herald

Saturday 1 November 2014

At the age of 35 I really should know wheth er I want a baby ...

Okay, here's the deal, according to science, women over 30 ignore those ominous body clock chimes at their peril. With fertility starting to decline at 27, the average 30-year-old will have just 12pc -- barely an eighth -- of her original eggs left, research shows.

Then, wait for it now, at the age of 35 ovarian reserves take a serious nosedive. The risk of birth defects -- among them Down Syndrome and other chromosome-based abnormalities -- increases. The risk of miscarriage shoots from a one-in-10 chance in your 20s to a one-in-five chance at 35.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the chance of having a baby via IVF at the age of 43 drops to about 5 or 6pc.

Just in case you're not getting the message, a new phone app, called The Wonder Clock, counts down the days, minutes and seconds until users become infertile. Hmm ... useful, that. So go on, guess what age I am. Oh go on, it's very pertinent to this piece. I am, like I need to be reminded, 35 years of age. So it's safe to assume that I would want a baby, like right away, right?

Wrong. I am what political polls call the 'undecided'.

Fun

So how did I get here? And when it comes to motherhood, where am I going? Because the time comes when every gal has to face life's big questions. (I wonder if Shakira had this talk with herself? At age 35, the pop star is due her first child any day now).

"What's meant for you won't pass you by," I have intoned down the years (what if 'perpetual singledom' is what's actually meant for you?). Fast forward by time's giant wheel to the day I turned 35 -- for the uninitiated, the 'scary age' is the age at which you begin to truly fret about who will pick out your nursing home.

Previously, I've had the brash bravado and folly of youth, and would claim that on the eve of my 36th birthday I'd walk into Copperface Jacks and, ahem, take my chances on the hottest man I laid eyes on.

Oftentimes, I'd cite a gay friend who I was keeping on the subs bench as a contingency plan. And now with 36 on the horizon, both plans have turned to dust (the gay friend is married, and Operation Coppers was clearly braggadocio).

The new 'scary age' is 40, for a number of reasons (not least because I've already hit 35!).

The first reason is that the ticking of the biological clock, contrary to what the men in white coats say, isn't louder than the barking hounds of hell.

Secondly, having a baby now isn't an option for fiscal, emotional and practical reasons; not when there's fun to be had, countries to be visited and chaps to be met.

Am I just so deeply conditioned by society that I think I want a baby, when deep down I'm not even sure I want one? At 35, I should really have it figured out. So what does it say that I haven't?

Looking at friends' baby photos, I oscillate wildly between, 'oh, that looks like fun', and 'ugh, heaven forbid'. Even I know it's no mindset in which to even consider the mammoth task of parenthood.

Once a resolutely single woman has passed her 'scary age', she is faced with one of three choices. First, she can shelve her dream of motherhood for good and get on with her life. Second, she can find a casual playmate and get pregnant accidentally on purpose. And the third is to find a sperm donation clinic. The latter is an option that more and more Irish women are considering.

"I should think that single women make up around 5pc of our clients," says Dr David Walsh of Dublin fertility specialists The Sims Clinic. There has certainly been a rise in business in the last few years. Many women would have gone to London to specialist clinics in recent years, but are opting to get treated closer to home.

"Mainly, they're women in managerial and professional jobs, aged 38 to 40," he adds. "Most of them simply say they've never met Mr Right and would have hoped to have a family within a relationship but it didn't happen that way."

At my age, we're at a curious vantage point; we're probably the first generation of women to be heartened by a barrage of media stories about A-listers having babies in their 40s. According to Fiona McPhillips, author of Trying To Conceive, this is dangerous territory for a mere mortal.

Donor

"Madonna had a baby in her 40s and Holly Hunter had a baby at 47," she notes. "It's no one else's business how they had their babies, but the message is clear, 'I'm healthy and fit, therefore I'm fertile'," Fiona says.

"Most women in Hollywood over 43 are using donor eggs. It's great they can do that and it's giving the public perception that they're having babies just by having sex with their husbands," she says.

An unofficial straw poll among my similarly aged friends yielded some curious results; very few of them are worried about the emotional clock, or at least admit to being so. Like me, they assume -- hope, even -- things will work in their favour. Seemingly, it's not the done thing to admit to wanting children as a freewheeling, modern singleton; just like a new mum with a gorgeous baby can't admit to fancying a weekend by herself in a luxury hotel.

In some cases, however, single friends admitted that they aren't where they want to be. One pal has even done the maths: "If I met someone tonight, I'd still have to go out with them for a year, then get married, then wait a few months, then get pregnant. I'll be 39 by then, at the very least."

A least she's being frank and forward thinking; other friends reckon they can sneak a baby or two in under the wire within the next two years. Yes, they're single and searching. God bless blind optimism.

Modern matchmaker Avril Mulcahy (www.singleista.ie) has noticed that her clients of a certain age are feeling the pull toward parenthood more acutely.

"Some girls waltz in at 29 or 30 just looking for dates, while women who are 39 or 40 often come in crying," she explains.

"It's a tough age group, some men their age want to have kids, but have them with 32 or 33-year-olds. At 40 the pressure is on, and men can be frightened that these women only have one thing on their minds -- to have children."

An unnamed friend in her early 50s provides something of a cautionary tale for all of us putting this baby business on the long finger.

Fifteen years ago, she was in my position -- enjoying a whirlwind of travel, work and fun -- until she realised that the window of opportunity to become a mother had slammed shut while she wasn't looking.

And now, the woman is haunted by her lack of offspring. For the most part she glides through life with elan; occasionally she will have a drink, become overly maudlin and wag a finger in my direction, urging me to go get IVF and spare myself any future torment. But having a baby now to appease my 50-year-old self doesn't seem like a great idea either.

So how do you know if you even have a biological clock, when you feel 24 yet have 35-year-old ovaries? Apparently, when you start to conjure up baby names for your imaginary offspring and crumble at the sight of baby shoes, you might be ready to consider stepping up to the plate.

If like me, you're in two minds, Fiona advises: "If you're 36 and it's not weighing on you too heavily, there's no point in worrying about it or doing something. If you notice your periods getting shorter or changing, and you are worried about fertility, it could be worth getting checked out. But there's no point in thinking, 'well, someone had a baby at such-and-such an age, so I'll do the same'."

For those who do heed the call of the body clock, Avril's advice is practical: "With some men out there, all they want are short-term flings, but you need to start watching the signs, and don't waste all your time on them. There are loads of men who want children -- in fact, a lot more male clients say they want kids than female. Put yourself in front of those type of men instead." Even more hearteningly, cold hard research suggests that the wait for Mr Right, as opposed to Mr Right For The Night, could be worth it.

"You'll find that a lot of people, especially in a younger social group, worry about not marrying," says Dr Jane Gray, of the National University Of Ireland's Sociology Department. "However, the good news is that plenty of evidence suggests that in Ireland, most people do end up marrying or finding a partner in the end, even if they feel they've postponed it for too long."

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