How late is TOO late to have a baby?

I recently came across a very interesting article that appeared in The Atlantic. Written by American psychologist Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant, the article aims to debunk the long-held myth that a woman’s fertility comes to a grinding halt once she hits about 35.

Like many female friends of mine, I also harboured the great fear that I would never be able to have children. I got married when I was 35 and my husband and I decided to start trying immediately for a baby. I will never forget the moment I discovered I was pregnant, four months after our wedding. I had a sneaking suspicion I was – not because of any classic tell-tale pregnancy symptoms (sore breasts, nausea etc.) but because my period always came like clockwork and I was probably a day or two late. I was at home one morning and waited for hubby to leave the house and go to work. As soon as he left, I ran to the bathroom and with huge relief, finally released the enormous pish that I had been holding onto since I woke up. I stuck the proverbial “pee stick” into the toilet bowl and well and truly got a urine sample. Somehow I found the patience to leave the room for a few minutes in order to wait for the results.

I walked back in to the bathroom about 3 minutes later and there, as clear as day, were the two tell-tale pink lines in the window of the test stick. “OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I screamed. “I’m pregnant!” I literally jumped up and down with a ridiculous amount of excitement. I quickly got dressed and ran to my husband’s office which was only a 15 minute walk away in downtown Jerusalem, where we were living at the time. I rang him when I arrived and he came downstairs from his office to say hello. Before he could give me a hug and a kiss, I shoved the pee stick in front of his face. “Look!” I said excitedly. “I’m pregnant!”

“What?” he replied. “Are you sure?”

“Look at the stick! See – two pink lines. Really clear dark pink lines. I am definitely pregnant.”

Eventually, it began to sink in for both of us that we were going to have a baby. I was extremely fortunate in that I had a text book pregnancy – no nausea, no complications and our son, while a little on the well-done side, came into the world healthy and gorgeous.

At my six week postpartum check up with the obstetrician, I asked my doctor about future pregnancies and fertility. I was now 36 and definitely wanted at least one more child – at some point. The OB then proceeded to scare me witless by saying that basically, it was a fluke that I fell pregnant so quickly the first time, and not to get my hopes up on getting pregnant so easily the next time. She recommended wasting no time at all in trying, as we could be waiting well over a year to get pregnant again.

My husband and I were quite shook up by her revelation and started to talk seriously about when we should start trying for baby number 2. With my “rapidly deteriorating eggs” I felt time was no longer my friend. We decided that there was no harm in starting. I was still largely breastfeeding and besides, I had only just had a baby, so what possible chance was there that I could get pregnant? Oh, and did I mention, I was 36? Positively elderly.

Fertility mistake #1: Never let your doctor scare you. Have faith in your body’s ability to conceive.

Fertility mistake #2: Maybe, in hindsight, we should have waited a bit longer to start trying for another baby.

Fast forward a few weeks. My little boy was now 12 weeks old. He’s gorgeous and I am totally in love with him. I think I should have had a period by now. I had one a few weeks after I gave birth, so I knew that I had started ovulating again. An enormous sense of déjà vu overcame me as I sat down on the toilet with pee stick in hand – only this time I had a screaming infant in the next room.

This time I did not leave the room for three minutes. I sat and stared at the damn thing the entire time. About 15 seconds after I took the test, those familiar two pink lines appeared, and I imagined them shouting “surprise!” This time I did not jump and down with glee. I sat there, dumbstruck, unable to divert my eyes from the stunning reality that I was pregnant. Again.

I sat in the bathroom (still wearing maternity clothes from baby #1 mind you!) and thought about how the hell I was going to tell my husband this time. Somehow, running into the city with pee stick in hand seemed inappropriate this time around. I called him at work. “Honey. You’re not going to believe this but…”

Thankfully, I married a clucky man. I actually think he is cluckier than me – probably more than most women! Yes, he was a little shocked, but that soon gave way to excitement. How to tell my folks back in Melbourne? Now that was another conundrum all together. I was worried that my mum would think I had turned into some kind of baby-making freak. I wanted to assure her that while this pregnancy wasn’t exactly planned, it wasn’t entirely an accident either. But seriously. Who the hell would have believed that I would get pregnant the VERY FIRST TIME I HAD SEX AFTER GIVING BIRTH?!

To be honest, it took me a while to get excited about the baby. I think I was probably in denial for much of my first trimester. It didn’t take long for me to start showing the second time around (probably because my tummy never really had a chance to deflate the first time round!)

Once again, I was blessed with an easy and healthy pregnancy and my daughter arrived more or less on time, just a few days past my due date.

My children have just turned seven and six and while there might have been the odd passing moment when my husband and I vaguely contemplated having a third and final child, thankfully sanity prevailed and we got over that idea pretty quickly.

Looking back, I know how blessed we were. I was 36 and 37 when I had my children. I tried to get pregnant twice and I got pregnant twice. I had two uneventful, healthy pregnancies, uncomplicated labours and two healthy babies.

I know that my story is not everyone’s story. I know of far too many women who have struggled for years with infertility. It doesn’t help that the media is constantly throwing up stories of celebrities having babies well into their forties; as if being rich and famous is some kind of magic panacea that makes you immune to infertility. Of course that’s bullshit, but it’s still a dagger in the heart to a couple who have been trying to have a baby for 10 years and have spent their life savings in the process.

The major advancements in IVF technology has convinced many women that they can put off getting pregnant indefinitely, but as the recent report on ABC’s Four Corners revealed, the baby industry is more about making big bucks for its shareholders than it is about making babies. In fact, they want you to fail. There isn’t much money to be made off people who get pregnant after one or two rounds of IVF…

Many of us (especially us over-35’s) have read the grim statistics; a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant is 20 percent each month at age 30, dwindling to 5 percent by age 40. 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 percent – 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.

It’s all very well for the so-called experts to be telling women that they should be having their babies in their 20s, but to quote the brilliantly funny Tina Fey, “I definitely should have had a baby when I was 27, living in Chicago over a biker bar, pulling down a cool $12,000 a year. That would have worked out great.”

Encouragingly though, new studies are revealing some very interesting (and exciting) results. A study, released in 2013 in Fertility and Sterility and led by Kenneth Rothman of Boston University, followed 2,820 Danish women as they tried to get pregnant. Among women having sex during their fertile times, 78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds.

But on the flip side, women need to acknowledge a very simple fact – a forty year old egg is a forty year old egg. And no amount of exercising, eating well and living a healthy lifestyle is going to change that fact. Unfortunately, we can’t Botox our eggs. More and more women are now choosing to freeze their eggs, but that’s still no guarantee that they will turn into viable foetuses down the track. It’s certainly not as reliable as frozen sperm.

Something that I hear time and time again is that couples need to understand the basic principles of fertility. Having sex at the most fertile time of the cycle matters enormously; potentially making the difference between an easy conception in the bedroom and expensive fertility treatment in a clinic. Rothman’s study found that timing sex around ovulation narrowed the fertility gap between younger and older women. Women older than 35 who want to get pregnant should consider recapturing the glory of their 20‑something sex lives (possibly easier said than done!), or learning to predict ovulation by charting their cycles or using a fertility monitor.

So what can we conclude from all this seemingly conflicting information? Everyone is in agreement that fertility is finite. You are way better off starting to try for a baby when you are 35 instead of 40. Technology is advancing all the time, but it’s still no guarantee that you’ll get pregnant and remember that the IVF clinic would actually prefer you don’t (at least not TOO quickly). And finally, don’t underestimate the good old Billings method – having sex at precisely the right time might actually be all you need to do.

Tanya Strusberg is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and founder of birthwell birthright, an independent childbirth education practice based in Melbourne. In 2015, Tanya was inducted as an FACCE (Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators) in recognition of her significant contribution to childbirth education. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators.

Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.