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The world we live in: Spinning multiple plates at once

14 July 2014
By Dr Ruth Shidlo
Independent Practice, Tel Aviv
Appeared in BioNews 762

Today women are creating families later in life. The number of mothers in their 40s has doubled in England and Wales since 1990, surpassing that of under-18s (1). There has also been an increasing reliance on fertility treatments to overcome a natural age-related decline in fertility, which may occur much sooner than most women (and men) expect. For example, in Israel, IVF is available for women up to the age of 45 and is used frequently with women over 35. One may apply for IVF using donated eggs until 54-years-old.

Yet, the workplace may offer little support for those who wish to become mothers. There may be fewer job opportunities and career advancement may be conditional on the pursuit of higher education and/or women providing their full undivided attention to workplace requirements.

In addition, some women may find it difficult to find the 'right' partner, and one or both partners may find it difficult to commit to the relationship and to each other, delaying becoming a parent.

Life can become a juggling act between finding a compatible mate and becoming a parent, while maintaining workplace commitments and furthering a career, and yet being able to set aside enough time, energy and resources to enjoy oneself. It is hard enough to do so as part of a couple, and even more so as a single parent.

As a clinical psychologist, I have had the opportunity to observe many different people meeting the challenges of everyday life as best they could, often with exemplary courage and sometimes with a wry sense of humor. Some have needed to resolve or circumvent inner and outer obstacles encountered when building a family.

Since early childhood experiences indelibly colour the nature and quality of later relationships, a preparatory period devoted to an exploring and refining of the capacity for intimacy and being part of a couple may be necessary. Early experiences are now understood to set the stage for what has recently been described as 'emotional immunisation' (2) - a critical innate developmental process that unfolds as we learn to adapt to the extra-uterine world from birth onwards.

Emotional immunisation is based on an inborn attraction to sensations recognised as familiar (which we wish to repeat) and the simultaneous rejection and avoidance of 'foreign' sensations that may trigger signal anxiety and other unpleasant affects. At the heart of healthy narcissism, emotional immunisation affects our decision-making and choice of partners. 

Age related infertility: 'prevention' vs. treatment

It seems to me that perhaps the 'best' solutions to problems of age-related infertility may not be medical, but socio-educational ones promoting 'prevention' rather than treatment.

I'd like to propose that an early exposure to pluralism, to there being a range of choices and alternative life styles rather than one set path, may broaden our horizons by refining our tolerance for otherness. An increased and nuanced tolerance for otherness means we become less threatened by and more immune to a wider range of sensations and perceptions, representations and images, behavior, affects and meanings.

Moreover, as our tolerance for and appreciation of a range of affects expands, we become better able to touch upon them with words and share more of our inmost feelings with our children and partners. All of this improves our ability to use our relationships with others productively, enriching our attachments and intimate relationships (3).

Parents and school staff alike might invest more in teaching children, adolescents and young adults to:

  • express and share a range of feelings and be able to say 'no' without feeling guilty about it;
  • build emotionally meaningful relationships with friends, partners, family members, work colleagues;
  • develop a view of sexuality in which the expression of sexual feelings and intimacy is expected to unfold naturally within a mutually satisfying and emotionally meaningful love relationship;
  • encourage thinking and facilitate discussion regarding what is 'family';
  • explore the pros and cons of becoming a single mother/parent;
  • consider ways for alternative family building through adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, while not losing sight of the civil rights of  the children in these ‘new’ families.

Special focus should be given to how to go about juggling a career and family without losing sight of the woman's biological clock, hopefully instilling a greater appreciation of natural fertility age, and exploring the numerous ways one can build a family.

While there may be a significant gap between chronological age and emotional age that may account for delaying family building, I believe that early and repeated exposure to the advantages and importance of being a young-enough parent (for both parent and child) may eventually help reverse the current trend of becoming a parent in later life.

Clearly, one such advantage is obviating the need for fertility specialists. Another is giving ourselves and our children the opportunity to relish being/having parents and grandparents when most needed, and with the health to enjoy it.

Since most employers are also parents, perhaps together with the people working for them, they can work out adequate solutions to help allow people to start building families at an earlier age, should they choose to do so.

1) Doughty, S. (2014). The rise in new mums over 40: Number of older women giving birth overtakes under-18s for first time. Mail Online, 26 Feb, 2014.
Mail Online |  26 February 2014
2) Solan, R (in press). The Enigma of Childhood (revised English edition).
|  23 January 2022
3) Kelly, V.C. (2012). The art of intimacy and the hidden challenge of shame. Rockland, Maine: Maine Authors Publishing.
|  23 January 2022
10 February 2014 - by Patricia Cassidy 
A recent poll conducted ahead of a television documentary has shown that one quarter of respondents believed women should stop trying to 'trying to bring babies into the world' past the age of 40...
20 January 2014 - by Professor Cathy Warwick 
The pressure on the UK's midwives is at its highest for decades. In England, for example, there were more babies born in 2012 than in any year since 1971...
19 October 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Maria Bousada, 69, once the world's oldest mother, died in July this year leaving behind two young children born following IVF only two years earlier. Her death reignited the debate surrounding 'older mothers' - or more specifically, post-menopausal women who require fertility treatment to conceive. In response to media attention surrounding Ms Bousada's death, Professor Sammy Lee, an expert in medical ethics, embryology and biomedical sciences based at University College London...
Slightly missing the mark ( - 21/01/2015)
The article addresses the reality of age related infertility which is good - people need to stop believing in fairy tales.  Problem is that infertile women are not 'creating families' or having their own children by doing IVF with a donor's eggs - they're having the donor's children.   The donor is the one doing the conceiving, reproducing, and creating while the customer is doing the raising and maybe, sometimes the gestating.  But developing an embryo is not the same as conceiving one and any biological connection to the gestated fetus ends when they are born and disconnect from the body of the woman that delivers them.  None of her biology is reproduced in their body; she may have influenced their development negatively or positively but she did not create anything or anyone.  

Donors are fully responsible for creating their own offspring in fact they have to exist in order for their offspring to exist, the same cannot be said for any other player who might help them or influence their decision in some fashion.  We need to stop leading people to believe they can have their own children by using other people's genes.  They are not really creating other people's children.
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