New life begins at forty

Posted on June 7, 2013

They say that life begins at 40. But for many, the big four-oh looms before us, acting as a deadline for all the things we want to do or feel we should have done by then. It is the ultimate fertility deadline for most women and many approaching 40 are giving it one last shot before it’s too late.

“40 definitely is a defining moment”, says Dr David Walsh of the Sims clinic in Dublin. “Real life often gets in there and defocuses people but the 40th birthday definitely refocuses them.” Dr Walsh says that couples who already have children often put off the decision to have more. “You can understand the inertia, they’ve got their family to keep them occupied and it’s only really when the deadline comes up that they have to do it.”

However, Dr Walsh warns that a woman’s fertility starts to decline at about age 32, with the decline becoming progressively steeper at age 35 and again at age 38 and steeper still at 40. While a 32 year old can expect to become pregnant after an average of six months trying, a 38 year old can take a year and a 40 year old will take two years on average. Add to that the increased risks during pregnancy and the increasingly higher risk of miscarriage (about 40% at age 40) and you’ll see that it’s not always a good idea to wait for that baby deadline.

My own pregnancy at 39 was unplanned. Or, at least, I never planned to be pregnant at 39. I had hoped to be done and dusted at that stage with three kids under my belt. My first pregnancy, at 33 (which resulted in my son, James) had been straightforward and I had no reason to believe anything would be different when I started trying again a year later. I did conceive after four months but sadly miscarried. I thought, it’s just one of those things, happens to one in four pregnancies, that was my turn. However, five further miscarriages later, two cycles of IVF, three IUIs (intrauterine insemination – a less invasive procedure than IVF) and several rounds of fertility drugs and we were starting to run out options – physically, emotionally and financially.

Finally, with the help of all of the fertility and miscarriage support drugs available to (wo)man, we conceived our daughter and carried her to term. There are no words to describe how lucky we felt. Our friends and family were so thrilled and relieved that we had finally come to the end of our long and difficult journey. But I had other plans…..

As soon as Anna was born safe and sound, I knew I wanted to try again. I wasn’t sure what I meant by that as I couldn’t imagine putting the four of us through infertility again, yet I understood that the inevitability may well have been out of my hands. And time was not on my side – I was 38 with very poor fertility. I knew I would breastfeed exclusively for at least six months as I didn’t want to sacrifice one real baby for another that might never be.  And yet, as the weeks went by, I couldn’t stop thinking about the return of my (in)fertility – when I would start seeing signs, what I could do to speed it up and how I would feel about it when it happened. I can’t imagine there are many people who chart their fertility signs in the early weeks postpartum while breastfeeding exclusively but I am one of them.

When Anna was six months old, I started ovulating again. I called my fertility clinic and organised a prescription. Two months later, at the age of 39, I was pregnant again and a month after my 40th birthday, Harry was born. It didn’t happen as originally planned but I made that deadline in the end.


When Dorcas Barry, a nutritional chef and consultant from Newtownmountkennedy, had her daughter, Bethany, at 30 and her son, Ethan, at 32, she thought she was finished her family. “I was absolutely done because they were so close in age and it was hard.” However, she says that there was always a niggle in the back of her mind. “About halfway through my pregnancy, we were told that Ethan was a girl”, she explains. “We both fell madly in love with him the minute we saw him. It was only afterwards, the two of us were talking and we realised that we wanted the little girl we had been imagining as well.”

That niggle stayed in Dorcas’ mind until she was almost 38. “It was a very emotional decision to start trying again”, she say. “I was saying to myself, if I want another baby, I have to do it now. It was so much an instinctive feeling.”

However, it was not as easy this time round for Dorcas, who suffered two miscarriages. “On my first pregnancy, I really felt there was something wrong. I went and had a scan and they told me the baby was dead. I was fine, I thought, it happens – everyone I spoke to had a miscarriage story.”

“The second one was much harder”, says Dorcas. “The community midwives in Holles Street called me in for a scan at the same stage as I’d lost the other baby. They told me that the baby was still alive but it wasn’t going to survive and to go home for ten days and come back. That was very hard. When I went back and they told me the baby was dead, it was like somebody just opened up a black hole and I fell into it. I’ll never forget that feeling.”

Dorcas admits that she previously had no idea how hard it might be to conceive and carry a child in her late thirties. “I had no idea at all, I was completely oblivious.”

When Dorcas became pregnant again, she was terrified. “I called the community midwives so often that they arranged for me to see the hospital psychologist”, she says. “I had a brief chat with him and at the end of it, he said to me, “You’re not being a mother to this baby because you’re not looking after yourself because you’re too scared to love it in case you lose it. But even if you lose it, you’re still its mother and you still have to look after it”. I thought, he’s right. From that day on, I had the most amazing pregnancy.”

At the age of 39, Dorcas gave birth to her daughter, Keziah. She found motherhood even better the second time around. “It was brilliant”, she laughs. “It was like the first time without the scary bits. I just loved it. And I wanted her so much.”

Paula Doran

Paula Doran had her first daughter, Aoife, at 23 and her second, Saoirse, at 26. “I did think I was finished as the second one was such a difficult baby. It definitely put us off going again and it wasn’t until she was six that we thought, will we, won’t we?”

At 32, she started trying again but this time, nothing happened. “We already had two so we decided if it happened, it happened and it it didn’t, it didn’t.”

After a few years, Paula assumed she wasn’t going to get pregnant again and went back on contraception. However, she says, “As I got older, I realised the older you are the less chance you have and I really did regret then that I hadn’t done something about it when I was younger.”

When Paula was 37, she decided to give it one last shot. A year later, she was pregnant and gave birth to Cathal a few months before her 39th birthday.

But Paula still didn’t feel finished. “I was breastfeeding Cathal and I had seriously contemplated not doing it as I knew it would reduce my fertility chances”, she says. “Then he weaned himself very suddenly and very quickly and my mum said to me, you might be pregnant.” She was right. “I was delighted, thrilled”, says Paula.

Oisín was born just before Paula turned 40. “I didn’t find it any harder than in my twenties”, she says. “I had very straightforward pregnancies and very quick labours so my recovery was quick. And I was on a permanent buzz. I just thought, we are so blessed. We had the chance all over again to do all the things we loved doing with the girls.”

Deb Davis, a doula from Greystones, had her first child, Nathan, at 33. Her plan was to have two children with her partner but things didn’t work out that way. “I wanted a boy and a girl and I wanted them with the same dad so I was really shocked and disappointed when myself and Jim split up.”

When Deb was 37, she met Shaggy. At first, the couple had no plans to have children. “I was very happy with my one child and I was very happy enjoying the freedom of a relationship without having a child.”

Then, when Deb was 41, they decided to try for a baby and got pregnant straight away. “We were absolutely delighted and shocked at the same time”, she says. The pregnancy went well and Deb was approaching the three month milestone in the run up to the day of the couple’s wedding blessing. “I thought this is going to be so perfect”, says Deb. “I’m going to be three months pregnant on our wedding day.”

“We lost the baby two weeks before the wedding”, says Deb. “There was a huge amount of surrender during that time.”

Sadly, Deb miscarried her next baby also and was very nervous when she became pregnant again. “We didn’t really talk about it until we got to about 14 weeks”, she says. “Then we breathed out and thought, we were both really carrying a lot there.”

After that, Deb had a great pregnancy. “I really knew what I was doing and I was so excited about the birth”, she says. “I had a fantastic home birth with Nathan but I knew it could have even been better. I did a lot of work with Shaggy and Nathan was up for being at the birth as well so it was really special.”

Deb was 44 when she gave birth to Reuben at home with Shaggy and Nathan. “For me, birth is such an enormous right of passage for women, for babies, for relationships, for a couple in general.”

So life, new life, can begin at 40 and beyond. Just be careful not to miss the deadline.


By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Herald, 6 June 2013.

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