Commentary: How much does age matter in starting a family?
An older parent can also bring stability into the equation, plus a certain wisdom that is accumulated through diverse life experiences, says mum June Yong.
SINGAPORE: The recent news about Singaporean women flocking to Johor for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments has stirred up questions on whether it is advisable for older women to conceive.
In medical terms, a woman who goes into pregnancy for the first time at 35 years or older is considered “elderly primigravida.” This group is generally treated with more care and subject to higher precautionary measures.
Although science has made it possible for older women to pursue their baby dreams, they bear a fair amount of risk. It is not only harder for them to conceive, but when they do, the chances of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature births and birth defects are significantly higher.
Most who want to have children would naturally try to have them early. As conventional wisdom goes, you need all the energy you can muster to care for your baby and to play with them during the hyper-energetic toddler and preschool years.
But unfortunately for some, the stars do not align early on in life. Some couples are busy establishing their careers and so put off having children.
Others just haven't found the right partner to settle down with, or are into their second marriages and so start late. Yet others may try to conceive early on after marriage but meet with disappointment.
With more couples tying the knot and having babies later, many face fertility woes and turn to assistive reproductive technologies such as IVF.
Should they be denied the chance to procreate, even though science and technology has made it somewhat within reach?
THE PROS AND CONS OF STARTING EARLY
My husband and I had originally planned to have the first two years after marriage to ourselves, so you can imagine our surprise when we received news that I was with child two months after our honeymoon. I was nearly 28 then.
People may not talk about it much, but there are some downsides to having children early.
You may feel more torn between developing your career and spending time with your family as you haven't had the time to establish yourself in the industry.
You’re likely to be one of the first in your circle of friends to have a baby, and so may feel a bit isolated or clueless about baby caring.
Your marriage may also be less stable if you are newly wedded, and so adding a baby into the mix could generate a lot of stress and tension. I recall thinking that my husband and I hadn’t even had time to adjust to life as husband and wife, and so quickly, we had to embrace our new roles as mum and dad.
But there are also definite advantages to starting early, and we are only beginning to appreciate these fully.
For one, we did not encounter any issues conceiving, and when all three of our children were under the age of five, we somehow mustered sufficient energy to care for and play with them, whilst still maintaining a healthy marriage.
We couldn’t have done it alone of course; we took all the help we could get.
Today, both of us are not yet in our 40s and our eldest is already 10. She is fairly independent. She helps out around the house and with caring for her younger siblings.
Financially speaking, the burden of supporting our kids through school will be reduced when my eldest turns 21, at which time I will be 50. If I had started out 10 years later, that magic number would be 60.
In all honesty, I’d struggle to walk in the shoes of someone at my age trying to conceive her first child. But I can imagine all the reasons why she would want to try anyway.
A person’s desires may change through the course of life and with different experiences. Even a couple who started out not wanting to have children could deviate from that opinion.
And if a couple is well and truly ready to have children, would not the love for their young motivate them to stay fit, active and healthy so that they can enjoy more good years ahead?
GROWING UP WITH AN AGEING PARENT
Perhaps it is the job of medical professionals to ensure their “elderly primigravida” are aware of the potential risks in pregnancy. But for the rest of society, should we be judging a couple’s personal choice as to how and when to pro-create?
Perhaps the real question then is, how much does parental age really affect a person’s childhood experience?
One article published in The Guardian related several stories of children who grew up with older fathers.
Moya Sarner, whose father was 51 years her senior, described that she didn’t really notice that all her parents’ friends had kids who were at least 15 years older than her. She wrote:
I didn’t know it was unusual for dads to spend so much time at home with their children; it was my normal.
A friend shared that the bigger age gap between her and her mother made it hard for her to confide in her during the teenage years. Also, after she became a mum herself, her mother was not really able to play with or help out with her son due to the state of her health.
These are all valid concerns if you’re considering having a child at an advanced age. However, there are other factors that determine the quality of the relationship between parent and child. Things like personality and life experiences play a part as well.
It would not be very fair to say that age alone automatically disadvantages a couple who otherwise enjoy a strong and stable marriage and are willing to carry the responsibility of raising a child into adulthood.
Although health and mobility may go downhill as a person ages, an older parent can also bring stability into the equation, plus a certain wisdom that is accumulated through diverse life experiences.
For relatively young parents like us, time may be on our side. We may enjoy the occasional compliment that we do not look like parents of three little ones.
For those who missed the boat in their early years and now find themselves between a rock and a hard place, modern science has made procreation possible.
But while things may get a little harder with age, age itself isn’t the sine qua non of a meaningful family life.
It has little bearing on the quality of the parent-child relationship and other factors such as unconditional love, intentional effort and a willingness to learn from our mistakes are likelier keys to becoming a good parent.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.