Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Age and Fertility

In a few weeks, Cami will turn two.  My baby is no longer a baby, but a toddler who lives life at full throttle, with a constant sound track of noises and shrieks to go along with her sunny personality.  Like all Bartholomew babies, she's not much into words yet, but communicates just fine without them.
She's a delight and everyone adores her.  I have to laugh when I hear criticisms of large families that insinuate that somehow, the kids must be starving for attention because they have to share their parents.  Just spend a day with us, I think, and notice how large and devoted Cami's fan club is, and that preposterous claim would disappear.

As Cami's birthday approaches, I find myself feeling some sorrow that my baby is not a baby anymore.  Sunrise, sunset, and all of that mushy stuff, of course, but this time, there's also some real heartache and sadness because for the first time, I have a baby turning two and I'm not pregnant.  Actually, I've never had a child be 18 months old before and not been pregnant -- my biggest space between children is 2 years and 4 months between the twins and Eliza. 

My kids are all close in age, and while that can be challenging, I have loved it.  There are wonderful friendships that develop and great fun to be had. It's created a wonderful family dynamic and it's made it possible for me to have a large family and still feel young enough to enjoy them.

The difficult health problems I experienced after Cami's birth mean that she might be our last.  If she is, while I grieve the loss of what might have been (I've felt for years that there was at least one more boy coming), I am grateful that I took full advantage of the time I had to bear children, even though it was shorter than I thought it would be.

Being able to have children is not something I take for granted.  I've had friends and family struggle with infertility, and it's not an easy battle.

In our world of conflicting messages about having it all and "girl power," there's a whole lot of talk about choices and mommy tracks and birth control, but there's not much said about the fact that with all of modern medicine, sometimes the only control we have over birth is when NOT to have a child.  We take for granted that we will be able to have children when we want them.

But the truth is, the window of fertility is small.  I've written about this subject before, but it's been on my mind lately.  Last summer, I read the book Motherhood Rescheduled, about the science and practicalities of the new frontier of egg-freezing and one thing that hit home to me was how in the fertility world, anyone over 30 is starting to be considered old and anyone over 40 is ancient.  Women's bodies were designed for peak fertility in the 20s.  Pregnancy postponed for various reasons -- needing to find a spouse (pretty important one!), wanting to be more established in a career, not feeling ready -- often means fertility problems and sometimes it means being childless, even after interventions and heart-breaking fertility treatments.  The book was pretty optimistic about the options and doors that egg-freezing might open up, even while it was pretty clear that many women who froze their eggs in order to keep their options open were still unable to have the family they desired.

Recently, several experiences have helped me realize how fragile our control over this aspect of our lives really is.  A good friend of mine is in her mid-30s has been trying for over a year to have another baby, and as the months pass, she has yet to realize her desires.  Another friend is now halfway through a pregnancy with twins after struggling with infertility treatments and enduring three devastating miscarriages.

The amazing Michelle writes movingly of her struggle with age-related fertility in her post "should've had another baby."

"I’m writing the truth I wish I’d heard five years ago: you don’t have as much time to have children as you think.

In an age where the tabloids show women in their mid and late forties snuggling newborns, infertility treatments abound and ‘forty is the new thirty’ I think we’ve forgotten the reality of the biological clock.

Here are the cold hard facts: a woman’s fertility peaks in her early twenties, declines in a gentle slope through our twenties with a slightly steeper drop in our thirties. But get ready for the nosedive at forty. The rates drop from 30% at age forty, to 10% at 41, 4% at 42 and 1.6% at 43 (even with every technique known to modern medicine). . .

For two and a half years I fought just to stay above water; adding in a pregnancy and a baby seemed insane. But last winter on my 43rd birthday we went back to the round of doctors. I knew I wasn’t quite emotionally stable (will I ever be?), but I also sensed I was running out of time. After three sets of doctors (the first two pretty much laughed me out of their office) the test results came back, “I don’t ever want to say there’s no chance,” the doctor began, “and I’d love for you to prove me wrong. But statistically, we’re looking at 0%.” He went on to explain most women my age having babies are using egg donors. “That’s what you’re seeing in the tabloids.” There are the exceptions, and I certainly thought I’d be among them, but the doctor said he sees hundreds and hundreds of women in their early forties who feel sure they too, will be the exception.

I'm 36, which means I'm starting along the downward curve of fertility.  If we decide to have more children, it's likely to take me much longer to get pregnant and my risk of miscarriage is higher.  Of course, I could be an exception.  But most likely, I only have a few more years of pregnancy and child-bearing left.

Age-related infertility isn't something you plan for or think about when you're young and 40 seems a long way off.  I had a conversation with a friend back when I was first having children who saw no urgency in having children.  "What's the difference?" she asked, "Five children now or five children later?"  The difference, I think I'd say now, is that the longer you wait, the less likely it will be that you are able to have the number of children you desire.  The difference, I'd say, might be "Five children now or three children later."  Your circumstances may change and your health or age may preclude you from having the family you desire.

Whether I'm able to have more children or whether that chapter of my life is closed, I have no regrets about the way I've spent my life up to this point.  If anything, I am even more grateful for the nine children I've been blessed with and the privilege I've had to be a mother.

(Even posting a photo like this, taken last May, gives my heart a little stab of sadness -- Cami has grown so much since then, and I might never have a baby that little again.)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject, even as I'm still sorting through mine.  What has been your experience with fertility?  If your family is complete, was the size of your family determined by choice or by circumstances?  Have you felt the tug of 'what might have been' or experienced infertility?  Did you have a hard time leaving behind the baby stage?


Lydia said...

I find it fascinating that you - with your 9 biological children - and me - with my 2 adopted children - could share the same grief of being "done" with babies.

3in3mom said...

i have much i could say. Having had many fertility issues and wanting more children has been a challenge and yet somehow a joy in my life. i have been able to find joy in seeing delight in photography and caring for others' children as well as my own. The Lord has a plan and i'm so grateful three children who i love dearly are a daily part of my family.

thanks for these words. love you friend

Handsfullmom said...

Ah, thanks for your comments. Lydia, it's interesting how different situations can be and yet how similar our feelings can be, isn't it?

One thing that's occurred to me after writing it is that most people don't get a picture-perfect close to their childbearing. Lots have to be done for health reasons, others try to get pregnant and aren't able to, and still others have a series of miscarriages at the end.

Chalice, I admire how you've always looked for ways to fill your life with good, even when your plan A didn't work out. Thanks for your great example.

Natalie said...

Kevin and I were just talking about this last night. Fertility is something we've been blessed with, but you never know what the future holds. We always said we wanted 10-12 kids and in our earlier years Kevin would joke that "at this rate we'll have 16!" It really did feel crazy sometimes and although we felt right about how close our children were in age, it can be hard not to second guess yourself when you get lots of raised eyebrows. I don't know what the Lord has in mind for us in the coming years, but I am grateful I made the most of those twenties when my health and energy level could best support child bearing. I know it can be a fleeting opportunity.

Linnae said...

I appreciate this post. I didn't get married until 25, but my husband and I both wanted a big family. Then it took us 3 years to have our first baby. We've been able to have 2 more since then, and would like more. In our 3 years of infertility struggles I finally came to place of peace--it would happen if it was God's will. Now we have been trying for a 4th for almost a year, and I'm relying on that same peace to guide me through. We are both open to foster care and adoption if it comes to that, but we're not at that point yet.

It's funny--for some reason I thought I would inherit my mom's fertility (I'm one of 11), which hasn't been the case. Some of my nephews and nieces who are married are waiting to have kids and I just pray that they'll be able to have the family they want when they decide it's time. You're right--it's not a guarantee by any means.

sandersclan said...

I am having some of the same feelings even though we knew we were done after we had our last child because of health issues caused by 5 csections. My baby will be 2 in April and it is also my first time not being pregnant and almost ready to deliver by now. I would have loved 6! I think had I known better I would have made different choices so I could have avoided my first cssection, and the choice to stop having babies could have been ours and not health problems.

Mama Rachel said...

I know I mourned at the possibility of being "done" after baby #11. I had felt a little boy spirit hanging around for so long, and was sorry to not have him join us. I had two miscarriages after #11, and figured my baby days were over.

AND THEN, we DID get our boy! We felt good about our dozen, and I figured that was it.

And then, we got that familiar, "Is everyone here?" feeling, and found ourselves counting and recounting our little girls. "Who is not here?" Then, I had some sacred experiences with a little girl spirit, and decided that 13 isn't that much more than 12...


Yes, I'm now expecting a little girl.

Earlier in my motherhood years, I NEVER would have thought I would have this many children. And the Lord knew that. So He showed me just one or two babies down the road. In many cases, I honestly would have quit having babies much earlier without those special, spiritual experiences with my unborn children.

I was never going to be "one of those moms" with adult children and babies still coming! Yet here I am, with two kids serving missions, and a baby on the way.

And I couldn't be happier.

The Lord's plans are NEVER like the world's, and they are rarely like we expect them to be. But they are ALWAYS the BEST plans.

Hugs to you, and don't give up yet, if you feel that the Lord has another child for you. In my experiences, He loves photo finishes!


Amber said...

My baby is 18 mos. and it feels weird but good to be done. I feel like I have the ones who were meant for me, plus a bonus, I feel like it would not be wrong to have another, but the thought actually terrifies me, I'm not sure how my body would do and I feel such a responsibility to the ones I have, so although I have loved this stage, it is time to move onto the next stage and be grateful for the ones I have and not get " piggy". It is kinda sad to think this growing time is over, life is weird, that's why we just have to enjoy every moment, because the moments are all fleeting. Take Care!

Megan said...

We both wanted 6 children when we first got married, and we went into our marriage with the attitude that we would take the children The Lord sent us when He sent them to us. 13+ years later, we have 3 children... The first 2 came two years apart, the third came 4 years later. We've been wondering for awhile now when and if #4 will ever come -- your statistics are confirming my feelings of late that it's looking more and more likely that we could be done. It's a mournful feeling -- that sense of The Lord taking us "far different places" than we had desired or planned. I feel a great sense of peace, though, that we are where The Lord has led us, and I'm very grateful for the three wonderful children we do have. I haven't given up hope just yet for #4, but I'm willing to be done, and I'm also willing to consider other ways for another child to eventually join our family. Beautiful thoughts, Christina!

Anaise said...

The questions you ask your readers to answer are so big and so powerful that I'm overwhelmed. How can I answer something like that in a comment? But here I am, compelled to answer, because my youngest is 2, and I am approaching my 42nd birthday, and I feel, feel, feel in my heart the missing spirits from our family. But they are only coming and going before I ever get to know them. I became a mother at 28--not waiting by choice, but waiting on God. I've had 8 miscarriages, adopted, birthed, fostered, and given children back (by court order) to mothers who might hurt them. My childbearing years have been astonishing. I ache for them not to be over. But I don't know . . .

Pam said...

I had the privilege of having 11 children in 11 years! Unfortunately we lost 5 of them. I had deep spiritual experiences after our last child was born that he was our last. I mourned and struggled with that for over a year questioning God and the revelation He had given me. It was a leap of faith on my part to be obedient. After I put my trust in His plan I felt complete peace and comfort to which I am eternally grateful! Motherhood in all forms is absolutely beautiful!

Liz Wheeler said...

So many words and emotions, don't even know where to start. Have had absolutely no problems with fertility, so scared now of getting pregnant too soon. But weighing that with reality that those days might be over. Want more kids, deep inside feel like I'm done, but don't know if I can emotionally handle more, at least not now, and DH wanting to be finished. Great post Christina. Was just trying to give away my girl baby clothes on Saturday and it was too hard so I boxed them back up in storage.

Cynthia said...

I know deep down that I am not done having babies. I can feel a spirit that wants to join our family - I feel it is a girl but I am not positive on this (maybe because it took three boys to get my first girl). I have finally convinced my husband that we need to take the leap of faith and for many reasons we will wait until this summer. I don't feel the same urgency I have felt in the past, I feel there is time and this spirit will wait for us to be ready. But I have fears as well - I am not getting younger, in fact I will be 36 very soon - will I be able to have this baby? My feeling is yes but my other feeling is that I need to make myself as healthy as possible first...which I am working on. My husband said one more and we are done, I told him I would let him know after that baby is here (and then we laugh because my sweet seven year old has told me for years that 5 is 6 and at one time told me I would have three more babies come from my body, there has only been one since then, so twins perhaps?) But whatever may be will be...I am just trusting that I will know and have peace with being done.

Liz Wheeler said...

Meant to say above: deep inside feel I'm NOT done

rachel said...

I feel the years ticking away too, except I have no husband or children., so I know what its like to wait and wonder what's going to happen. Thanks for writing about this Christina, take care xo

Laura@livingabigstory said...

What's bizarre to me is that doctors don't give women a real choice by being honest with them about fertility. Doc and I got married late, so were a little more concerned when it seemed to us we had fertility issues and (initially) were not even given the option to find out if there was anything wrong because I wasn't 30 yet (nearly 29, but not 30). Fortunately, our bishop was an OB so got us in before he was supposed to.... the clinic was so condescending to us while they were doing the tests--again because we weren't 30. Only when they got the tests back and found a hole host of problems did they soften. What is so disturbing to me is that--if I hadn't pushed--we would only be just finding out about all of the problems when I was 30, instead of me having a baby in my arms when I was 30. How is that giving me a choice?!


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