Can chronological time be stalled?
Originally published in People Magazine, April 18th 2002
Geena Davis had a decision to make. A Big Decision. At the age of 46, the statuesque
movie star was very pregnant -- make that very, very pregnant -- and driving with her
husband, physician Reza Jarrahy, 31, near her home in San Diego. She could reach the
nearest hospital in 10 minutes or turn the car onto the 5 freeway and drive two hours to
the L.A. hospital where she'd undergone months of prenatal care. "They decided to take
their chances and head to L.A.," says her dad, retired engineer William Davis, 88. "There
was nothing much happening when they started the ride, but by the end plenty was
happening." By 2 p.m. April 10, the elder Davis, who lives in Wareham, Mass., got the
happy news that his daughter had given birth to a 6-lb., 11-oz. girl.
Naming his only grandchild might have been tough, but bringing little Alizeh Keshvar
Davis Jarrahy into the world was evidently not. "She never had one problem during her
pregnancy, not one bit of morning sickness," says Davis. "And Geena said the birth was
no big deal. She was in labor something like 4 1/2 hours. For a first-time birth, and at her
age, it's amazing. She's amazing."
More than he knows. In the past decade the number of U.S. mothers giving birth after 40
has nearly doubled, to more than 94,000 in 2000. The reasons are varied: late
relationships, second marriages, careers so involving, says L.A. gynecologist and author
Dr. Judith Reichman, that "women are suddenly realizing, at 40, 'Oh my God, I forgot to
have a baby!' " But if celeb moms such as Davis -- and 41-year-old Hannibal star Julianne
Moore -- help highlight the possibilities of midlife motherhood, a much-talked-about new
book by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is raising significant questions about getting
pregnant after 40. In Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children,
Hewlett, 56, who herself struggled with late-life pregnancy, reminds readers that biology
waits for no woman. Her ammunition? A Mayo Clinic study that asserts peak fertility
occurs between 20 and 30 and then drops fast: 20 percent after 30, 50 percent after 35,
and 95 percent after 40. In her own survey of 1,168 professional women Hewlett found
that 42 percent of women in corporate America over 40 are childless -- only 14 percent
said it was by choice. So what happened to the other 86 percent? "Nine out of 10 said
they were confident they could get pregnant into their 40s because of assisted
reproductive medicine," she says. "They swallowed the hype."
And as she sees it, celeb stories such as Davis's and Moore's obscure the real odds.
Already the mother of 4-year-old Cal with longtime boyfriend Bart Freundlich, 32, the
Manhattan-based Moore was raving about the joy of post-40 motherhood when she
showed up svelte and radiant at the New York City premiere of her new film World
Traveler exactly one week after the birth of Liv. "You want to do it again and again and
again," Moore says. The problem, says Hewlett, is that so will other women. "Warm,
fuzzy media stories about miracle babies," she says, "mean bigger queues of
42-year-olds with deep pockets lining up to do in vitro fertilization seven times."
Of course, some women are just lucky. Aware of the difficulty of late-life conception, Mary
Morgan, 47, would today counsel young women to heed Hewlett's advice to "be as
strategic about your private life as you are about your professional life. Put it on the front
burner." But she herself did no such thing. She enjoyed a lively single life in San Francisco
in her 20s and a successful financial career in her 30s before marrying home inspector
Martin Morgan, now 48, in 1996 at age 41. Two years later she became pregnant with
Mathew, now 3. Eight months ago daughter Mikayla joined the family. Her secret? Good
genes, says Morgan: "We were very fortunate."
But for every Morgan there are scores of women like 44-year-old Miami dentist Maria
Fernandez. She too assumed she could bear a child in her 40s. She finished dental school
at 28, took until her early 30s to get settled in her practice, and, unable to find Mr. Right,
decided at age 38 to try motherhood alone. She was surprised when artificial
insemination combined with fertility drugs didn't work but kept trying. Five years, four
miscarriages and some $40,000 later, Fernandez changed plans: She adopted daughter
Jade, now 21 months, from China in 2001. "Whatever happened in my life led me to her
and it was worth it," she says. Still, she adds, "I wish somebody had said 'Look, Maria,
the chances are very little. Don't waste your time and money.' "
If someone had, would she have listened? Candy Sparks didn't. Two years ago, at age
47, she and her second husband, telecommunications executive Brad Sparks, 55, decided
to have a baby. She was told by doctors that she had about a 1 percent chance of
getting pregnant with her own eggs. Recalls Sparks: "I was very hopeful I would be the
1 percent." She wasn't. So after two miscarriages and one failed in vitro fertilization, she
opted to use the eggs of a 21-year-old donor. Today, nursing 2-week-old Savanna at her
home in Potomac, Md., Sparks is getting a refresher course in the rules of motherhood
she learned 20-odd years ago raising her three sons from her first marriage. "I sleep
about two hours at a time," she says. "She's a dream come true."
Unfortunately, for women unwilling to use donor eggs, that dream often goes unfulfilled.
"It's something I confront every day," says Dr. Arthur Wisot, an author and fertility
specialist in Southern California. "A fortysomething woman comes to see me and says,
'I'm vice president of a corporation. I've got a husband and success. I exercise. And now
I want a baby.' It's hard for them to understand that time marches on despite everything
they've done right. Ovaries don't care what you've done; they age." [however, in
kundalini yoga it is said that a radiant yogini's ovaries are stimulated and functional until
54 years old - Mary Ceallaigh]
Portland, Ore., painter Shelley Jordan's decision to wait until she had won tenure as an
associate professor of art at Oregon State University in Corvallis was fully informed.
When at 42 she and her husband, David, 45, a corporate headhunter, began trying the
old-fashioned way to get pregnant, "I would cry every month I got my period." But within
six months she got lucky, and today the 46-year-old mother of Clara, 4, considers her
age an asset: "I'm happy and fulfilled, so I can be more present as a parent."
But the challenges unique to older mothers do not end at conception. There can be
sadness knowing your children may not know their grandparents -- and that you may not
know your grandchildren. Mothers who used egg donors wonder what to tell children
about where they came from, and face ethical concerns. Older parents often fear that
their children -- especially only children -- will be left alone. And for new mothers who
have spent 20-plus years in charge of their lives, says Dr. Diane G. Sanford, a St. Louis
psychologist and coauthor of Postpartum Survival Guide, there is the shock of no longer
having the freedom to make the simplest choices. "Older women are used to being in
control," she says, "so having a new baby's needs dictate their life can unglue them quite
And that's before sleep deprivation takes over. "After the honeymoon period -- when you
look at the baby every 27 seconds and say, 'I can't believe I created this beautiful child'
-- the exhaustion sets in," says 55-year-old Keene, N.H., social worker Beverly Ginsberg,
who suffered six miscarriages before giving birth to son Zachary, now 10, when she was
44. Though she once dreamed of a house filled with kids, "When my husband suggested
we have another, I didn't go as far as saying, 'Are you insane?' " she recalls. "I just said,
'I don't think so.' It was totally out of the question." Not because she's fed up with
strangers complimenting her "beautiful grandson," either.
Though reproductive science has made significant advances, medical doctors generally
consider women over 35 at much higher risk of miscarriage, gestational hypertension and
other difficulties. Dr. John D. Berryman, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies at the
Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, D.C., begins treating a 40-plus patient who
has never had a baby (and whose partner has a sufficient sperm count) as would many
other experts: with an X-ray to be sure her fallopian tubes are unblocked. He then
checks to make sure she is still ovulating. If she is, the first step usually involves
stimulating the ovaries with fertility drugs. If that doesn't work, couples can try artificial
insemination, in which sperm is injected directly into the uterus. The next step is usually
in vitro fertilization, in which eggs are removed with a needle, then fertilized and
reimplanted in the uterus.
"IVF is not a day at the beach for the mother," says Dr. Berryman. For nine days, he says,
she must come into the clinic for shots, daily measurements of hormones, sonograms and
other tests. Since overstimulation of the ovaries can lead to their rupture, he notes, "it
can be very unsafe if not monitored."
babies gets addictive because it's so exciting," says her
boyfriend and the father of now 4 year-old Liv, Bart
Freundlich. Says her makeup artist pal Scott Barnes:
"Age isn't an issue for her."