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Kathleen Hayes, 43
Gave birth to Henry at 42
"All I ever wanted to be was a mommy," says Kathleen. "I envisioned the white-picket-fence life with a husband and baby." But as she reached her mid-30s, Mr. Right hadn't shown up. A few friends suggested she use a sperm donor. At the time Kathleen couldn't imagine going that route. "I thought it would be odd to have a baby with a stranger," she remembers, "and on a teacher's salary, I figured I couldn't afford it."
When she turned 39, however, her thoughts shifted. Maybe she could do "baby first, husband later." By her 40th birthday Kathleen had started looking at sperm banks, checking out donors' baby pictures and listening to audio interviews, searching for a man who sounded happy and kind. She also wanted "open identity," meaning someone who had agreed to be contacted by her child once he or she turned 18. "I knew my child would want to know more."
Once she had picked the donor, Kathleen was shocked by how much trouble she had getting pregnant. "Even when your fertility numbers look good it can take a while when you're over 40," she says. She tried unsuccessfully for more than a year, including two failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles. The chromosomal abnormalities present in most older eggs were probably the reason she wasn't getting pregnant, her doctor explained. So when Kathleen read about a new procedure that checks for abnormalities before the embryos are transferred to the uterus, she decided to try it. She got pregnant on her next IVF and gave birth to her son, Henry, last year.
Henry suffered from reflux, so at first Kathleen struggled with sleep deprivation. "There were moments when I asked myself, 'Was I really thinking I could do this alone?'" But she found support online through Single Mothers by Choice -- and Henry turned a corner once he passed the six-month mark. "He's so much fun," Kathleen says. "There are many moments when I look at him and just well up with tears of joy. Sure, I'd still love to find Mr. Right, but I'm so glad I made this choice."
Dez Stephens, 45
Gave birth to Merritt at 43
When Dez Stephens got divorced, her daughter, Aubrey Smith, was 7. From then on Dez was on her own as a parent. It was a struggle, and whenever Aubrey asked for a sibling, Dez thought, No way. Then she fell in love with Chuck Stephens, who was 14 years younger and wanted a child of his own. "I thought, 'How can I take that opportunity away from him?'" The couple married in 2006 and immediately started trying to conceive.
Aubrey had been a surprise, but having a child turned out to be a lot harder two decades later. Dez and Chuck tried for two years, with one pregnancy ending in miscarriage, before they sought medical help. Her doctor blamed their fertility problems on "older eggs." The couple was just about to try an aggressive treatment when Dez realized she had gotten pregnant the old-fashioned way. And in February 2009, at age 43, she gave birth to her son, Merritt.
Dez says that being 20 years older has made a big difference in her parenting attitude -- she loved slowing down and enjoying life at her son's speed. "I was always rushing Aubrey and trying to fit her into my agenda," she confesses. But having a 22-year-old and a 2-year-old does raise some eyebrows. At a recent school reunion her classmates showed off pictures of their grandkids. "When they found out I had a baby, half of them were like, 'Go girl!'" she says. "The others thought I was crazy." At this point she thinks the double takes are funny. But Dez does wonder what it'll be like when she attends Merritt's college graduation. "Will everyone assume I'm the grand-mother?" For now, though, she says, "It just all feels perfectly right."
Colleen Kavney, 44
Gave birth to Katie and Michael at 42
When Colleen Price filled out a profile on Match.com in March 2005, she hedged, checking the "not sure" box when asked about children. The truth? She was dying to become a mom but, at 38, knew her fertility was dwindling. She'd need to find a partner who also wanted kids -- but who wasn't pursuing that goal by dating only younger women. What were the chances?
As it turned out, Mike Kavney was just that kind of a guy. He and Colleen met online, fell in love, and married in March 2007. But the baby they both wanted did not follow. After spending 18 months trying to conceive, Colleen, then 41, and Mike, then 40, decided to see a reproductive specialist. The tests showed that Colleen didn't have many eggs left, and the ones she did have were no longer high quality. That meant that it would probably be very hard for her to get pregnant, their doctor explained, and if she succeeded, there would be a high risk of miscarriage or birth defects. "It felt like a big smack in the face," Colleen says.
Instead of taking those kinds of chances, the Kavneys decided on IVF using Mike's sperm and eggs donated by a younger woman. The idea of donor eggs definitely took some getting used to, but Colleen was overjoyed that she'd be able to experience a pregnancy. She found herself looking for another match, this time with a 23-year-old egg donor. Twins Katie and Michael arrived nine months after the first IVF, and the Kavneys were thrilled.
At 42, Colleen expected to be pegged as "the older mom." To her surprise that didn't happen -- many other new parents in town were her age, too. And having twin infants was exhausting, for sure, but younger moms seemed just as sleep-deprived. Another surprise? Being constantly told that Katie looks just like her, even though they aren't biologically related. "I just smile and say, 'Thank you,'" Colleen says.
The fact that she was single and child-free in her 30s makes it easier for her to be a mom now, Colleen believes, since she never wonders about what she's missing out on. "We were just so ready for our family," she says, "and we hit the jackpot with a girl and a boy!"
Yolanda Bumpers, 43
Adopted Mason at 42
When they started trying for a family, Yolanda and Gerald Bumpers assumed conception would be a snap -- they both come from large families and Yolanda was only 33. Instead it took almost two years to conceive their daughter, Kaitlyn. They wanted another child, but it was four more years until Yolanda conceived again, at 39. And that pregnancy ended tragically -- their second daughter was stillborn.
After taking a year to recover -- Yolanda had complications from the difficult delivery -- the couple took another look at their options. "We knew getting pregnant would be even harder as I got older, and we'd heard there was a need for adoptive African American families," Yolanda says. So at 41 she began the adoption process.
A few agencies had warned the Bumpers that birth mothers prefer younger families, but just two days after they submitted their paperwork, in October 2009, they received a call about a baby. It was the start of another emotional journey. That birth mother changed her mind at the last minute, and then a second birth mother did so, too. "It was wrenching, but as a mom, I understood completely," says Yolanda. Thankfully, the third placement stuck. When Yolanda was 42, she and Gerald brought home their son, Mason, now 10 months old.
"I feel I've got a lot more patience this time," Yolanda says. The years between babies also gave her more time to establish herself in her career. As a result she has more flexibility and can duck out from the office for child-related commitments. The whole family is thrilled with the decision to adopt -- in fact, Kaitlyn, now 6, is saving up for a double stroller so she can have another sibling, Yolanda reports. "I've told her it's not going to happen," she says, laughing. "I'm not sure it has anything to do with my age, but I feel as though it's busy enough with two kids. By nine every night I'm done. But we feel blessed."
With the help of fertility experts and specialized obstetricians, more women in their 40s are able to conceive and deliver healthy babies. Still, the older you are, the riskier pregnancy becomes -- if you can conceive at all. Here are a few sobering facts.
Infertility: At age 30 a woman has a 20 percent chance of pregnancy every month. By 40 it drops to only 5 percent, even with IVF or other expensive fertility treatments. (Still, use birth control if you're over 40 and don't want kids!)
Miscarriage: For women age 40 to 44, more than one-third of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. The rate is more than 50 percent at age 45.
Pregnancy complications: Pregnant women over 35 have double the risk of gestational diabetes, stillbirth, and placenta previa, which can cause bleeding during pregnancy. High blood pressure and premature births are also more common the older you get.
Birth defects: As women get older, the risk that an embryo will have chromosomal abnormalities increases dramatically. For example, the risk of Down syndrome is one in 1,250 for a 25-year-old. At 45 it's one in 30.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.