WAITING TO HAVE A BABY
Older moms giving birth to a burgeoning trend
As Angus Watson, a happy, personable little guy, goes about the daily thrills and spills of exploring his southwest Calgary home, his mom keeps a close eye on him, clearly delighted by her active first-born.
The chubby-cheeked 18-month-old came into the world Aug. 27, 2007 — one of 16,543 babies born in Calgary hospitals between March 31, 2007, and April 1, 2008.
What’s remarkable is that, like Angus, nearly 21 per cent of those babies — one in five — were delivered by a mother over 35, according to figures from Alberta Health Services.
Fran Watson gave birth to Angus when she was 43, having waited 20 years to find the right partner, get married and then have a child.
“What I feel as a mom who waited a long time is ‘My God, I’m happy,’ ” said the longtime publicist. “And what can possibly be wrong with that wonderful feeling?”
She is part of a larger societal trend happening in Canada and other industrialized countries: the proportion of women over 35 giving birth in Canada has more than tripled from five per cent in 1982 to about 18 per cent in recent years, according to a report released Jan. 29 by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Even so, we lag behind other developed nations. The same report found that while the birth rate in Canada in 2006 was 44.9 per 1,000 women age 35 to 39, rates in the United States (47.3 per 1,000) and England and Wales (53.8 per 1,000) were higher in the same year.
On Feb. 3, the birth of twin boys to 60-year-old Ranjit Hayer of Calgary thrust the issue of older mothers under the microscope. While bearing children in one’s seventh decade with the help of reproductive technology obtained in India may be an extreme example, late-blooming mothers now appear to be the new normal. And, like Hayer, who tried for decades to bear children, many older mothers strongly defend their choice, despite the considerable risks.
On one’s last eggs
The problems with waiting to have children are many. Women 35 and up are less fertile, have a greater risk of miscarriage or stillbirth and more complications in pregnancy such as diabetes and high blood pressure, said Dr. Jeffrey Roberts, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Vancouver, B.C.
Pregnant women over 40 are automatically considered high risk, and the maternal complications dramatically increase over 50, Roberts added.
“Women as they approach 45 and beyond have almost a 75 per cent risk of miscarriage,” he said, “and the risk of Down syndrome becomes more than one in 100.”
Moms over 40 also have a higher chance of producing more eggs at once, thereby increasing their odds of having preterm twins. Low birth weight babies themselves can have a host of health problems.
Helen Vanderburg was willing to take those risks.
A fitness professional and the owner of Heavens Fitness in Calgary, Vanderburg said she delayed having children mostly because she wasn’t in a committed relationship until she was older; building her career played a secondary role.
After meeting and marrying Terry Kane, a physical therapist, their first child Kiah was conceived naturally. They desperately wanted a second, so much so that Vanderburg went through five years of in vitro fertilization treatments at the Regional Fertility Program in Calgary.
She guesses it cost about $20,000. “I think I tried to erase the memory.”
In the last round, she had three embryos implanted, but only one developed. She underwent a full complement of testing to rule out any genetic abnormalities and, at 45, gave birth to daughter Sage.
She hasn’t personally experienced any resistance to older women having children — “It could be the world I travel in, where people are more accepting of that” — but she bristles at the fact most people wouldn’t think twice about an older man having children.
At 50 she still sees herself as young.
“Women in their 40s and beyond are much fitter, healthier and stronger than the generations before us. In every physical way, they are young,” she said, before neatly summarizing the conundrum she and other older mom face.
“Older woman can have babies because they’re fit and healthy, but the reproductive system — and that’s the big lecture I got from the Regional Fertility Clinic — can’t be changed with diet and exercise.”
Being in top shape lets Vanderburg keep up with her girls, now 10 and 4, but she admits she initially wondered how Ranjit Hayer could do it at 60.
“I was seeing myself and thinking ‘OK, add 10 years and could I run after toddlers, especially two boys?’ ”
But she feels motherhood is intensely personal; each woman has her own reasons about if and why she has children and when.
“The one thing I always remind myself is I don’t know the person’s story, so who am I to place judgment?”
A reproductive choice?
Likewise, Aradhana Parmar believes it is a woman’s right to have babies when she chooses, at any age.
Why? Parmar, an associate professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary who teaches women’s studies and development studies, believes a little perspective is necessary.
“The reason for this (trend) is that new technologies are available in an era when women are professionals and they spend lots of time focusing on their careers and education, so by the time they are ready to settle down they are in their 30s.”
At the same time, she says our life span has greatly improved, so that parents will be around longer to care for lateborn children.
“Logically, it makes absolute sense to me to have children whenever it is convenient to them,” Parmar said. “If you can raise a child, give them lots of love and affection and facilities, and even you’re 50 but healthy, why not?”
A recent report from Statistics Canada may support her argument.
Published in September, it looked at the growing trend of first-time mothers over 35 and concluded that the children of older moms are generally as healthy as those born to younger women.
The study found that while they are at greater risk of birth defects, once the children of moms over 35 are born, their health, behaviour and cognitive outcomes up to the age of five were nearly the same as the children of mothers 25 to 29.
“I’ve talked to my grad students and my mature students and they all want to have children — it’s only a question of time, money or partners,” said Parmar, 57, herself the mother of two grown children and a grandmother.
She believes motherhood is a basic instinct. “Some of it is cultural, yes, but the urge to create a life is so powerful.”
Fran Watson agrees with Parmar that women have the right to have children at the time and age of their choosing, “so long as they have their support systems in place.”
“(Ranjit and husband Jagir Hayer) have it all sorted out. Those kids have an abundant extended family. The kids I feel sorrier for are those born to moms who have no extended network to support them.”
Like Vanderburg, once Watson finally met and married her husband, James Watson, a 46-year-old computer programmer, it was time “to pull the goalie.” However, they were not willing to do so with the help of medical science.
Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, so she began using a combination of natural therapies to get pregnant again: vitamins, licorice root and progesterone from wild yams. Luckily, her second pregnancy was normal and resulted in Angus.
Watson said people are “so happy for us when they find out our age,” although someone once remarked to her “ ‘Your grandson is so cute.’ That was hard.”
She said she encourages “anyone who has a strong feeling about this not to hold back because of age. It’s only one factor among many.