In February 2016, on a sunny Sydney day, Chantelle Hill gave birth to a healthy and beautiful girl, Madeline, at age 39.
Her second child was delivered just like her first: safely and without much fuss, as far as births go. “I’m just African,” Hill says, making fun of the strong, child-bearing South African woman stereotype she fits into.
Hill fell pregnant naturally in her late-30s, despite the fact that she’s four years over the 35-year-old ‘fertility cliff’: the point after which many experts and fertility clinics say a woman’s chances of conceiving declines rapidly.
“I truly believe you can have problems getting pregnant, and be healthy or unhealthy no matter what age you are.”
Being an older mum is a blessing to Hill. Having partied and travelled in her 20s and early 30s, she now feels more grounded and happy to be at home with a family. “In my 20s, I was more selfish and wasn’t really ready to have someone to depend on me. But now, I’ve got someone who needs me so I’m quite comfortable to be that person who is needed.”
But not every woman is as open to having children in their late-30s. Hill says she’s heard other women stress about having to fall pregnant and have their entire family by age 35 or else.
“If you give yourself a deadline and say ‘I have to have children now because I am 35’, you might be closing off an opportunity. And why would you do that if you could still have kids for another 10 years?”
Hill’s pregnancies, which both happened after age 35, defy the theory of the fertility cliff. So is this phenomenon correct?
Fertility is fairly constant from one’s early 20s through to around the age of 34.
Epidemiologist at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Institute, Professor Michael Davies, says although a ‘fertility cliff’ is a slight exaggeration of the situation, age 35 does mark the start of a gradual fertility fall.
In fact, he explains, a woman’s fertility drops by 50 per cent every five years from age 35.
“It’s not a cliff: it’s more like a downward fertility rollercoaster,” says Prof Davies.
“Fertility is fairly constant from one’s early 20s through to around the age of 34. Then there is a gentle decline, at a population level [an average of everyone in the country] after 35.”
However, Prof Davies stipulates, falling pregnant after 35 is not impossible however it will be relatively harder to conceive than it was pre-35.
“At least 80 per cent of couples will conceive within 12 months if they are having regular intercourse,” comments the co-director of Lifecourse and Intergenerational Health Research Group at University of Adelaide.
“But if they are 40, that plummets to around five per cent.”
Of course a number of factors influence one’s fertility and ability to keep a pregnancy, from genetics to overall health.
And, he notes, prior to World War II and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, women had babies in their late 30s and 40s all the time.
“It used to be quite common for women to have children in their 40s then where as now, it’s an exception. We are only now just catching up with the birth rates from women aged over 40, prior to the Second World War.”
Regardless, Prof Davies believes that Hill and other women like her who conceive without IVF and have a healthy baby later in life are just lucky.
“They are not the ones with stillborn babies or children with cerebral palsy or who are mentally disabled because of Down Syndrome. They aren’t the ones who have gone through four miscarriages or gotten pregnant as a result of a donor egg.”
Fran Baker, 57, was 37 when she had her first son Lachlan and 45 when she had her second, Jackson.
“Jackson wasn’t planned a pregnancy,” says Fran. “We wanted to have two children. We tried after Lachlan was born but I had four miscarriages. Because time was against us, we tried IVF and it didn’t work.”
You’ve got travel out of the way and you are less selfish and ‘want’ to spend time with your kids.
Life soon took over and with the stress of working full-time and caring for her mother with dementia, Baker gave up hope of having another baby. Until, she got pregnant in her mid-40s, “suddenly out of the blue”.
She attributes her second pregnancy to ‘fertility yoga’ and a diet rich in cold pressed oils and Omega-3 fatty acids, which helped promote a hormonal balance. “Interestingly, my father was also born to an older mother and my mother gave birth to me when she was 40.”
Baker treasures her two children and the experiences that go with motherhood. “We chose to have our children and we love our children so that’s the best result.” But, she says, if she had her time again, she would have her children earlier.
“It is true that if you have children later in life, you are more financially settled and that takes the strain off parenting. You’ve got travel out of the way and you are less selfish and ‘want’ to spend time with your kids.”
But, Baker explains, with age also comes a type of willingness to please your child. She wonders if being so selfless and focused on your child as an older mum actually benefits children.
“Sometimes being a younger parent who is more selfish and telling a child no is a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of people who are older who do far too much for their children.
“It’s a little bit embarrassing going to school and playgroups when other parents think you are your child’s grandmother, not their mother. You have to be prepared for that.”
Baker also confesses that it’s tiring being an older mum, running after children, attending sports days and playing when you don’t feel like it. “Having a baby is a big thing in your life. You’ve got a young form of life you are responsible for: it’s hard to do.”
Mother of one, Lise Taylor, who gave birth to her son Duncan at 41, agrees that having a child in later life can be delightful but also tough.
“But I think you are tired regardless: because you are a mum. My sister had three children in her mid-to-late 20s and says she just never sat down the entire time as there was no point.”
Taylor explains that she wanted a baby in her 30s but life just didn’t turn out that way. She never expected to meet the man she now calls her husband or have a child in her 40s. “We just left it all to fate. If it needs to happen, it will and that’s the direction we took.”
So does age really matter if you want to become a mum? In Taylor’s mind, it does if it affects your individual chances of falling pregnant. But when raising children,, she believes that a good attitude and a helpful partner might enhance your ability to cope as a mother, more than your age.
“You can be young or old depending on what age you are inside. And no matter what age you fall pregnant, you will always miss out on something. The grass will always be greener on the other side.
“So, whatever choices you make in life, you just have to be happy about them. We are all doing the best we can, so don’t judge.”