Today, my sister in law, Nicky, brings her babies home. Two weeks ago she gave birth to two beautiful twin boys after trying for years to become a mother. Years.
She is 46.
Another 46 year old who’ll be giving birth this year is Halle Berry. The actress has announced she’s expecting her second child, the first with fiance Olivier Martinez. Her daughter, Nahla is 5.
She will be 47 when the baby arrives.
Falling pregnant in your forties – let alone 46 – is not common. Except in Hollywood where it seems to happen freakishly often.
Kelly Preston had her third child last year, age 48. Susan Sarandon had a baby at 46, and Beverly D’Angelo had twins (with 65yo Al Pacino) at 49. Holly Hunter also gave birth to twins at the age of 47. Geena Davis had her twins at 48, Jane Seymour had twins at 45, Marcia Gay Harden and Desperate Housewives’ Marcia Cross both had twins at 45 and Cheryl Tiegs had twins at 52.
The unspoken question of course is how. How did these women become pregnant so late in life when statistically, the chances of conceiving are miniscule if not zero?
We’ll never know. My sister-in-law Nicky spent a long time trying to conceive with donor sperm. She was 40 when she first began – natural conception wasn’t an option because she was single. But despite years of IVF, it wasn’t until she went to Greece and used donor eggs along with donor sperm, that she was able to fall pregnant. With my beautiful, perfect, adorable nephews.
She won’t mind me telling you this. She’s always been open and candid about her journey to become a mother, writing about it here on Mamamia several times and on her own blog. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for her. These babies are a blessing for our entire family.
But there are many women who won’t be so lucky. Women who can’t afford to travel to another country where it’s legal to purchase donor eggs (Greece, South Africa, India and America are some of the countries that allow it – the only way you can get a donor egg in Australia is via a friend, relative or altruistic stranger. No money can change hands).).
Money aside, there are thousands of women who will just leave it too late because they didn’t realise that no matter how young you look or how young you feel, your eggs have an expiry date. And it’s earlier than most of us think.
Halle Berry’s rep told PEOPLE magazine, “Halle is feeling great. It’s a very exciting time. This happened naturally.” And perhaps it did. One of my friends, Celebrity Apprentice mentor and former mag editor, Deborah Thomas fell pregnant naturally at 46. She thought she was going through menopause when her period stopped.
But – and Deb is the first to say it – she is a statistical anomaly.
So how do so many famous women become mothers in their mid to late forties and even into their fifties?
“Celebrities may be different from you and me, they may be better looking but one thing they’re not is more fertile” a Beverly Hills doctor told US Elle magazine. This doctor has helped several middle-aged stars have babies with donor eggs and describes it as the last taboo of infertility. More about that later.
Famous or not, the most common cause of infertility in women is age. Too many of us simply leave it too late – for a whole bunch of reasons. Sadly, after a certain point there’s nothing you can do to increase the number of eggs you have or extend their expiry date.
“The chance of an egg resulting in pregnancy declines as a woman ages,” explains Brisbane obstetrician/gynaecologist Dr Brad Robinson. “The reason for that is that eggs age just like every other part of us. So an old egg that is finally released at the age of 45 may come out of the ovary – but as I like to tell my patients – it may well come out on a zimmer frame. This is evidenced by the fact the miscarriage rate climbs as we age from 12% at under 30 to 51% at ages 40-44.
The other problem for older mums is that the risk of chromosomal abnormalities also rises exponentially as women age. For example Downs Syndrome – a woman aged 20 has a risk of down syndrome of 1 in 1500. A woman aged 43 has a risk of 1 in 45.”
One of my friends had IVF a few years ago when she was 33 and was shocked to discover her fellow patients in the waiting room were all in their mid to late forties. “They looked visibly desperate,” she remembers. “It was so sad. I felt like saying ‘go home, save yourself the heartbreak.’ How could they believe anything would make them pregnant at that age? Then I picked up a magazine to see Geena Davis pregnant at 49 and I suddenly understood.”
This is a frustration that doctors on the frontline of infertility face every day. “A pregnant actress in her forties gets a page in a magazine,” says Dr Ric Porter, director of IVF Australia. “But if those same magazines printed all the stories of all the women who couldn’t get pregnant, the magazines would be the size of the yellow pages. These celebrity ‘miracle pregnancies’ give women ridiculous expectations. I’m yet to see a patient who had viable eggs in her mid forties. Even with IVF, we’ve never had a pregnancy after age 45”.
To overcome this, some older women are electing to use donor eggs, confirms Dr Robinson. Donors are typically aged in their 20s and 30s and this changes the odds of the pregnancy remarkably. A woman aged 46 using her own eggs in IVF has at best a less than 3 percent chance of an embryo transfer actually resulting in a live birth. But if she is using donated eggs – from a younger woman – the live birth rate per episode is over 40 percent.”
Look, no woman is obliged to tell the world how she got pregnant, famous or not. Infertility is an intensely difficult, often painful and always personal experience.
But to safeguard our own fertily and our self-esteem, we need to start filtering these “miracle” celebrity pregnancies through a reality-check. Which brings us back to Hollywood’s donor egg explosion.
In the US, the market for buying and selling eggs, sperm and renting wombs is very open. In fact, if you’re a single, infertile woman – or man – you can buy an egg from one person, sperm from another and even have the resulting embryo implanted in a third person who will carry the pregnancy as a surrogate.
But while the occasional celeb will admit to IVF, when was the last time you heard anyone admit to using donor eggs? Never. And why should they? It’s none of our business.
Unless we consciously or subconsciously base our own understanding of fertility on these ‘miracle’ celebrity pregnancies.
According to doctors, having twins well past your early forties is a strong indicator that a donor was involved (there is a higher incidence of twins at the end of your reproductive life as your ovaries make a last-ditch effort, but this peters out by your early forties).
Which is wonderful for those involved but can be dangerous for a woman looking in from the outside and assuming she too has years –heck, decades! – up her reproductive sleeve. This mix of false hope and complacency can have devastating consequences.
When celebrities pretend they’re naturally fertile into their forties and fifties, it has the same effect as when they claim to eat cheeseburgers 24/7 and stay naturally thin due to their “fast metabolism”. Ditto those who pretend they’re surgery-free and are just “lucky” to look 25 when they’re 45.
Dr Brad Robinson says he would welcome more honesty from celebrities about the realities of falling pregnant ‘naturally’ in their late forties. “These celebrities might be prettier, and wealthier than the rest of us – but their ovaries and eggs don’t age any differently” he says. ” They can have all the plastic surgery, all the vitamins and detoxes they like but that fact does not change.”
Socially, we’ve happily redefined our expectations of 40. Shopping at Dotti and having a favourite member of One Direction are totally appropriate. But we can’t change what’s on the inside: our reproductive system is not age-defying. There’s no such thing as botox for your ovaries. Even in Hollywood.
So while every woman has the right to complete privacy around her fertility, remember that ‘miracle’ might not quite mean what you think…..