There's a popular myth that if you're a woman who wants to have children, your twenties are the right time to start. Get married anytime after your mid-twenties and you'll find family members (or even complete strangers) who find it acceptable to tell you to 'get your skates on' and start trying soon before time runs out.
They're not trying to be rude, though that's often how they'll come across. Their comments come from the often repeated-but not entirely accurate-statistics that suggest how fertility declines sharply each year after your twenties.
If you're a woman in your thirties (or perhaps in your forties) and you've not yet been blessed with children, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll remain childless. While there are some statistics that suggest you will, they don't always come from the most reliable sources.
The truth behind the statistics
Jean Twenge is a researcher and mother of three children (all conceived naturally and born after she reached the age of 35). In an article, she goes to the source of some of the most quoted statistics and finds some interesting twists to the data.
An article published in the journal Human Reproductionin 2004 clearly states that one in three women aged between 35 to 39 will find that they still aren't pregnant after a year of trying. This statistic has been repeated many times in the popular press, but the source of the data isn't quite what you'd expect. While this particular article was published in the twenty-first century, the data itself came from French birth records dating from between 1670 and 1830.
This means, as Twenge puts it:
"Millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment."
Looking closer at popular statistics reveal that very few modern studies accurately track natural fertility among healthy women. At least some of the data surrounding fertility of older women is based on records from fertility clinics; the data involves women who are actively seeking medical help with the task of getting pregnant.
One study cited in the article above found very little difference in success rates for women trying to conceive in their late twenties and those trying to conceive in their late thirties.
When healthy women were intimate regularly, around 82% of women between 35 and 39 became pregnant within the year: compared to 86% of women between 27 and 34 years old.
The rates of conception for women in their late twenties and those in their early thirties were almost identical, putting to rest the idea that there is a huge decline in fertility as you age. There is no need to obsess over your thirtieth birthday if you are worried about conceiving.
What about women older than their thirties?
So the majority of women in their late thirties will be able to get pregnant if they choose to try, but what about even older women?
If we're told that we're unlikely to conceive in our late thirties, we're convinced it's almost impossible once we're past 40. However, women in their forties regularly get pregnant. Statistics show that women in the 40-45 age range (and even women in the 45-49 age range) are still giving birth in significant numbers.
While it's not a scientific study, The Irish Examiner claims a survey of 3,000 women carried out by a UK website found that women over 40 seemed to have the same chance of conceiving within six months as those under 40. Twice as many women over 40 reported surprise pregnancies as women in their teens and twenties did.
Any fertility doctor will, of course, tell you the chances of successful pregnancy do decline as you get older. However, fertility doctors themselves are responsible for some of the most unlikely pregnancies. While it's controversial, successful pregnancies of women in their fifties and even sixties have been achieved by IVF treatments. These are the same IVF treatments that may or may not work for much younger women. This in itself indicates that many factors unconnected with age can have an impact on fertility.
There are, of course, many issues that affect any woman's chance of conception and the likelihood of her having a healthy pregnancy. Age is one of them, and it would be unrealistic to disregard it when it comes to planning a family. But it seems that the popular belief that all single women over 30 are 'pushing it', 'leaving it too late' or 'unlikely to have children' certainly isn't as accurate as we're sometimes led to believe.
Time doesn't 'run out' automatically at 30, 35, or even 40. There have always been 40-something moms around the sand-pit, and there probably always will be.