pros and cons of delaying motherhood, and the gruelling experience of IVF. Then, she got the fateful call . . . Main photograph by Kip Carroll

Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30

Time to get cracking: Siobhan O'Connor panicked about her fertility. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Time to get cracking: Siobhan O'Connor panicked about her fertility. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Corina Grant
Pamela Flood says she was too busy enjoying herself in her younger years but always knew she would have a child.
Model and singer Una Gibney had her daughter Lauren, who is now two and a half, through IVF.

I'm 36 and without child. People assume it's a decision you've made; that a fancy car or a good job is your substitute for bringing another human into the world.

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And then I woke up one morning, and was hit by an intense yearning for a baby. It was as if my body was taking over, and I'd lost my mind. Was this my biological clock ticking? According to psychologist Jo Lukins from Peak Performance Psychology, the term 'biological clock' refers to the "increased maternal instincts of women as we get older".

It's a fundamental need; we're on this earth to procreate, and I feel less whole because, due to circumstance, I don't have a child. My marriage broke down, and everyone threw in their tuppence-worth: "Well, thank god there are no kids involved". Very true, but it still hurts when high-and-mighty earth mothers tell me, "Ah, you'll understand what it's like when you have your own, one day".

Some years back, I was made to wear a prosthetic bump for a radio-show experiment, and I had to go through the motions of pretending to be preggers - doing the night feeds, and suchlike. Jaysus, when I look back, that was so uncouth.

When you're childless, it's hard to escape condescending Angelina Jolie types with their perfect families. I was out one night and bumped into a school acquaintance. After a few too many in the boozer, she told me that she felt sorry for me spending so many years working my ass off. Did I not want kids?

The Facebook posts documenting happy memories of mates bringing their little ones for their first day at primary school are ever poignant, and a constant reminder of how late I am to join the party; my friends' kids are no longer in nappies.

In school, we are brainwashed: focus on education, get a great job, but, whatever you do, don't get pregnant. You're never even taught about fertility, and we spend all of our 20s swallowing the contraceptive pill. Whatever you do, don't get up the duff!

I'm in a fantastic relationship now, and figured 'Ah, sure I have a few years'. I mean, look at Maura Derrane - she had her son Cal at 43, but she was open about the reality of becoming an older mum, saying that she feels she's too old to have another kid.

Watching Ireland AM one morning sent me into panic mode. The doc from Sims IVF, a fertility clinic, was on the couch, explaining that women are most fertile between the ages of 20 and 24, adding, "At 35, you're half as fertile as when you were 25; furthermore, at 40, you're half as fertile as when you were 35".

Two women were bravely chatting on the couch, having completed the Sims test - a fertility test to check your anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) levels; this hormone reflects the level of your remaining egg supply. One woman (37) still had a good reserve; the other (36) had no eggs left. I rang my partner like a crazed, childless lunatic, bawling down the phone: "I'm worried that I'm done. Time is running out, I'll never have a baby." I'm surprised he stuck around; I had turned into a clucky woman, possessed by the urgency to reproduce.

There was only one solution: head into Sims to get my eggs checked; at least I'd be armed with knowledge. Bricking it, I made an appointment, and was warned by my friend to expect a low result, as she had been told that a woman's egg supply falls off the side of a cliff after the age of 35.

Sims Head of Nursing, Maurie Cotter, was reassuring. "You're the average age getting the test," she said. "Don't panic." The AMH profile package costs €250. It includes getting your AMH levels checked, as well as your thyroid-hormone levels, your prolactin; the works. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a GP referral. I was flabbergasted at the array of options available; Maurie told me that egg freezing and availing of donor sperm are really common these days.

There's a perception in society that you are a lesser human if you don't have kids. Some people choose not to have them, and that's their right. For me, in any case, I'm so sick of myself I want someone else to worry about; I don't want to get left behind. Fertility is like a ticking time-bomb.

My fate was sealed with just one prick of a needle; a blood test is all that's required to check your eggs. Maurie warned me, "I think if you're over 35 and you've been trying for a baby for over six months, then it's time to seek help."

Most women have about 300,000 eggs in their ovaries at puberty. For each egg that matures and is released or ovulated during the menstrual cycle, at least 500 eggs do not mature and are absorbed by the body. As we age, the remaining eggs in our ovaries also age, making them less capable of fertilisation, and their embryos less capable of implanting, so even if you have a good reserve, they may be duds!

A third of couples have infertility problems when the woman is over 35. Hollywood stars in their 40s are popping out kids like Smarties these days, but Maurie believes that the likelihood of donor use is high: "I'd be suspicious, if they haven't had any kids before, that it probably is egg donation. Your eggs at 45 may not be good quality, so even if you get pregnant, you are at a higher risk of miscarrying."

There's always a silver lining. Back in Ireland of the 1940s, it was normal to get married later in life and to conceive in your early 40s. While waiting on my results, I decided to chat to some well-known female faces who, through various circumstances, started their families later.

Model and singer Una Gibney is now in her mid-40s and met her partner, banker Ryan Bailey, when she was 37. Una was 39 when they started trying for a baby. The couple tried to conceive naturally for two years, but were unsuccessful. Eventually, through IVF, they had their little girl, Lauren, who is now two-and-a-half.

Brave Una struggled to hold back the tears, as she told me, "Since we've had Lauren, we've done five IVF cycles. It's gruelling on your relationship, and the hormones are so intense." At Sims IVF in Ireland, prices for IVF begin at €4,600; it cost Una £10,000 (around €13,500) for each cycle in London.

You may be waiting to have the right bank balance before you start thinking about childbearing, but remember that IVF is an expensive business.

Una has been through the mill. "I feel bloated all the time. During the IVF, my body was stimulated to create growths, so I've had eight IVFs and three surgeries to remove the growths. I've still got eggs left - the problem was, in layman's terms, we were missing the binding agent to fuse the sperm and my eggs.

"We got to the point last year that everything seemed OK and I did get pregnant, and then I lost the baby, at 11 weeks, on Christmas week. In my mind, I thought once I got pregnant, I'd stay pregnant, so having a miscarriage came as a bit of a shock. Even though I was devastated, I went home and thought, 'Well, I have Lauren'. But it's a very hard process to stay positive in."

People often assume older women who don't have babies have chosen this fate. "We were all at a concert together a few years ago, with friends I hadn't seen in a while," Una says, "And my friend was like, 'You're a busy career woman, so I guess no kids for you'. I just said, 'Well, actually, we've been trying for a while, and it isn't working'. I think sometimes people shouldn't presume you can have kids; it can be very painful and private, and it's a weight that you carry with you."

TV presenter Pamela Flood is an older mum with quite a different experience. She is 44 and expecting her third child.

Pamela is married to restaurateur Ronan Ryan, and the pair opened a new venture, Counter Culture, in May. Pam had Harrison, who's now four-and-a-half, at 39, and Elsie, who's now almost two, at 42.

Why did she leave it so late? "I was too busy enjoying myself", she says. "But at the back of my mind, I always thought, 'I'll have one when I'm ready'. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend at 36 and met Ronan a year later. I made no secret that I definitely wanted it to happen in the next few years, and he wasn't repulsed by the idea.

"We were lucky enough to get pregnant when I was 38. I remember joking with the nurse, saying, 'I'm a bit old in here, aren't I, compared to everyone else?' and the nurse just looked at me and said, 'Gosh, no! There are loads of girls your age having babies'."

Are there advantages to waiting until your late 30s? "In an ideal world," Pam says, "It would be great to meet your partner in your late 20s and start your family in your early 30s. Peachy, but I didn't. So if people end up in the same boat as me, the advantage is you've been there, done that, bought all the T-shirts."

People are quick to judge if you don't have kids in your 30s, as Pam discovered. "I was 33, working on Off the Rails, and this girl I had just met asked me, 'How come you haven't had kids? Were you just too into your career?' and I was stunned that she would ask me that question, as if it was out of the picture; as if kids would never be an option. But I just wasn't ready in my heart."

As for energy, Pam dismisses the suggestion that as we hit our 40s, we have less. "That makes me a bit blue in the face. I definitely have less challenges energy-wise than I did in my 20s. Number one, I was a raging smoker and I binge-drank two nights a week, and I'd be falling asleep on the bus coming home from work. And small children and hangovers don't mix."

But her advice is not to put if off. "You'll always find a thousand reasons not to have a baby, and ultimately there's only one reason to have one, and that, to me, is that it'll be the most amazing thing to ever happen to your life."

Model and blogger Corina Grant is in her early 40s and had her first child Cara Leigh, now seven, in the later half of her mid-30s. She didn't meet her picture-editor husband Christopher Doyle until she was 32. She tells me: "Until Christopher, I just hadn't met the right person. I think we leave it later because we're focused on having a career, and there's a selfish streak in this generation where we want to be self-sufficient; we're taught to be independent and not to rely on a man, and to do that, you need to be focused on your career."

Corina found it easy enough to get pregnant the second time round, aged 40, with her little girl Corbyn-Rose, now three, but she says it took longer, adding: "We're always waiting for Mr Right, but the one thing we all have in common is we are waiting for the right time to have a baby - but if you keep waiting, the moment will have gone."

Does the modelling industry encourage you to hold off? "As a model, you are self- employed with no maternity benefit," Corina points out, "so if you get pregnant, you're not working; you might do a few maternity shoots, but your body is totally different when you are wearing a fake bump.

"I did loads of shoots with a fake bump before I was ever pregnant. I did one when I was actually pregnant and I was one of those girls who was bigger all over; I retained water like there was going to be a friggin' drought. So yes, as a model you tend to leave it later, but, thank god, I was very lucky when I did try to have a baby."

Five days after my initial visit to Sims IVF, nurse Maurie was already on the phone with my results. Her calming voice did not soothe my nerves; I just wanted to hear I could become a baby-making machine. I may, in medical terms, be considered "a geriatric mother", but I still feel 20 in my mind and body!

"Well Siobhan, the good news is your reserve is normal for your age, it's grand." "OK," I chime in, "is 'grand' good? I mean, how many have I got left?"

"You have 12.7pc. I would expect between 10 to 15pc for your age; it's fine for your age."

Phew, sigh of relief. Practical Maurie had one last bit of advice: "But time is marching on, so get cracking."

Siobhan wears a selection of dresses from Cari's Closet

Cari's Closet, 11 New St, Malahide, Co Dublin

tel: (01) 845-7593, or see cariscloset.ie

The Stokke Xplory stroller is available from Mothercare, Tony Kealys and Bella Baby stores

Photography by Kip Carroll

Hair by Niamh Patterson at Aidan Fitzgerald, 12 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 288-6479, or see aidanfitzgerald.ie

Make-up by Emma Farrell, tel: (086) 327-4449, or see efcreativestudios.com

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