If you're thinking about having a baby at 40, there's no denying your odds of getting pregnant are significantly lower, now than they were just a few years ago. For many women who intend to have their own children, it is a real race against the biological clock.
Multiple studies have shown that age is the single biggest factor affecting a woman’s chance to conceive and have a healthy baby. A woman’s fertility starts to reduce in her early 30s, and more so after the age of 35.
Yet, an increasing number of women are having children later in life. In fact, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the rate has increased since the 1970s, with the number of first-time births among women aged between 40 and 44 more than doubling between 1990 and 2012.
But it is not just first-time mothers who are having babies in the transitional phase of approaching menopause. Second-time mothers are too, and so are third and fourth time mums.
“There are many layers to this narrative. Advancements in reproductive technologies and healthcare play a key role. Also, some women desire to have children with their partners when they enter blended families and there’s also the aspect of unplanned pregnancies and fertility issues.
“Others consider having children when they are in a stable relationship or marriage, financially secure, building careers, and emotionally ready. It’s a choice that’s highly personal. Another thread to this is secondary infertility which affects many couples.
There are many fertility issues arising these days and some people get to overlook them and say they will address them later, which ends up prolonging their childbirth ages,” reflects Dr Sauda Farooqui, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Nairobi West Hospital.
Recent data from World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that secondary infertility in Kenya, a situation where at least one birth has been achieved, is at 42 percent.
Yet, amid the mosaic of possibilities, questions linger. Will I bring forth a healthy baby? Can my age, income, and energy sustain it? Can I go back to handling diaper changes? What about my career? Will I be there for this baby's milestones through the years? What if I am too old to withstand babies? Am I enough for the child?
Even at home, spouses and children receive this news with different reactions, ranging from jubilation to criticism.
Raising children when you are above 45 comes with its own triumphs and challenges. Three women share their stories.
ALICE WANJIKU, 47, AUDITOR
Mom at 46 years
“My name is Alice Wanjiku, married for 12 years and a mother of three amazing girls aged 11, seven, and one. I got my firstborn at 36 years, my second at 40, and my lastborn last year, at 46 years.
After the birth of my second baby, I had this desire that maybe we should try for one more. My husband, while not entirely opposing the plan, would teasingly tell me that two were already plenty. He was working abroad, which added a little twist to the plan.
My family planning method was also a risk to my health as I used to bleed a lot, so I decided to take it out. At 43, I conceived. I had no clue as my menstruation had become irregular. One day, I went to the hospital to seek treatment for a cold, and when they asked about my periods, I was like, “Well, they disappeared for a while and are now back.” Turned out, it was a miscarriage.
At 44, I had another miscarriage. It was tough and we decided to let it go. However, I didn’t go back to contraceptives. I kept tabs on my fertile days. I also joined a fitness programme with the intention to lose some weight. In three months, I had lost about five kilos. When my friends and I started taking about what was happening to our bodies, a few of us mentioned missing periods and this was attributed to hormonal changes. I didn’t give it much thought.
It was while holidaying in a neighbouring country that I noted I had a persistent “bloating.” So, I thought, “Fibroids, maybe?” Upon my return, I sought medical help.
When the sonographer said that I was pregnant, I was so shocked that I almost fell off the examination table. I was informed that I was at 18 weeks and the foetus was doing okay. I waited until my husband’s return to break the news. He was excited!
At 40 weeks, we welcomed our baby girl. During my antenatal visits, the doctors had told me that due to my age, mine was a high-risk pregnancy. Thankfully, everything went smoothly. I think working out and the supplements I was taking played a major part too.
You might wonder what people thought about all this. First, I don’t give in to societal perceptions and second, relatives and friends were cheering me on. There are those who wonder if an older woman would have time to play with her children, but I always had a rejoinder that there were many who had children early but had no time to play with them because of household chores. Now, advancement in tech and the availability of electronics like washing machines and dishwashers has made life easier.
Being an older parent has some advantages. I feel that now, I am more aware of myself. My husband and I are financially secure, and I am wiser. There are subtle worries that my daughter will be a teenager by the time I am in my 60s, and I need to have financial capabilities to support her. But you know what? I've learned that worrying too much about the future steals the joy from today.
I am also not immune to concerns about my age. But the most interesting bit is that many people don’t know that I am in my late 40s until I tell them. No one has ever mistaken me for being their grandmother. Not that I think it’s bad, but I look younger than my age.
When you get children late, you become very alert about your health and wellness. I take part in exercises, and I feel that I have the strength and ability to be involved in their lives. Parenting has also evolved over the years in that I am less strict than I was with her siblings. They frequently tease me about it. I am fully aware of the health risks of having a child at an older age, but I decided to still go ahead and give it a try while adhering to the doctors’ instructions. I am glad that I did, and I am open to having another one.
JANET PAUL, 56, A BUSINESSWOMAN
Mom at 53
I left my first marriage in the year 2000 and remarried after four years, into a blended family. Two years in, we started trying to have our own child without success. I had conceived other children from my previous marriage with no trouble at all.
When we went to see a specialist, I was informed that I had fibroids but a myomectomy, a medical procedure to remove fibroids would prove otherwise. This left us relieved but also surprised.
At one point, we gave up trying but I kept good tabs on my monthly cycles. It was a rollercoaster for me because I was still ovulating. When I hit 45, I felt like the odds were stacking against me but what gave me a glimmer of hope was the fact that I was still getting my monthly periods.
One day in 2018, I was unwell, and my husband accompanied me to see a doctor. While there, I chanced upon some information on fertility specialists and the doctor referred us to one. I remember him conducting every test there was and us leaving with some supplements and medications. I took them for three months and eventually conceived.
When I discovered that I was pregnant, it was a concoction of emotions. I wanted a baby so bad but when it finally happened, I didn’t know how to share the news with our children. I hid it from them for four months. My firstborn was 23 by then. One day, over a meal, my husband blurted it out and to my pleasant surprise, they were overjoyed.
The journey was fraught with challenges. My pregnancy had already been termed as high-risk, so I was being closely monitored. At six months, the pregnancy was punctuated by irregular heartbeats and a breathing problem. We were in a global pandemic but my tests for coronavirus turned negative. Hospital stays and regular check-ups defined this chapter, as I grappled with the precarious balance between health and anticipation. I had complications towards the end, and I had to deliver the babies – a boy and a girl – a few weeks before my due date. They spent some time at the Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) but now they are almost four years old and in great health.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I was scared when I got the news, yet my close family and friends were very happy for me. Before the pandemic, I was running a boutique business, but I have since closed shop and invested in a taxi-hailing venture. That way, I have more time to spend with my children.
My face does not give away my age, so people still get shocked when I say my age. The two have a close bond with their other siblings and I know that even when my husband and I are not there, they will still have a solid ground, although I pray that we may live to see through their various life milestones.
The babies are full of energy and at my age, they sometimes wear me out. I am actively taking part in exercises like aerobics so that I can keep up with them. That, plus the fact that it makes me look and feel young. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you obviously cannot keep up with them.
We are very attached to our two babies because, in so many ways, they remind us that miracles do exist.
JEMIMA OKUTU, 54, SECRETARY,
Mom at 52
I didn’t start thinking about having a child until late in my thirties. I lost both of my parents at a young age, and I was shouldering the burden of seeing my siblings and other relatives under my care, through education.
I had promised myself that I would get an education, a job and help my siblings then settle down. I was patient with myself, and I thought that having a partner and a baby was the easiest part of the equation.
I was wrong. I got to a point where most of the suitors were all married men, an arrangement that I wasn’t interested in, so I gradually started removing marriage from the picture. All I wanted was a child. Then, years flew past, and my menses became extremely erratic. When I turned 50, I knew that my fate had been sealed. That broke me in ways that I can’t even explain. I found myself staying away from chama meetings because I was afraid that someone would start a conversation about their children or spouses. What would I say?
I confided in a few people, and I got suggestions to see different specialists and that is how I ended up in a fertility clinic to start my In vitro fertilisation (IVF) journey. I still recall the moment when I was informed that I was pregnant with twins. For a moment, time stood still, and I kept asking the doctor for confirmation. At last, my motherhood dream had materialised!
However, it was not an easy journey because mine was a geriatric pregnancy. My body was swollen. I was dealing with back aches, blood pressure and body exhaustion. Thankfully, my employer was very supportive. Some people around me were shocked when they realised that I was pregnant. They would stare at me, and I would say, “Yes, it is what you are seeing.” In hospitals and other public spaces, I have often been mistaken for not being my children’s mother, but it doesn’t matter.
I know that I will not see my grandchildren but that doesn’t bother me. I like that I get to spend time with them and hopefully, I will live long enough to see them through various life milestones. After retiring, I intend to get into business to lay a solid ground for them in future.
At two years, they are very energetic and playful. They help me stay young and I always look forward going back home to them every day.
Read an expert's view here