Pregnant and pushing 50
This story started as a personal journey for me. At age 45, I asked my ob-gyn what the chances were that I could become pregnant naturally.
"Not good," she answered. "The risks to you and the newborn are high. Your eggs are just too old."
"But why am I seeing so many healthy babies born to so many of my peers?" I asked. It seemed like every neighborhood had another pregnant mom in her 40's.
"It's a well-kept secret," she said. "They're using donated eggs."
Linda Werner, a mom in her mid-50's, was told her eggs were far past prime too.
Today, she has newborn twins, Grace and Luke. By the time they enter kindergarten, Werner will be 60 years old.
"My friends think it's amazing," said Werner. "My parents think we are nuts."
A blended family of four grown children in McLean, Werner and her second husband, both in their mid 50's, wanted one baby together. Werner described it as a lingering twinkle in her eye. They spent six figures on a fertility clinic, first local, then in California, a surrogate from another state, and all of her medical care to grow one baby. They got two.
Werner said she regrets not freezing her eggs when she was younger. Her doctor warned her that she could pay a deep physical price for carrying a baby, much less twins, at her age. A fit and healthy mom, she moved patiently between the babies, preparing two bottles, changing two diapers, feeding, burping, swaddling each of them, every half hour or so.
"We're gonna be the oldest parents at back-to-school night," she said.
According to the CDC, the birth-rate for women in their 40's has risen steadily over the last three decades. Since 2000, the number of births to women in their 50's is up an astonishing 165-percent.
Hollywood appears to be brimming with mature moms with healthy children. And suddenly, so do suburban neighborhoods. But how they do it, is often kept quiet.
"I think it's emotional," said Dr. Tobie Beckerman, who referred to herself playfully as a gyno-psychologist for 27 years. "It's everyone's wish to get pregnant when you want to get pregnant. But then you have to go to a clinic, use someone else's egg, and there's something that feels not natural about that. It's a private thing, and you don't want to announce it to everyone."
Dr. Beckerman said women of advanced maternal age are at higher risk of developing gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, high blood pressure, and other potentially life-threatening conditions, but they do have a 50-percent chance of a successful pregnancy if they carry an implanted embryo from a younger donor.
"Forty-five, pushing-50 women are healthy, vibrant, beautiful. They don't look any different than the health of a 25-year-old. They go to the gym, they drink kale smoothies, they do yoga. But the eggs just don't cooperate," Dr. Beckerman said.
Breaking that news to a woman who feels a deep desire to give birth to a child can be heartbreaking. Women 45 and older have just a one-percent chance of conceiving naturally.
"A lot of them are sad, defeated. They thought it would be easy," said Beckerman.
Anna Whiston-Donaldson is one of the one-percent.
"I know people are going to ask me if I'm the baby's grandmother," said the 46-year-old Whiston-Donaldson, in her Vienna home. "We are going to have baby and menopause crashing down on each other!"
She wrote humorously about her surprise pregnancy in her blog, An Inch of Gray. She wondered aloud whether it was a sign that she was too old to be a mom because she couldn't see the pregnancy test stick without granny-style reading glasses.
"I was talking to the nurse practitioner and asked, 'Do you know of anyone who had baby with their own egg at my age and the baby turned out okay?' And she said not so reassuringly, 'I'm sure it's happened,'" said Whiston-Donaldson.
The worst thing that can happen to any mother happened to Whiston-Donaldson in 2011, when her 12-year-old son Jack drowned in a flooded creek in their neighborhood. Three years later, she published a gut-wrenching memoir, Rare Bird, about his death. In 2015 her grieving family was shocked when she became pregnant, naturally, at age 46. It was the very age she had dreaded her whole adult life, because her own mother died at 46.
"Jack always asked me when I was gonna have another baby," said Whiston-Donaldson. "He would say,'If you'd had the baby last year, you'd only be 41 mom.'"
The last time her son brought up the subject was two weeks before he passed away.
"This baby is wanted. My husband and daughter are excited. And this is something Jack always wanted too," Whiston-Donaldson said.
Even though they've become mothers again through very different paths, Whiston-Donaldson and Werner are well aware of the difficult, improbable, and pain-staking path to pregnancy in midlife. They've witnessed their friends struggle with getting pregnant at all, from failed in vitro fertilizations to miscarriages to stillborn births.
This story would be incomplete without acknowledgement of the 50 percent of pregnancies that don't materialize. Older women are called higher risk not just because medical complications can be life-threatening to the newborn, but also to them. While we would like to believe - and need to believe -- that any birth is possible, it is not always the miracle that we hope for.