"What I wish I knew about fertility in my twenties"
Nothing makes you feel old quite like reaching that point in your late 20s when, all around you, friends start to have babies. Gorgeous, gurgling, smiling babies, with soft skin and big, curious eyes you could drown in. But as much as I go gooey over the tiny outfits and the baby powder scent, the fact that my friends - people my age - are producing children also fills me with panic and dread.
It's not that I don't like the idea of being a mum – one day – but right now I'm still so focussed on everything else in my life: building my career, travelling, getting a bit more life experience behind me. I've been happily married for more than three years, which for some people is enough to make me "ready", but it just doesn't feel like the right time.
How late is too late?
The older I get, though, the more conscious I become that I'm gambling with my choices, and it's increasingly a topic of anxious conversation between me and my child-free friends. After a decade of desperately trying not to get pregnant, suddenly we're wondering if we should get on with it. But how do you strike a balance between not rushing into it too early, and not leaving it too late? And how late is really too late?
On the face of it, things look pretty rosy. In the UK, the average age of first-time mums is now 28.6 years, and around 40 per cent of new mums are over 30. In fact, the average age of motherhood has risen so much that in 2014, for the first time in the UK, there were more babies born to women over 35 than to women under 25.
But do all these stats make us complacent? For every miraculous "new mum at 50" story I read, there's still the women in my own life who've struggled with hormone treatments and IVF in their early 30s. For every gynaecologist warning women that the clock is ticking, there's someone else decrying that as sexist scaremongering. Is it any wonder we're all so confused?
Wellbeing coach and holistic therapist Emma Lannigan is 40. She tells me her second round of IVF has just been abandoned, as none of her eggs had fertilised. "I didn't meet my husband until I was 35. We spent two and a half years trying to conceive naturally before starting IVF when I was 39," she says.
"In my 20s, I absolutely knew I wanted to be a mum, but – like so many other women my age – I was encouraged to go to university and build myself a career. I always wanted a family life; I just expected it to happen when I was ready. I even made changes in my career so that, when I did meet the right man, I would have a lifestyle in place to support being a mum and a wife while still having my own business and independence."
"I could have started earlier if I'd known"
Having now been told her chances of conceiving naturally are very low, Emma says she initially felt "a lot of personal anger that I could have started earlier if I'd known." Given her time again, she adds, "I would freeze young, healthy eggs to use later; that way I’d have had a choice."
Despite that, Emma says: "I have no regrets over my university and postgraduate education. I just wish I'd been better educated about fertility, and that there'd been more support from employers. I hope young women now have that.
"When I first started researching IVF, I read all these success stories about older mums having miracle babies; there was nothing to make me think I might not be so lucky."
So, how are we supposed to find the ideal time? The predictable - but no less frustrating - answer is that there's no exact science to it. "There is very clearly a point at which fertility does start to drop off, around the age of 35. But, as long as a woman is ovulating, she retains a chance of getting pregnant," says Nancy Mendoza, a spokesperson for the British Fertility Society.
"Women should start their family when they're ready, but it is important to consider that both male and female fertility declines with age," she adds. "Fertility education really should be part of Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons at school – we just don't hear about it enough."
However, Clare Murphy from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) says it's also important not to over-state that decline. "Some of the messages that get sent out to women really do give a sense that fertility falls off a cliff as soon as you hit 35. You read media headlines saying things like 'if you want three children, you need to start when you're 23'. That isn't a realistic proposition for many women, and it's also not evidence-based," she says.
"If you're aged 35-39, you've got a more than 80% chance of conceiving in a year"
"The best available evidence shows that if you're 35-39, you've got a more than 80 per cent chance, if you're having regular sex, of conceiving within a year. That's not really far different from what it was when you were in your late 20s," Clare adds.
Of course, there's no way of knowing until you start trying –whether you'll be one of the small percentage of women who do have difficulties. A recent study found that 'Fertility MOTs', which provide information on women's egg reserves, are a waste of money - because they can't actually predict if or when you'll be able to get pregnant.
When it comes to predicting your fertility future, or buying yourself more time, there really are no simple solutions. Freezing eggs or embryos (cryopreservation) is one increasingly popular option, but it's an intense procedure and the success rate is higher for frozen embryos than for eggs alone.
"Freezing your eggs gives no guarantee of being able to have a baby, and it's not a trivial process. You basically go through IVF, which is emotionally and physically really challenging – not to mention expensive," Nancy explains. For some women, that will seem 100% worth taking a chance on – but I think personally I'd rather risk leaving it to nature.
For Clare at bpas, the best available approach is to weigh up all the different factors in your life – financial stability, career, partner, etc. – and decide how long you're willing to wait. "It's really about providing women with good evidence about those choices, and treating them as individuals," she says.
"One of the problems with waiting later to conceive is that, if you do experience difficulties – which women can at any age – you've got less time to sort it out. But the statistics bear out the fact that women are conceiving well into their 30s and even 40s now," Clare adds.
"It would be great if science could deliver us more concrete results in terms of 'how long have I got?' but unfortunately there aren't any easy answers; individual women are all different."