Like many women I know, I worry about my fertility. The anxiety started quietly in my late 20s, and amplified to a roar by my early 30s. It abated somewhat with the pregnancy and birth of my first child, but returned with fury when I turned 35.
Why 35? As every would-be-mother in her fourth decade of life knows, 35 is a BIG DEAL on the fertility calendar. Have your children before 35, and you’re safe. Wait, and you have passed the Fertility Rubicon into lands unknown, where paths lead to destinations like adoption, IVF, and childlessness.
This cultural narrative is backed by medical science and causes women deep anxiety, and in my case, guilt: how could I want a second baby so badly when many of my contemporaries can’t even have one?
But it’s more than an emotional minefield. The fertility data we’re presented by doctors and public health campaigns also influences key employment and relationship decisions.
And according to a piece by Jean Twenge in The Atlantic, it’s dead wrong.
“Deep anxiety about the ability to have children later in life plagues many women. But the decline in fertility over the course of a woman’s 30s has been oversold,” the article promises. “Here’s what the statistics really tell us—and what they don’t.”
“The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 per cent—was also calculated based on historical populations.
In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not.”
More importantly, her analysis finds that although there are very few well-conducted modern studies, “they tend to paint a more optimistic picture.” Tenge concludes that, assuming normal health, the majority of women can safely plan to have all their children by the age of 40.
My reaction to this news, echoed across the internet by thousands of women like me, is a mixed bag: anger for a decade of misplaced anxiety, shame at my own part in promoting the “don’t wait until it’s too late” narrative, and ultimately relief. It is likely that I can have more babies, but more importantly that I needn’t pity all my wonderful 30-something girlfriends who want to bear children, but haven’t yet.
I have played a role in this misinformation, so I recognize that the ticking-clock tale stems mainly from good intentions. It’s not a conspiracy, but by encouraging women of a certain age to choose from a limited, flawed list of options, it may as well be. It interrupts careers, favours settling for less-than-perfect partners and promotes worry.
So from one 30-something mom to all the future ones, a salve: Save your worrying. You’ll have plenty of need for it when the babies arrive.