10/17/2012 05:17 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

When Modern Women Should Think About Babies

Many of us came of age in the "women too can have it all" era. We spent our teens and twenties buoyed up by this message... the idea that we wouldn't have to make compromises like our mothers and grandmothers did. We could have an education and a career, we could have a family, travel, have Sex and the City-style friendships and still find Mr. Right. It was a beautiful and empowering message for a young woman, this idea that she can have it all.

However, many of the women I know, myself included, spend their twenties and thirties struggling to live up to this ideal... realizing that it's not so much about having it all but about making a series of small compromises -- between relationships and careers, between lifestyle and family, about finding ways of successfully integrating all these competing interests and demands. Thankfully, many of these choices don't come with a time-stamp. I know many young women focusing on their careers now so they can explore other areas of importance down the road. But other decisions -- like the question of putting off a baby -- don't have an indefinite timeline. It can be startling to hit 40 knowing that if we want to have a child, NOW is the time to decide.

When it's physically ideal to have children, most of us are off concentrating on other things: travelling, establishing careers and looking for that person to share it all with. And although families come in all different shapes and sizes these days, most of us don't want to have children until we've found that special partner to share it with, until we're somewhat established ourselves and can offer our child security. The truth is, that in our twenties we often don't plan and think about our options, we don't realize that time will speed up when we hit 30. Your twenties are really the time, if not to act, then to consider and make crucial decisions about what you want your family and future to look like. Instead, most of us defer those decisions, not realizing how fast time flies.

But by the time we feel more established and secure, we're often in our mid-thirties and the biological clock is already ticking. And, of course, many of us don't follow that simple trajectory. Perhaps, we're still looking for that special somebody. Or, perhaps, we're divorced and starting from scratch. The point is, it's easy to hit 40 and be thrown by the sudden realization that it's NOW or NEVER.

According to a 2012 report from the Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, 16 per cent of couples where the woman is age 18 to 44 are experiencing infertility -- a near doubling since the previous time infertility was measured in the nation in 1992. Unsurprisingly, the older the woman the higher the incidence of infertility. With an average age of first marriage in Canada of 29+, one in three first babies are born to women over 35. But, clearly, decisions about having children and pregnancy are not only concerns for older women.

Besides the obvious age barrier, there are things women of every age should consider. We tend to coast along, thinking we'll find love eventually and then, naturally, baby will make three. But, it's not always so straightforward and tidy. In our twenties, we're used to being asked about where we want our careers to be five or 10 years from now. I wish somebody had told me to think about family in this way too!! Instead, in our thirties, many of us are still unsure whether we really want children, and WHY we want them and all of a sudden that decision becomes urgent.

I have this conversation often with friends. We wonder if we've waited this long to have a baby, whether maybe it's not something we really wanted. After all, look at all the other things we've managed to accomplish, the other things we've put first. A 38-year-old friend of mine was contemplating having a child alone and using a sperm donor, but she wondered whether she was using that baby to fill a hole in her life, whether she was really lonely, and whether this was a good reason to have a child. On the flip side, she's a person with a lot to give. She's nurturing and all of her friends know she'd be a great mom. Even if the decision is partly selfish, does that make it wrong? To bring a life into the world and care for it... is it ever really a completely unselfish choice? After all, the joys of parenthood fulfil both parent and child.

Still, when you're at that age when it's decision time, it's hard to trust your own judgement. We've really been conditioned to believe we can have it all, so the imminent disappearance of this choice (not to mention the hormones involved in all this "ticking clock" business) can result in a panicked reaction, a sense of loss and confusion about genuine wants and needs. But outside of the structure of a traditional family, is it more or less selfish to have a child? Is it okay to bring a child into the world if they only have one parent? Movies and TV shows, like Modern Family and Friends with Kids reveal just how many different forms a family can take and how the old "normal" has become outdated. But with modern families different from the ideals and experience many of us grew up with, it's natural to feel uncertainty.

My monthly subscription of women's magazines is full of stories about fertility and surrogates, fostering and adoption. Even with time ticking on having a child naturally, there are many, many hopeful stories and alternatives. With one in three women having their first baby over 35, women my age can still feel hopeful about their choices. Still, it would be foolhardy to believe that age considerations don't pertain to you and, really, it's never too early to start thinking about what you want. In 2011, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned that Canadian women may be waiting too long to start their families, perhaps because they over-estimate their chances of successfully conceiving with fertility treatments.

In many ways, all this information is a useful way to frame a discussion. But, in other ways, none of this makes the decision easier, because we're looking at the decision as a cold hard statistic instead of something personal. It's really easy to conflate those big life decisions, to pay too much attention to what everybody else is doing, to look to external sources and society for approval and a sense of certainty. But while the same biological limitation applies to all women, the decision to have a baby is not the same for every woman. At the end of the day, the decision to become a mother is a personal decision we must each make for ourselves.

I believe this decision is really about listening to your own voice -- about being honest and loving, non-judgmental, with yourself. It's about understanding where you are as a person and the commitment you want to make for the rest of your life. So, maybe the key to making this decision about having a baby is for us to apply those same mothering skills to ourselves, to listen to our own inner voice gently and supportively.