When reports surfaced that 50-year-old Janet Jackson was pregnant with her first child, there was an outpouring of support—and many questions. Although Jackson has kept the specifics of her pregnancy private, many have speculated on how she could conceive and carry a child at such a late age. But she isn’t alone; more women are catching baby fever in their 40s and making their dreams a reality.
As an increasing number of women continue to postpone marriage and lifelong partnerships, the age of first-time motherhood continues to climb. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black first-time mothers age 40 and older increased by more than 170 percent between 1990 and 2012. “For so many women of color, the emphasis in our early 20s and 30s is becoming economically solvent,” says Tamara Mose, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “In today’s society, to compete, you need a formal education, preferably with advanced degrees. Many of us are in school for most of our 20s, which is also our peak childbearing years.”
Some women will conceive with no assistance. New Yorker Marjorie Desir, 44, a soon-to-be first-time mom, is proof of that. “When I was ready to become a mother, I was warned that conceiving at my age was next to impossible,” she says. “I was very lucky. My partner and I conceived after a few months with no intervention, and my pregnancy has been smooth so far.”
Experts suggest taking a proactive approach to parenthood. “The fact is that egg quality and the ability to conceive begins to drop exponentially after age 35,” says Ndidiamaka Onwubalili, M.D., a New Jersey-based OB-GYN specializing in infertility and high-risk pregnancies.
Discuss your reproductive health with an OB-GYN annually, adds Sophia Lubin, M.D., an OB-GYN at Wycoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Talk about whether you have any new conditions, such as fibroids, and if you’ve had any STIs in the past, such as chlamydia, which can hurt chances of conceiving because they damage reproductive organs.”
In addition, “No smoking and drinking while trying. They can impact the quality of your eggs, mobility in the fallopian tubes and cervical mucus,” Lubin warns. Your weight and medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension should be monitored, too, because they can impact the ability to conceive.
Lubin also offers a few tips for couples: “In addition to your regular sexual activity, have sex 10 days after the first day of her period, which is typically when she will be ovulating. Using ovulation apps and checking basal body temperature will help determine exactly when ovulation begins,” she advises. “Men should check out their reproductive history as well. Have they gotten someone pregnant in the past? Have they checked their sperm count? The key is to then have sex when he is most likely to generate good sperm. Men make new sperm every 48 to 72 hours. If he’s been partying, wait four days for healthier, stronger sperm.”
Ready to Grow
Are you already in your late 30s or early 40s and trying to conceive without success? The Rev. Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn, founder of the Chicago-based Fertility for Colored Girls, says the first step is finding support. “As women of color, many of us were raised in communities that don’t talk openly about reproductive health,” she explains. “Also, many of us don’t think about the reality of potential infertility.” The organization holds monthly meetings for women in five cities nationwide including Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and gives Black women a safe space to discuss their issues and learn about resources that will increase their chances of having a successful pregnancy naturally (for example, acupuncture and yoga) or with the assistance of technology (such as in vitro fertilization or surrogacy).
Edwards-Dunn also advises women to find a doctor with whom they feel comfortable asking lots of questions. “When I was referred to an endocrinologist after not conceiving by the time I was 37, I wasn’t knowledgeable about all the tests they were running,” she says. “It took four doctors before I found someone who made sure I was informed.” Her final medical specialist discovered she only had one fallopian tube and a malformed uterus. Both problems can cause infertility, and neither was part of any diagnosis she’d received from her previous physicians. Her treatment plan was changed, and she conceived at age 43 and gave birth to a daughter.
Medical research and technology are allowing women in their 40s to maintain viable pregnancies. Waiting longer to start a family doesn’t mean it’s impossible.