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You Can Still Have a Baby

Photograph by Getty Images

That loud ticking sound you hear in the background? You might want to get that looked at. Because it's neither a biological clock nor a bomb of childlessness ready to go off and declare you barren at the advanced age of 32.

It turns out, what we've been told about women's chances of conceiving in their 30s is completely distorted, according to this month's Atlantic article "How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?" Science writer Jean Twenge dug deeper into the study that has informed our current thinking. What she found is surprising—and good! On average, women still have plenty of chances and a high probability that they'll get pregnant for many more years than previously thought. Twenge's article could be a game changer for many young women just entering the workforce.

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For the past decade, women have been warned that between the ages of 35 and 39, one in three women will not be pregnant within a year of trying to conceive. Of course, 35+ is when many professional women feel finally established enough in their careers that they can afford to divert some attention into starting a family. As we know from Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, at least a few women throw in the towel well before they become mothers, intentionally riding on the mommy track so they could avoid winding up in the purported 1/3 who wouldn't be able to get pregnant.

But Twenge discovered the study that most of this decade-old baby panic is based on had relied on fertility statistics of French birth records—starting in the 17th century and ending in the late 1800s. Hardly the years of plenty—or advanced medicine, good hygiene, long life expectancy or, hell, even electricity—for that particular population. Are we really shaping our lives based on the experiences of a French farm wife in the 1600s?

Surprising, too, is how very few fertility studies of modern women have been conducted. Of the few good ones, Twenge shows that baby panic, even up to a woman's 40th year, is statistically unwarranted. Get this:

  • One well-done study of nearly 800 European women found the fertility of women in their late 20s and early 30s was nearly the same.
  • Another study of almost 3,000 Danish women found that "78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds."
  • Still another found that "among 38- and 39-year-olds who had been pregnant before, 80 percent of white women of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months."
  • "[T]he difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points."

Sure, there's a decline over the years, but it's just not as steep—or steep at all—as we'd been led to believe. The real drop-offs weren't happening until a woman was in her 40s and even those rates don't get really dismal until, on average, she hits 45.

Those devastating headlines and somber news reports about women working their way up the corporate ladder only to find their ovaries had dried up just when she found the right partner? The years of anguish and panic about starter-marriage breakups meaning a lost chance at motherhood? The idea that having kids younger—like, as college students—to ensure family and career advancement? That was all based on crappy research reliant on data so old it, like that French farm wife, reproduced little but pain.

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But that's not to say some women won't experience fertility loss in their early or mid-30s (and some do in their 20s, too). IVF accounts for only 1 percent of the babies born each year in the U.S., and most women who undergo it, according to Twenge, do so because of blocked Fallopian tubes or male infertility or other issues not related to age.

Twenge's research upends our basic beliefs about the shelf-life of the majority of ovaries and many of the underlying assumptions in our decisions about when to start families—or whether to start them at all.

It's good news. Statistically speaking, there's more time to get pregnant. In terms of your ringing biological clock, it's OK to hit snooze.

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