Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry recently announced she is pregnant at the age of 46. In Australia, Collette Dinnigan and Virginia Trioli made headlines for having babies at the age of 47.
But it’s not just high profile women who are delaying motherhood – according to the ABS, a record 12,800 babies were born to women over 40 in 2011, up from 7100 in 2001. So what’s behind this 80 per cent increase in just one decade?
A conscious choice
Fleur is a first-time mother at 41. For her, she says, it was a conscious decision to delay motherhood; married for nine years, and enjoying a successful career and study and travel experiences, she thought long and hard before thinking about having children. She knew that fertility declines after the age of 35 but simply wasn’t ready earlier.
“I was someone that even at 35 hadn’t made a decision as to whether or not that was what I wanted,” she says.
“For many people it was a fait accomplit - you get married and then you have children. I felt brave enough to say maybe it’s not for me … [but] I remember saying to my husband ‘what happens if I’ve missed the boat?’”
Happily, once the decision was made, Fleur fell pregnant easily. “I have been fortunate in being able to successfully delay it and still have a child. If I hadn’t been successful then I would have felt I should have started earlier,” she admits.
A year since having her son, Fleur feels happy with her decision to wait. “At 35 I wasn’t in the right head space. I feel like he came at the right time,” she says. “I am not thinking about things I should have done before I had children. I ticked the boxes on the things I had a curiosity about.”
Fleur also says she has more confidence being an older mother. The only downside is that she may not be able to give her son a sibling.
“I always thought that one would be enough but that’s changed now. I would be regretful if I couldn’t give him a sibling, but if it doesn’t happen we think he’ll still have a happy life,” she says.
Second time lucky
For some women, forming a lasting relationship later in life has meant becoming an older mother. Kate, a 41-year-old mother of one, would have liked to have a baby sooner, but late motherhood is just the way things worked out for her.
Kate never expected her first marriage to end in divorce when she was 35. “I always desperately wanted children. I worried about my age and as the years went on I got more concerned,” she confesses.
Fortunately Kate met her new partner at 39, and had her first child a year later. She conceived naturally and easily, and felt fit and healthy going into pregnancy. “I don’t think age impacted my pregnancy at all,” she says.
Kate doesn’t see any downsides to being an older mother. “If anything, I’m more eager because I’ve waited so long,” she says. “I don’t think my age makes a difference; it’s how you feel within yourself.”
For Kate, one of the benefits of being an older mum is that she is financially secure, and is able to take more time off to enjoy being at home with her son.
She does concede that she worries her energy levels may dwindle. “Sometimes I think about when I am 50 and he wants to run around the park – will I be able to keep up?”
Dr Gino Pecoraro, spokesperson for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG), says it’s harder to get pregnant the longer you wait.
“Our bodies are built to have babies between 18 to 25,” he explains, adding that beyond 35, a woman’s fecundity rate declines significantly.
“By the time you reach 40 it falls below 10 per cent. You could be an Olympic athlete, with the best lungs and heart, but your ovaries are still the age they are, and studies have shown that older eggs don't fertilise as easily.”
So how does he explain those famous cases of women falling pregnant in their late 40s, such as Halle Berry?
He says that these celebrities are the exception to the rule – and that we don’t always have the whole story. It’s incredibly rare and unlikely to get pregnant after the age of 45 naturally.
“It’s not impossible - all you need is one egg and one sperm, and it can happen, but it’s unlikely,” he says.
He says that older pregnant women are also more likely to develop problems like high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and placenta previa.
Furthermore, Dr Pecoraro warns that the chance of miscarriage for women increases with age, and there’s also a higher risk of having children with chromosomal problems.
Overall, he advises women to make choices armed with information. “Don’t just think it’ll happen one day, because it might not, and that’s heart breaking. Sit down and have the discussion with your partner and make a plan.”
What about the kids?
Warren Cann, CEO of the Parenting Research Centre, says the age of the parents is a poor predictor of child well-being.
“There’s no ideal time to start a family,” Cann says. “If you waited until you felt like you were ready, the human race would have gone extinct. It’s something you have to do in order to learn.”
There are also benefits to being an older parent, as he points out: “You’ve often had more life experience and you’re a bit more secure in yourself as a person.”
Of course, parenting at any age comes with its own sets of challenges and rewards, and the timing isn’t always something you can control.
“Ultimately it’s the relationship you form with your child that’s important,” says Cann. “Good parenting rises above a parent’s age. It’s what parents do and say that matters most."
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