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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Mothers over 40: it seems easy enough on TV, but what about real life?

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

A Hollywood actress’ career was thought to be over once she reached the age of forty, until relatively recently. Roles vanished overnight because the film industry was only interested in fresh faces and smooth bodies and did not consider older women except in minor and often sexless roles.

Sex Education, season 3, episode 7 (Netflix 2022)

Thankfully, times have changed, and now women in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s are regularly featured as leads in films and TV shows where their stories are told in their entirety, including the possibility of romance, sexual encounters, and sometimes even having children.


Let’s take two recent TV gems, both available on Netflix (reader beware: this article will contain spoilers about the third season of both shows): the British series ‘Sex Education’, which examines the way in which teenagers deal with sexuality, intimacy, and pleasure in a high school setting, and the American series ‘Dead To Me’, a dark comedy about the friendship between two women who meet at a self-help group for people who have experienced a bereavement.

Dead To Me, season 3, episode 7 (Netflix 2022)

The two series have much in common: they are both brilliantly written, with lightning-fast jokes. They deal with serious issues like sickness, death, and homophobia in a way that is thorough but also humorous. They will make you laugh, but you will also have a lot to ponder after watching them. And both, in their third seasons, feature the curious plot point of a mature woman becoming pregnant by accident.


In ‘Sex Education’, we have Jean, a sexologist played by Gillian Anderson; and in ‘Dead To Me’ the estate agent Jen (Christina Applegate). The two women are much closer to their fifties than to their forties and at a certain point they find themselves visiting their doctors for an entirely different reason, without the slightest suspicion of being pregnant. They are stunned by the announcement, which in ‘Sex Education’ is given to Jean along with a diagnosis of pre-menopause. And wonder of wonders, both pregnancies are successful, resulting in the delivery of two healthy girls.


This is a surprising turn of events – and it is quite unusual, according to Karin Hammarberg, a fertility expert and Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne's Monash University: «While women in their mid- to late forties sometimes have ‘miracle babies’, the chance of pregnancy is minimal in the five to ten years leading up to menopause».

Dead To Me, season 3, episode 7 (Netflix 2022)

It is almost impossible to give an exact percentage: “I don’t think you can get exact data for such a question», confirms Hammarberg, «as we don’t know how many women try to get pregnant but don’t succeed. But my estimate would be that the chance of pregnancy at age 48 is less than 1%».


Here, of course, we are talking about the possibility of a woman in her late forties falling pregnant ‘by surprise’ – in other words, completely naturally: without having undergone hormone therapy, without having taken drugs to aid conception, without having had sex on the right days during ovulation, and without having used an ovum from a younger woman (heterologous fertilisation, in which gametes – eggs or sperm – from donors are used, can never take place naturally, of course, since it must be carried out by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation).


Neither of these women is experiencing their first pregnancy. Jean is the mother of Otis, the main character of the ‘Sex Education’ series, who is a 17-year-old high school student. In ‘Dead To Me’ Jen, recently widowed, has two teenage sons. It is said that previous pregnancy helps, increasing the likelihood of future pregnancy, because “the body already knows what to do”. But is this just a myth or is there some basis in reality to it? «It helps in the sense that a woman who has given birth has proven fertility», responds Karin Hammarberg, «so of all the women who try for pregnancy in their forties, those who have given birth before are unlikely to have an infertility problem». Following this line of reasoning, it would be fair to say that 40-year-old women who are already mothers «are therefore a bit more likely to achieve pregnancy» compared to others.


However, certain elements that play into the plot of the two series make these miraculous pregnancies seem even less plausible. In ‘Dead To Me’, Jen becomes pregnant following a one-night stand. The likelihood of that one act of sexual activity taking place precisely at the time of Jen's ovulation is statistically next to zero. Conversely, Jean from ‘Sex Education’ is in a passionate relationship and has plenty of sex, so the odds are statistically higher in this instance. We later discover, though, that the partner in question has had a vasectomy in the past, a surgical procedure that makes a man infertile by cutting the sperm ducts that travel from the testicles to the penis. As with almost all contraceptive methods, however, there is always a small margin of non-effectiveness.

Sex Education, season 3, episode 7 (Netflix 2022)

Another detail is that both fathers of these miracle babies are middle-aged men: Jean's lover in ‘Sex Education’ (the vasectomised one!) is close to fifty, and Jen's lover in ‘Dead To Me’ is in his forties. Contrary to what one might think, warns Karin Hammarberg, «men’s age affects the chance of pregnancy too», given that «sperm quality and fertility decline around age 45», according to research published in 2003 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. When it comes to these two TV pregnancies, in short, «the odds would have been slightly higher», confirms the Australian researcher, if the creators of the series had chosen to make the two dads younger. With a partner in his twenties or thirties, Jen and Jean would have had a better chance in real life.


But to be fair, the sting of ‘real life’ is not entirely lacking in the two series: in ‘Sex Education,’ Jean is repeatedly chastised and insulted for being pregnant ‘past her prime’; and both she and Jen experience complications during pregnancy. In one scene in ‘Dead To Me’ Jen notices that she is bleeding; her best friend rushes her to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition that can have serious consequences for the health of the woman and the foetus. The events in ‘Sex Education’ are even more dramatic: Jen unexpectedly goes into labour eight weeks early, gives birth to a premature baby girl, and risks her life due to post-partum haemorrhaging.


«Yes, the risk of pregnancy complications definitely increases with age» notes Hammarberg «in part because the risk of health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes etc increase as we age, and they contribute to poorer pregnancy outcomes».


In other words, while the situations depicted in ‘Sex Education’ and ‘Dead To Me’ are compelling and striking to the viewer, they are extremely uncommon in real life. Giving prominence to such examples can be a double-edged sword, according to many fertility awareness activists who work to spread information and raise awareness about fertility windows, particularly among the younger generation. «I do think that media reports of celebrities having babies in their forties – and we never know if they were conceived with donor eggs from a younger woman – and in this instance TV shows featuring miracle babies influence people's perceptions of what is biologically possible», reflects Karin Hammarberg, who is also Deputy chair of the Ifei, the International Fertility Education Initiative, and member of the scientific committee of the European Fertility Society: «We always hear about success stories but never about all the women who try for pregnancy in their forties without success».


But at least in relation to this final point, ‘Dead To Me’ stands out strongly. The other leading character is a woman named Judy. She started trying to have a baby at a “conventional” age, but she never made it to term. Judy, consequently, comes to represent all women who – regardless of age – struggle to get pregnant, suffer numerous miscarriages, and receive prognoses that are essentially irreversible sentences of infertility.


In any case, miracle babies or not, both 'Sex Education' and 'Dead To Me' are must-see TV.


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This content, and the whole The Why Wait Agenda website, is produced by the Journalism for Social Change, a non-profit association carrying on an engaged kind of journalism, providing through information a secular and progressive point of view on the issues of fertility and parenting and pushing for cultural, societal and political change with respect to these issues. One of the association's means of financing is through its readers' donations: by donating even a small sum you will allow this project to grow and achieve its objectives.

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