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Is It Too Late for You to Get Pregnant?

Vivia Chen

July 10, 2013

Covered © Frank Fennema - Fotolia.comYesterday, I blogged about how women are less inclined to jump into marriage than in the past. According to economist Nancy Folbre in The New York Times, one reason for this change is that women are making more money and don't need the safety net of marriage to survive.

But I think there's another reason for this trend: Women's biological clocks aren't ticking quite as loudly. More than ever, women have options that will allow them to become parents later in life.

That wasn't always the case. Before medical advances like invitro-fertilization and egg donation, women felt compelled to pop out a baby by their mid-thirties or drop out of the baby game. Women also felt pressured by the media: Remember the baby panic set off by Sylvia Ann Hewlett in 2002, when she wrote that almost half of ambitious career gals over 40 ended up childless? Well, all that seems so yesterday.

From where I sit (yes, I have a bourgeois, New York–centric view of the world), it's commonplace to see women in their late thirties and older experiencing motherhood for the first time. What's more, many of them are doing so as single moms. And, believe it or not, some even got pregnant the old-fashioned way.

In fact, a recent article by psychology professor Jean Twenge in The Atlantic shines new light on the topic of fertility. After years of researching the topic, Twenge finds that women have been oversold on the decline of their fertility. Here are some of her key findings:

The database about fertility is old—really old. The statistic that "one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying" published in The Human Reproduction journal in 2004 omits one key fact: It was based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830! So, "millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment."

- Recent studies show that women 35 to 39 are (almost) as fertile as bunnies. One study published by Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 finds that "with sex at least twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds." Similiar results in a study released this March in Fertility and Sterility: "78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds." Virtually the same result was found in a study by University of North Carolina School of Medicine, presented in June: "Among 38- and 39-year-olds who had been pregnant before, 80 percent of white women of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months."

- Your fertility does drop by age 40. Fertility rate declines with age, but not drastically until you hit 40.

That last point shouldn't be a shock. But as I said, I know many first-time older moms, including those who are well into their forties. Some became parents through costly in-vitro fertilization or adoption, which, luckily, they could afford. Happily, I can report that these older women, including the single moms, are doing just dandy. So, more power to them.

Twenge reminds us there are pros and cons to having kids early or late in life, though the arguments for postponing kids until you're better established seem pretty compelling:

Having children at a young age slightly lowers the risks of infertility and chromosomal abnormalities, and moderately lowers the risk of miscarriage. But it also carries costs for relationships and careers. Literally: an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings.

Of course, not every woman need wait until she nears her late thirties to have a baby (though having kids by your mid-twenties almost strikes me as a teenage pregnancy). At the same time, I see no need for women to get suckered into the "you-are-doomed-to be-forever-childless" mode if they're not parents at a certain age. As Twenge puts it:

We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb.

So here's the takeaway: Don't rush to the altar with Mr. Wrong, and don't brake prematurely for a baby you're not ready to have.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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The fallacy of all of this is that somehow all of these things are within our control and that our ability to care for children is only a function of financial status. It is complicated and interesting. Life is a series trade offs. The one thing that I think bears mention is that while there is age-related infertility there are also women who face challenges because of some medical issue that is not diagnosed until later in life. When that happens it becomes more challenging. I recommend that women have blood tests in their twenties and 30's to evaluate their ovarian reserve and FSH levels and to determine whether they're ovulating, etc. The more information you have the better you can plan. Also, stay healthy and strong. It doesn't fix everything, but it's a great place to start!

This article is offensive to me. It contains a lot of assumptions, and some mistruths. I hope the author will withdraw it. I had a baby in my late 30s and the risks are higher, it is harder physically, etc. The treatments people go through are miserable. Her argument that it is better for relationships is entirely subjective and in my case false (spouse left after 10 years when baby born). Anyway, the author bizarrely assumes that having children later is good and desirable. In hindsight, I don't think it is. That is for each person to decide, but stating it so judgmentally, while twisting facts, is not good for informing women. Until my OBGYN showed me real numbers I honestly had no idea of the higher risks later in life, having just heard tidbits and rumors. It is all true.

Here we go again. The desperate cries re: 'oh my goodness! You wait and YOU won't get pregnant'.
I will say this, yet once again, NO ONE talks about adoption. I had my daughter when I was 40, and we adopted a son a few years later. No, adoption is NOT for everyone, of course. But it is a wonderful choice for many. Do you know HOW many children in this world need a good set of parents, or a good single Mom or Dad?? I adopted internationally, and my son, now 16, is taking all honors & AP classes, and intends to go to medical school. We can give 'life' to a child in so many different ways - including adoption. And, yes, I love both my biological daughter and my adopted son equally. Please do not forget adoption. Those children are waiting for your love.

All that said, motherhood does not taper off when a mother's child turns 5, 10, or 15. Standing in a freezing rain for a teen's soccer game or driving madly from office to school to cello lessons three times a week may be even more wearing than carrying a drozy kindergartener or a 9 year old with 104 degree fever up to bed as you come down with their strep throat or GI bug. Regardless of myth, children do not turn 8 or 12 and miraculously raise themselves while you are at the office. Without your own (that much more aged) parents, siblings, or notoriously hard to find and expensive to keep hired help, who do you think will be there day in, day out for school, for sports, for college prep, for illnesses, for injuries, and for teenage angst? Start late and you will still be doing heavy childcare at 50, 55, or 60, and it takes real physical strength and even more in the reality of illness and disability, theirs, yours, their father's. Where does that leave your strength and stomach for work, marketing, and "personal branding"? Consign them to their own devices or boarding school?

And what if your late born child does indeed contract cancer, loses physical capability in an accident, or does indeed prove to have autism, Down's, CF, CP, or "mere" dyslexia?

Children are not accessories, or toys, or a life fashion statement. They are independent lives. Conservatively speaking, it takes 18 years to rear a single child and one is a mother for life.

I am a 57 year old managing partner in a law firm. I have a 30 year old daughter who practices law in another state. We have had conversations about the timing of her having a baby and the impact on her career. I must confess that I selfishly worry about how long she plans to wait to have children. I was very involved in her life as she was raised and I relished the sporting events, the band concerts, and all of the rites of passage as she grew up. My parents had the opportunity to see her graduate from law school and get married. They attended her college tennis matches and heard her give the graduation address as student body president of her university. Now, I selfishly want to know my grandchildren and I want to experience the milestones of their lives for as long as I can. My only reason for commenting to this posting is to make the pitch that the longer you wait, the less involved your parents will be in the lives of your kids.

Must strongly disagree that having a child at a younger age only "slightly" lowers the risk of chromosomal abnormalities. Look at the chart, which is accurate -
From 35-40 it doubles, and increases exponentially thereafter. Had my first child at 41 and was shocked when I found out the facts on this.

So, back in the day, women had kids early and often because they could not participate in the upper echelons of the work force (law). Today, women do participate, but delay child bearing in order to accommodate the patriarchal workplace structure, thus jeopardizing their fertility. We’ve come a long way?

I’m no bra burner, but to sell purposely-delayed child bearing as empowering is disingenuous. It’s an unfortunate side effect of how little change there has been in the workforce and how family-unfriendly it is.

You say, “though having kids by your mid-twenties almost strikes me as a teenage pregnancy.” I was 25 and a first-year associate when I became pregnant with baby #1, and I encountered a lot of that attitude. I had my third and last child at 30, and, now at 32, I’m still an associate at an Am Law 100 firm.

Have I foregone career opportunities? Without question. But I’m still hanging on, producing good work, and still hope to one day, someday, make partner. It’s not on the immediate horizon for me due to my family/time/travel choices, and I accept that; but it’s also not foreclosed.

I have friends who waited to make partner before trying for kids, and for many, their preferred avenues in creating a family were impossible. Sure, some ladies will get pregnant on their first try at 40, but others will fail entirely.

Why are we conforming our child bearing decisions to a work structure that was built around men with stay-at-home wives??? Have kids when it’s best for you and create the necessary change at work. I had kids “young,” stuck around, asked for “accommodations,” and received them. What if we all did that? The landscape would change, and it would be better for dads too.

All that said, as you get older, it is harder on your body to have that baby. I had one at 36 and one at 44 - both natural. The one at 44 was a small miracle and it was natural not IVF but it was physically harder on me. All that said, I did have a sit down with the IVF doctors prior to pregnancy and even with full IVF, the doctors said that at age 43, my chances of getting pregnant were 18% and without any assist only 2% or less. So it is possible but there is a fertility cliff at 40/41.

And children are special and life altering. But there are tradeoffs about being older and having kids - you will be older or dead when they have kids themselves (aka the grandkids). That darn arthritis really can slow you down especially when running after that 3 year old. At the same time, it does help you feel younger when you are in the middle of a ticklefest. In the end, do not make the decision for a job - make decisions that at the time you feel you won't regret or do the woulda-could-shoulda dance later.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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