07/12/2012 07:46 EDT | Updated 09/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Delaying Childbirth Is Risky, But Worth it For Some


Recently the medical community in North America has become concerned that many women overestimate their chances of conceiving if they delay childbearing into their late 30s and 40s. Therefore, recommendations are being made about how to increase public awareness regarding the risks of age-related infertility. To be honest, this issue and the way it's being dealt with irks me.

I do agree that public education is extremely important. A woman's fertility begins to decline significantly after 35 and, beyond 40, chances of conceiving with one's own eggs, even using in-vitro fertilization (IVF), or other costly and invasive procedures, are dishearteningly low. But I don't think that public education will have a dramatic impact on current child-bearing trends, nor do I necessarily think it should.

Here is the problem: As a counsellor working with fertility clinic clients, I have seen many women unable to conceive using their own eggs due to the natural age-related decline in fertility, but I have never seen a woman who voluntarily delayed childbearing simply because, as the media and even some members of the medical community assume, their career is more important to them.

Here are the reasons why most of the women I see are beginning child-bearing later in life:

Trauma/Emotional Readiness -- Often times they have experienced some sort of physical and/or emotional trauma or abuse that takes years for them to overcome to the extent that they feel that they have the tools to parent. Abuse or dysfunctional relationships with their own families can make it difficult for them to form secure attachments or relationships with others. In these cases, they have either been unable to maintain a stable relationship, or have not felt capable of parenting because they did not have positive role models.

Relationship history -- It is increasingly common for women to re-marry in their 30s or 40s after a previous failed marriage, and want to have children with their second partner. I have also seen couples who initially did not want children and then changed their minds (or one member of the couple did not want children and then changed his or her mind). Some women have simply been unable to find a life partner and end up becoming a single parent by choice. Most of these women are doing this later in life because this was not the initial plan they had for family building and were waiting to find a life partner but eventually felt their time was running out.

Financial Readiness -- I have never had a woman sit down and say she put off childbearing until she could be partner in her law firm or CEO of her company. Rather, many women thoughtfully choose to delay having a family until they are in a position to provide adequate financial support and stability.

So the problem is, if women in these cases are made aware of the realities of age-related infertility, do we really want them to begin childbearing in spite of the fact that they may be emotionally unready, single or in an unhealthy relationship, and/or not financially stable?

I do agree that these issues are the result of changes in gender roles and expectations in modern society. But I question whether a majority of women are voluntarily giving priority to their careers over having families, as the media would have us believe. I don't think women are putting their career goals first because they can, I think they are doing so because they have to. Most women now have to get a college or university education and must earn an income.

I think women may be marrying later, not necessarily to allow them to focus on career advancement, as much as to ensure they have the emotional readiness and have found a suitable partner. Given the high divorce rates, should we really be encouraging women to settle down before they are ready, and marry, not for love, but to ensure they have adequate time to procreate? Should we be encouraging women in unhappy marriages to stay in the relationship and have children, just to avoid risking childlessness if they leave?

The majority of single parents in Canada live in poverty and the majority of single parent households are headed by women. Should we be encouraging more single women approaching the end of their most fertile years to start having babies, even if they do not have adequate means to support a child?

One option that women who want to preserve their fertility is to freeze their eggs. A growing number of fertility clinics across Canada now offer this service to women for social, rather than just medical reasons. But this too, is not something that will likely significantly affect the rates of women in North America dealing with age-related infertility. The biggest reason, is that egg freezing is extremely expensive, and therefore out of reach for most people. In addition, the technology for preserving eggs has improved significantly, but it certainly does not come with guaranteed results.

So yes, it is important that women are aware of the realities of their biological clock, but because of the realities of modern life, this knowledge may not change current childbearing trends, nor do I necessarily think it should.