Age Matters

by | 9 Mar 2014

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I spent it at the WOW (Women of the World) Festival at the Southbank Centre where I had been invited to join fertility/infertility royalty on my first ever panel debate. The event was chaired by Kate Brian (journalist and author of The Complete Guide to IVF) with panellists Zita West (the holistic baby-making guru); Professor Susan Bewley (one of the UK’s leading obstetricians) and Jody Day (founder of the ground-breaking Gateway Women for women who are childless). Oh, yes, and me!

The title of the event was Fertility Myths and there was some great discussion about the things we think and the things we’re told that just aren’t true where fertility is concerned. Everyone on the panel agreed that IVF is not a magic bullet. But even more striking for me was the reminder, yet again, just how much age matters.

There’s no point thinking that you feel young and your cycles are regular because – and this was a total shocker for me courtesy of Susan Bewley – your fertility officially plummets ten years before the menopause. She recommended that all women should ask their mothers what age they had it (genetics matters too) and count back! In fact, Susan’s advice was that if you want a baby (and especially if you want more than one) you should really start before you’re 30. She suggested 25 to 35 as the optimum childbearing age span. In fact, it made me wonder whether teenage pregnancy is really such a terrible thing.

Of course this is deeply depressing for those of us who were encouraged to go to university, pursue our careers in our twenties and kiss a few frogs before settling down. The so called Generation X who were led to believe that was the best way for women to have it all. So whilst I celebrate International Women’s Day and will always honour my suffragette sisters, maybe it’s also true that the feminist breakthroughs of the 60s and 70s lost us something along the way.

So this week’s question is a political and a social one: when’s the best age for women to have children?


  1. Mary K

    Bloody hell, this resonates. I was born in ’66 and my mother, who left school herself at 15, spent my entire teenage years telling me not to get married before I was 30. She had 3 children and said she felt real satisfaction at having squeezed #3 out a month before her 30th birthday. But she wanted something different for me. She was like a stuck record repeating herself over and over – whatever you do don’t settle down too young, it’s all over once you get pregnant…And even, when I broke the news that I was having sex, “if you get pregnant now just go away and get a quiet abortion – don’t even tell me about it” ! And like a good girl I listened to her. I was the first child in our extended family to go to university. In my second year there at 20 I met a great bloke, we fell in love and stayed together for 6 years. It was The Real McCoy. But do you know, although we talked about getting married and having kids ‘one day’ it never once occurred to either of us to actually get on and do it then in our twenties. Our careers took us to different cities and despite our longevity as a couple he couldn’t cope with the long distance and met someone else. There followed for me years in the single wilderness followed by one very ugly frog before I finally met Mr Right at 35. I consider myself very lucky indeed that we managed to have children at that point. But I often think back to that big relationship in my twenties and how we could have made a go of it and that that was the right time. My husband now trots out the same message to our two sons, don’t settle down too young, but I always, always pick him up on it and tell them there’s never a right time, boys, if you meet a good woman go for it – I want to meet my grandchildren. And anyway all those fabulous mature girls in their twenties deserve to meet good men who are ready to take the plunge.

    • thepursuitofmotherhood

      Thanks so much for commenting. I think you raise something so important about men in this. One of the other problems is the disparity between men and women’s fertility (although Susan Bewley also said it was a myth that men’s fertility isn’t severely affected by age and said they were just 10 years behind women). Nevertheless men can/are often leaving it latter which must be one of the reasons that so many women find it difficult to find the right partner (of around their age) to settle down with. I don’t know whether this is a crisis or just a phenomenon but I think it’s definitely there. I’m so glad the blog resonated and, if you don’t mind me saying, it’s brilliant to have a ‘mother’ commenting because this is a conversation that affects us all! Jessica x

      • Mary K

        Reminds me of a good book I read years ago called Men! by Isabel losada where she talks about the fact that all the single men in their 30’s and 40’s expect to be with a woman 10 years younger than then – must be something to do with the enormous store we set by youth these days.

  2. Joanna Norland

    Such an excellent question–I’ve noticed a shift in pop culture (RomComs & SitComs) that suggests 20-37 are the fun years, and it will all fall into place when you turn 38. Two power lawyers at my first law firm accidentally (!!) fell pregnant in their early 40s and I remember thinking that this was such a dangerous message to be broadcasting to the younger women. So in the ideal world, women who want motherhood would probably settle down in their late 20s and start their families around the 30 mark. But for me, that would not have worked — I had too much still to figure out at 30, and would not have been able to give the best to the next gen. A few more years life experience, and good therapy in my mid-to-late 30s, and I feel like I have a lot more to give them (which is not to say that I’ve conquered all my demons, but at least I can give them a good fight). I’m also very grateful to have achieved one personal goal (finishing a full length play) before the ultimate time suck of motherhood. (I recently sent a book review to a girlfriend, and she e-mailed back, “Shucks, that’s the book I was going to write, but then I went and had kids instead.” It made me sad) So waiting worked for me, but like Mary K, I realise every day how lucky I was that my body was willing to produce children at age 34. So I will try to use my life lessons to help my kids sort themselves out a little earlier, so that they are ready to make good decisions in their teens and twenties that set them up for family life in their thirties — if that is what they want (and I will do my best to support them if they decide instead that they want a different path — but I want them to make that decision, rather than to have their bodies make it for them.)

    ps–The panel sounded fantastic. Very inspiring to see the way your career as a writer is taking off. You have truly found (or created) your groove. Congrats.

  3. thepursuitofmotherhood

    Thanks Joanna. It is a complex one and I completely agree that I didn’t feel ready in my twenties either and have so much more figured out now and would make a much better mother. It’s just sad for me that time is now fast running which is why I do feel society needs to un-silence some of the compelling fertility and feminist myths we’re all told. Jessica x

  4. Joanna Norland

    Indeed! All the focus on sex ed in school is on how NOT to get pregnant–very important information for teens to have, but the other side of the coin is not even discussed!

  5. Pamela

    Difficult question as the right age-fertility wise may not line up with the availability of the right partner.
    p.s. Wish I could have been there to meet you all in person. I’ve communicated via email with four of the five panelists you named. What a treat it would have been to see you all in one room discussing such important issues. Well done, all!

  6. thepursuitofmotherhood

    Wish you’d been there too. It was a great discussion. But hopefully one day we will get to meet and talk over a large glass of wine. I’m looking forward to it. Jessica x

  7. Sam

    Jessica – have you tried Dr Zhai at the Zhai Clinic in Harley Street ? I went through 7 rounds of IVF to get my 2 children – & wouldn’t have got that far without the chinese herbs Dr Zhai gave me. I started being treated by her , totally desperate at 41 yrs of age after 4 rounds of IVF .All in all I saw her for about 4 years – she has patients coming to her clinic from all over Europe . Please investigate !! The receptionist at the clinic , Andrea is really helpful . Good luck Sam xxx

    • thepursuitofmotherhood

      Thank you so much for getting in touch Sam. I really appreciate it. I have heard of Dr Zhai but haven’t seen her. I will definitely investigate! Thank you so much for reaching out. It means a lot. Jessica x

      • Sam

        Please please try & see her asap – I promise she is everyone’s last chance saloon & has remarkable results . After taking the herbs for 5 months I actually conceived naturally although it didn’t last – turned out I had a blood clotting problem along with everything else which meant that my thick blood attacked any implanting embryo . It was only Dr Zhai that picked this up & I was referred to Dr Raj Rai at St Mary’s hospital , Paddington who is an expert in this area. Further IVF’s , at his instruction, involved me injecting the blood thinner Heparin to safeguard the embryo – it worked together with my healthy body thanks to Dr Zhai & the strange smelling herbs she perscribed me !!

        Look at , contact details 128-130 Harley St, London W1G 7JT
        020 7486 8438

        Sam xxx

        • thepursuitofmotherhood

          I will! Interestingly someone else has written to me today recommending Dr Zhai and someone else again has written recommending Heparin which I’ve never had either. I’m going to treat it as a sign. Thanks to you and to everyone. Your support today has been amazing and I really appreciate it. Jessica x

          • Sam

            Best of luck – I was like you – refused to give up & I have faith that Dr Zhai will be able to help xxxx ps if you need any further info about anything please get in contact ( I used to go to her clinic to get my pulses checked , herbs changed & for acupuncture every 3-4 weeks – more frequent the better)

          • thepursuitofmotherhood

            Will do. Thank you. And I’ll keep you posted. Jessica x

  8. Pippa

    Dear Jessica,
    I have just stumbled across your story and something stood out for me. I notice you have been pregnant several times so I wonder whether your problem is not actually falling pregnant at all but rather having a pregnancy last or even implant properly. Have you ever been investigated for recurrent pregnancy loss (some of these tests determine whether you ought to be on the heparin a couple of previous posters mentioned)? Or have you heard about natural killer cells?
    One of the theories about natural killer cells is that they can attack a pregnancy from very early on so that it cannot implant properly leading to negative pregnancy tests cycle after cycle. The treatment involves suppressing the immune system with steroids or even immunoglobulin. Is that something you have tried before? I believe that some IVF clinics offer the treatment as standard now as it has proven quite successful.
    I can personally recommend Mr Shehata at the miscarriage clinic for investigations. I went to see him after much heartache and five miscarriages. I wasn’t sure about it at all but I was already on a lot of treatment for my fifth pregnancy and still lost it. I had the remains tested and they showed that the baby had been healthy, which meant that there was still an unfixed problem with me. I’m so glad I went because I was put on steroids and immediately conceived my son who was born happy and healthy at 38weeks.
    So if you do plan on trying IVF again I think you really need to make it count – throw everything at it! Heparin, aspirin, progesterone, steroids, the lot!
    Whatever you decide to do, I wish you all the best and congratulate you on your new book and writing success.

    • thepursuitofmotherhood

      Hi Pippa, many thanks for writing. I have been tested for immune issues and whilst my Natural Killers Cells are fairly normal and stable, more recently I had a test that it is done very little in this country which is for the protective (rather than the attacking) part of my immune system which threw up a result. I have had treatment for this for over a year but sadly our most recent round of IVF was still unsuccessful. Obviously my age is now also a major factor. But I have been overwhelmed by the messages of support and advice I’ve received over the last 24 hours and it has filled me with renewed hope. I’m definitely going to explore Heparin as that’s not something I’ve been given before and I’d like to understand why. Thank you for taking the time to write, it really means a lot. Warmest wishes Jessica x

      • emmaloug2014

        Dear Jessica, I have just spent a while in a coffee chain “borrowing” their paper in which your article has been published. I am very sad to hear of the financial emotional and physiological impact this is having on you, and I am writing to offer you yet more advice and a bit of a cyber hug!!!!

        I am a midwife in a busy maternity unit. I am 45 this month and have never knowingly been pregnant. It is not through want of trying, but I always hope for the natural pregnancy which has yet remained illusive, as I am very aware of the risks to mother and baby the IVF route can bring. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of women I look after in a year who have had natural pregnancy in our age group. Age really does matter…The majority of women at our age are using donor eggs and or donor sperm, and going abroad for their fertility treatment. The ones who are successful have got new partners/previously had children or have been caught by surprise after giving up on the deal! I have had the pleasure of looking after couples who have been told they are infertile then had winter holidays, in cold, cold places and found that this has been their success! (those spermatozoa love the cold). In one instance, I have had a client who thought she was menopausal, and just putting on weight, been abroad on their hols, and been to their GP with stomach pains (which she and her husband thought was food poisoning) and been sent to us in labour!!! But none of these statistics make either of us, one of the few…I have been advised well about my weight, diet and cortisol levels. I would like to refer you to a book by Dr Marilyn Glenville, she is an expert dealing with infertility, it is called Natural Solutions To Infertility. It lays out quite categorically how much poison your body takes in, on a daily basis, and steps to try and lower their effect.
        One of your bloggers writes about Chinese medicine…I would also say that many of the Chinese women I have looked after go through a process of cleansing prior to becoming pregnant. It is what is referred to as up-stream health care. Treat the body holistically before embarking, so there will be every chance of success. The one and only time I missed my period for 72 days, was after 3 months of following the plan in Dr Glenville’s book, taking daily pre-conceptual natural supplements. I also have been in contact with the homeopaths. There are several whose statistics purport to improve chances of pregnancy, appointments can be through skype as well as in- person. But I have not followed their plans, I will be starting in the Spring…
        Aspirin, heparin, there is somewhat a paucity of research. Suffice to say they both interfere with the clotting cascade. This may or may not help the implantation process. Aspirin (enteric coated) is an over the counter medicine, 75mg per day will suffice, but best to always check with the GP/Obstetrician. (Heparin sodium, we use as a daily injectable proportional per kg, for those women with clotting disorders and high risk for DVT…it is a prescription only medicine).
        If all your attempts come to nothing, then probably donor egg is the best way forward. Spain is one of the few places who offer anonymity of donor, so your child will never be able to trace their genetic mother, whereas here there is significant pressure on parents to accept that it is the child’s right to know their background, (this is a whole different debate). If you have a successful pregnancy with this route, the pressure will be off, and who knows if you will then fall naturally pregnant with a second? Sometimes, when I feel a bit hacked off about not needing to go down the baby aisles in superstores, and not calling in to pick up infant from day care or whining on, with other mothers, about the school run, after-school clubs, holiday prices ex-term time, etc, I google “Pale Blue Dot…on wikipedia”, and just marvel at the great order of things! Failing this, do as I have done, trade your old motorbike in for a new, very fast one! Here’s hoping that miracles do occur! I wish you all the best, and I like your article/picture in the Guardian in October, than the one I just read, it seems much more like you?

        Best wishes xx

        • thepursuitofmotherhood

          Wow, what a lovely lovely message. Thank you so much. I sense expert understanding, personal experience and genuine acceptance and appreciation for the way the world is all in one message and that’s really amazing. You are so right that the number of women having babies naturally (and biologically their own) in their mid forties is tiny. I know that and any hope that I have left is definitely tinted with that reality. And although my story is sad – and naturally The Mail focuses on the sadness (or should I say the ‘sensational’ sadness of it), I have also been on another important journey over the past few years largely through writing and publishing my book. I discovered a passion for writing which I never knew I had and after years of keeping my infertility a secret it has been extraordinary speaking out and connecting with other people (those that have children and those that don’t). I have been overwhelmed with the messages of advice, hope and support I’ve received over the last 24 hours since the Mail article. They have given me new avenues to explore and I feel I must. But I also feel that whatever happens that life will be ok. There are other ways to be a mother and, like you say, other things to explore and celebrate. I don’t know about a motorbike but I may definitely throw a rucksack on my back and head for the southern hemisphere! Yes, that Guardian picture is more me (same dress though, I must get a new one!). It’s rather schizophrenic having two identities (my theatre identity and my poster girl for infertility identity). But if I’ve learnt anything from the last decade and especially the last few months – it’s that infertility is part of me, but it’s not just who I am! I’d love to keep in touch. Thank you so much again for writing. Jessica x