Why having babies is better late than never
As new figures show that a record number of women are giving birth over the age of 40, Cassandra Jardine says that this surprising trend is no cause for alarm
Shortly after my last child was born I felt like living -- or rather, barely living -- proof that women were not designed to have babies in their 40s. The pregnancy and the birth were fine.
My fifth child, a boy, was a big, healthy specimen. After the euphoria wore off, however, I was so exhausted that I could barely get out of bed, let alone pay attention to my other children, then aged between nine and three.
Lurching from one infection to another, I dreaded yet another bout of pneumonia. And I couldn't even blame Cherie Blair, given that her late, unplanned pregnancy with Leo, now 10, started shortly after my own.
But 45-year-old Cherie not only inspired hordes of women of similar age to dare to have a third or fourth child, she also made childless women believe they could leave having their first child until the last bat squeak of their fertility.
In fertility terms, 40 appeared to be the new 30.
A decade later, that same message is delivered by endless glossy magazines which display beaming, toned and triumphant celebrities who have pulled off the same coup.
From Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman (mothers at 41) to Susan Sarandon (a mum at 46), they show it can be done.
Those, like me, who took a while to find the right man, or the right job level, needed to wait and hope. And with every decade that wait gets longer, as the latest statistics show.
In Ireland, the average age for women giving birth for the first is now 31 -- up from 28.8 in the 1980s. And the number of women giving birth over 35 is steadily rising too.
A decade ago, women over 35 accounted for 9pc of all first births, in 2007 that figure crept above 10pc and today it stands at 14pc.
"Mother nature thinks you are at your ideal child bearing age between 20 and 29," says Dr David Walsh, director and Consultant Gynaecologist at the Sims Clinic, Ireland's largest private fertility treatment. "But Irish women generally start in their 30s. That's the way society has moved. Our job is to mitigate these issues and limitations."
"Delaying childbirth is a trend that I don't see changing any time soon," says Dr Mary McCaffrey, consultant obstetrician gynaecologist at The Scotia Clinic in Tralee.
"Women, as a whole, seem completely unaware that fertility does diminish quite significantly after the age of 35.
"They're also unaware of the increased risk of abnormalities such as Down Syndrome. So even if they do become pregnant, there are other complications to consider."
Problems. They aren't part of the deal, are they? I never anticipated any and, indeed, it transpired that the miseries that I went through after my last child were nothing to do with age.
Pregnancy had triggered a thyroid disorder, as it can in mothers of any age. Once that was sorted out -- a simple matter of pills -- I was bouncing again, along with my baby.
But I was one of the lucky ones. "For me it has been brilliant," says novelist and filmmaker Sheila Hayman.
"In my twenties I was a workaholic, and in my thirties I went wild. In my forties I finally felt ready. Holding my babies in my arms, it was wonderful to feel for the first time in my life that it was enough that I existed."
A tense time had preceded that happy ending. Once she had decided that the time was right for children, she was found to be sub-fertile. She needed a hormone pump to boost her oestrogen production, and not missing out on a month's throw of the dice involved some hilarious dashes across Europe when her partner was working abroad.
But it all worked well: "This," she says, "is fulfilment."
Often women whose careers were all-consuming delight in discovering that there is more to life when they have late babies. "Sorry, I can't speak to you today, I'm out with my children," texted a 40-plus mother who spent her twenties and thirties in meetings for 12 hours a day. Now she works a four-day week, looks years younger, and infinitely happier.
Killjoys fuss about older mothers -- and indeed fathers -- being less energetic, but women (and indeed men) nowadays take so much better care of themselves that I have not observed that to be an issue. Nor has Irish parenting expert Martina Newe.
"When women in their thirties and forties decide to have a baby, usually they've thought long and hard about it and their partner is in 100pc," says Martina, co-founder of Helpmetoparent.ie.
"Because of that they can be very good parents.
Older mums bring a lot of maturity, wisdom and life experience to parenting."
Often much of that life experience is in the office, which makes late mothers a special case. In his new book, How not to F... Them Up, clinical psychologist Oliver James divides mothers into three groups: Organisers, Huggers and Fleximums.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but the Organisers (often late mothers) come across as a joyless bunch of careerists, who treat babies as projects to be organised and managed.
Even James concedes that late motherhood can work well for babies: "There is evidence that older parents are better parents: they relate well to their babies and toddlers, they provide better discipline, and the outcomes are better."
For every one of us who is smugly enjoying the fruits of brinkwomanship, there is another woman who assumed that she would pull it off, but failed. I know several who achieved one child, but tried in vain for more.
In 1900, the age of menopause was 49 and life expectancy around 52; today women can expect to live into their eighties, but the age of menopause is still 50.
"People need to make their own decisions but they need to be proactive before it's too late," advises Dr Walsh of the Sims Clinic.
Fertility expert Sharon Murphy, a member of the Natural Network for reproductive health, uses acupuncture to aid fertility. And she's seen a surge in the number of older women coming to her for the treatment, which works hand-in-hand with IVF.
"I have quite a mixed group of women who come to me but the majority would be over 35," she says.
By the time a woman hits 40, her chances of fertility treatment working are not much greater than they are of conceiving naturally.
Of every 100 women aged 40-42 who have a cycle of IVF, 10 will conceive, of whom only six will have babies.
By 45, women have only a 1pc chance of getting pregnant, scarcely more than the 0.5pc through natural means, and most will have to use donor eggs, an expensive procedure.
When an older celebrity has twins -- as Jane Seymour did at 45, Holly Hunter at 47 and Geena Davies at 48 -- it is muttered that they must have had to use a younger women's eggs, though the rate of twins is higher in natural late conceptions, which often results in miscarriage.
Some hospitals have even set up special ante-natal clinics for older women as they are now so numerous and so prone to complications.
"The rate of chromosomal abnormality -- things like Down Syndrome -- is much higher among older women," explains Dr McCaffrey.
"Pre-eclampsia, which often results in premature birth, is also a common occurrence in older women."
But some are questioning why we are seeing this trend to late motherhood.
"Women are being forced to work to a male agenda," says one older woman. "I would rather have had a baby at 30, but I was working too hard."
Now that young women have to pay off student debts, as well as establish themselves in jobs where long hours are the norm, the trend to late motherhood is likely to continue.
As for me, I am constantly aware that I shall still be supporting my youngest child through university when I am 65.