Motherhood and apple pie used to be regarded as virtually universally good things. How times have changed. Based on research presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference in New Orleans last week, we saw a plethora of news reports about newly discovered dangers that older mothers might inflict on their offspring simply because they have delayed becoming pregnant until they were older (see refs 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
The reported study demonstrates that in a group of 74 women under the age of 35 who were undergoing IVF treatment, those who failed to become pregnant had older mothers than those who successfully conceived. The average age of the mothers of the women who became pregnant was 25, compared to 28 in the group whose treatment was unsuccessful. Further, it was discovered that, on average, the menopause occurred only 20 years after the birth of their daughter in the mothers whose daughters subsequently failed to conceive, compared with 25 years for those whose daughters successfully completed IVF treatment. As a result, press reports claimed that older mothers could be placing their daughters at risk of fertility problems. All of the headlines were couched in terms of mothers being responsible for their daughters' infertility. Interestingly most reports failed to comment on the fact that the study also revealed that the fathers of those in the unsuccessful group were also older; averaging at 32 years of age as opposed to 28 for the women whose IVF treatment resulted in pregnancy.
This story follows one the week before demonstrating that, contrary to tabloid belief, older mothers, even post-menopausal mothers in their 50s and 60s can make perfectly competent parents (see refs 1, 2). On the face of it these two stories send conflicting messages into the public domain. First, it is okay to be an older parent, but then, oh no, perhaps not.
Of course proper scrutiny of the reports and the research that underpins them reveals that their subject matter is quite different. The story about potential infertility in the daughters of older mothers is based on a relatively small sample in a single clinic in the USA. It highlights the possibility of a correlation between female infertility and the age of a woman's mother at the time of her birth, but there is much work to be done before this can be ascertained with any degree of certainty. By comparison, the research on the physical and mental well being of older mothers, reported last week, is a larger sociological study. Its results seems to indicate that often cited concerns that mothers over 50 will suffer stress and physical infirmity due to the strains of caring for young children are not born out in reality. But why is it that women who embark on pregnancy at a later age are criticised - even vilified - for their actions? And why is maternal age considered so newsworthy?
In the case of this week's news, indications of the possibility of a genetic connection between older motherhood, indeed older fatherhood, and infertility in an offspring is clearly something that needs further scientific investigation, and may shed some light on the reasons for rising rates of infertility. This is to be welcomed, but it should be reported responsibly for what it is, rather than as a further denigration of those who chose to delay becoming parents. This approach can only add to the pressure felt by many women today for whom later pregnancy is often not so much a lifestyle choice as a social imperative. Economic constraints set by career structures, the cost of living and the desire, fuelled by social expectations, to do the best for any prospective child are all valid reasons not to embark on pregnancy and parenthood until it can be done responsibly. The lack of proper state funding for childcare facilities and recognition of the importance of flexible working arrangements for the mothers and fathers of young children all contribute to the need to delay.
With respect to the evidence reported last week that older mothers are capable of coping with the rigours of child rearing, even at their advanced age, the news initially appears to be good news; a kind of official endorsement that people over 50 are capable of caring for children. But why is that so surprising? If there was serious doubt about the competency, stamina and reliability of older people to perform child caring why aren't grandparents who regularly look after small children required to take aptitude tests to assess their suitability for the task? Instead many families rely on older people, like grandparents, to provide informal child care, apparently without frequent mishap or serious consequences for the welfare of the children concerned. Interesting then that earlier this year the announcement of Patricia Rashbrook's pregnancy, which would make her the UK's oldest mother at 62, prompted the usual rash of negative reports branding older mothers as selfish and irresponsible (see refs 9, 10).
Surely it is time that the virtues of motherhood were re-established, regardless of the age of those who chose to take on that role. Women who delay becoming mothers for their own reasons and then deliberately choose to embark on parenting at a time when they really want to and when they believe they can best provide for their child, have much to offer. They should be applauded and supported, not condemned as selfish, irresponsible, or as a potential danger to their children.