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40 is the new 30, but not for your eggs: in a TEDx the whole truth about the odds of late motherhood

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

«Maybe your mantra is “40 is the new 30” and all that – yeah, but here’s the thing: your eggs don’t subscribe to that motto». Amid tears and laughter, Reisa Pollard, a Canadian designer and entrepreneur, delivers a spirited and forthright testimony about having children late in life: after spending the first period of her life studying, trying out different jobs, travelling, and starting her own business, it was only on the cusp of her forties that she found the right partner and felt the desire to have children.

Only then did she realise that getting pregnant after a certain age is not exactly simple. So, she doesn’t hold back when she starts her speech: «Now I want you to picture a gumball machine. Imagine that machine as ovaries and the gumballs as eggs. When a woman is born that gumball machine is full: it has all the gumballs she’ll ever have, for her entire life. As she gets older, that gumball supply starts to diminish, and the leftover gumballs are getting a little stale. By 40 that supply is getting really low and by 44, any stragglers left – they’ll well past their prime. The chances of turning one of those gumballs into a baby, even with in vitro fertilization, is less than 2%».

It must be said that the metaphor of the chewing-gum machine is not very appealing to women in their forties. Average life expectancy is steadily going up, and our mental and physical health at age 50 is quite different from that of previous generations. We eat better, exercise more, take care of our bodies, and try to avoid getting sick. It is true enough, our 40s are the new 30s. Yet what Reisa Pollard says is true – this does not translate into a longer life expectancy for the eggs nestled in the female reproductive system: «Those eggs are just sitting in that gumball machine, aging the exact same way your great-grandmother’s did». The supply of bubble-gum – of possible children – hasn’t changed. If you start trying for a child late, that’s just something you’ll just have to deal with.

When she found out all this, Pollard was left «dumbfounded»: «My first thought was, why didn’t I know this? Why wasn’t I taught this – about fertility – in sex ed class or from my family doctor?», she wonders in her TEDxVancouver "The Surprising Truth About Making Babies Late", delivered in 2017 and already viewed more than a million times.

The designer retraces the hardships she went through, including hormonal stimulation, in vitro inseminations, miscarriages (one on her 44th birthday: «My present was my fourth miscarriage»), attempts at heterologous fertilisation, and spending tens of thousands of dollars in fertility clinics, until she finally got to hold her child in her arms at age 42 and had a second child – a kind of miracle – at 46 (and she even had a third child after the TEDx, at age 48!).

«We need to start sharing our stories, all of them. The more we're able to talk openly about our experience, the more comfortable people will be with the challenges that we face. Whether it’s assistance with conceiving, having a miscarriage – or maybe five – it's not something to be ashamed of: it's part of the journey and you're not alone. The more we understand about fertility, the more we can make timely informed choices, even if your choice is not to have kids» is her final consideration: «But if you have any inkling – any at all that you might want them in the future – educate yourself, because nobody is gonna do it for you. We should be teaching fertility in adolescence and continue in adulthood». A message about fertility awareness that has much in common with Eleonora Voltolina’s recent TEDx talk “The Fertility Gap: Why don't we have the kids we'd like to have?”, and fits perfectly with the spirit of the project she founded, The Why Wait Agenda.

Image credits Flickr Creative Commons, Julie Alexander's “Vintage Gumball Machine


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