With the economy in question, it’s hard to decide whether marriage and childbearing or advancing your career is a better first move. On the one hand, if you wait until your career is established, you may have a greater income and flexibility for raising your children. On the other hand, if you wait too long to have children, you will almost certainly face infertility due to age or conditions that increase in likelihood as you age.
Women are delaying childbearing now more so than ever. The mean age that a woman in the U.S. has her first child is around 27, up from under 25 at the beginning of the century. While this doesn’t seem like a significant increase, it represents a shift in perspectives on childbearing. Teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, while women in their late 30s and 40s are pushing to have children later than ever.
Women are also delaying marriage. The average age that an American woman first marries is now 27, up from barely 25 ten years ago. And you don’t have to consult a psychic to find out why. Women now represent a majority of bachelor’s and master’s degree earners, with numbers increasing every year. It’s hard to dedicate time to spouse and family in your 20s when you need advanced degrees just to get a job interview. And, studies show that women who wait until they are 30 to marry will earn significantly more than women who marry earlier.
The confluence of these two factors is changing the face of parenthood in America. In the past 30 years, the number of births to unmarried women has doubled. In fact, within the next few years, there likely will be more children born out-of-wedlock than born to married couples. This denotes a greater societal acceptance of single motherhood and cohabitation. Women who realize that they simply don’t have the time to wait years to establish a marriage are taking matters into their own hands, while they still have the chance.
Delaying childbearing is not without its risks. The major problem, of course, is infertility. When you are in your 20s, your chances of conceiving during the fertile period of any given menstrual cycle is approximately 20 percent. As you age, however, that number drops down to 5 percent or less by the time you get to your 40s. Your chances can also be negatively affected by other conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), as well as other ailments that increase with age, such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids.
Infertility can be part of a natural process as your body heads toward menopause. As the years progress, ovulation may become erratic. Sometimes you may have anovulatory cycles (where the ovaries do not produce an oocyte), and in other cycles you may release more than one egg. The eggs in your ovaries, which you have had in your body since before you were born, will start to degenerate. This increases your likelihood of chromosomal abnormalities in successful pregnancies.
Your levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) will also increase. FSH is released by the pituitary gland and helps to stimulate the follicles in the ovaries to release eggs. Superficially, it may seem that having high levels of FSH is a good thing for a woman who is seeking to conceive a child. However, high FSH levels indicate that there is a low reserve of eggs. Since it increases with age, high FSH levels are often a sign that menopause is on its way.
This presents a difficult problem for reproductive endocrinologists and other medical experts who treat patients who suffer from infertility. Clomid and Follistim, for example, are two common drugs given early in infertility treatment. They work by increasing levels of FSH in the system to promote the maturation and release of more eggs. If your levels are already high, they may not work as well. During in-vitro fertilization (IVF), drugs such as these are used to stimulate the release of eggs. If FSH levels are high, the likelihood of a successful IVF cycle with a woman’s own eggs is much lower. As a result, many experts in reproductive medicine restrict women with high levels of FSH from treatment. Although researchers argue that new therapies may allow women with higher levels of FSH to better respond to infertility treatments, progress on this front has been slow.
In the book Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility, Dr. Sami David mentions a common practice of fertility clinics turning women away from IVF treatments with high levels of FSH. But, as Dr. David explains, although a high level of FSH may predict possible IVF failure, there are still many other viable options that may allow women to conceive via alternative methods of IVF or even conceive naturally.
There are many good reasons to wait to have a child. But waiting too long can lead to frustration, years of ineffective medical treatment, and possibly heartbreak. As you get older, it is important to factor your chances of conceiving into your career and family plans.