Ahead of Mother’s Day, InStyle explores how women are navigating motherhood in 2018, from the role of the pregnancy selfie to new legislation empowering the working mom.
At her baby shower in early May, Eva Longoria was, to borrow a cliché, glowing. Documented on Instagram and attended by many a famous pal, the event had a pajama party theme, and the mama-to-be looked gorgeous, happy, and healthy, her due date only a matter of weeks away.
Longoria’s pregnancy has been fêted in the press since the day it was announced, back in early December. It’s the first child for the actress and her husband, media mogul José “Pepe” Antonio Bastón, and—surprise!—it’s a boy. But in all the celebratory hoopla about the baby-to-be, there’s a part of her pregnancy that has gone relatively unremarked: At 43, Longoria is eight years into what is medically referred to as advanced maternal age.
She’s far from alone. Pregnancy in a woman’s 40s has become practically de rigueur in Hollywood. The list of celebrities who have had babies, many of whom were their first, well after biological peak reproductive years is long and well-documented in the grocery store checkout mags. (Stars: They get morning sickness, just like us!)
To wit: Eva Mendes had her first baby at 40, while Gwen Stefani had her last at 44; Halle Berry gave birth to her second child at 46, while both Celine Dion and Mariah Carey had twins at 42. Nicole Kidman birthed her first biological child at 41 (her second was born, via surrogate, two years later); at 49, she has said she still hopes to add another to her family. Never one to be outdone, Janet Jackson had her firstborn at 50. Rachel Weisz is 48, and expecting a little one later this year.
It’s not just entertainment elites having kids later, though. These stars’ pregnancies are in line with the larger population trend: Women are, in general, having babies at older ages than ever before in history, thanks in part to advances in reproductive medical technology. The average age that a woman has her first child has been ticking upward for decades, while the number of kids women have, on average, has been trending down—facts that, when taken together, have some experts concerned we could be on the brink of a fertility crisis in the United States.
But though the ability to put off pregnancy and focus on your career—and yourself—has arguably been a positive shift that has empowered women in myriad ways, some physicians worry that the normalization of advanced-age motherhood distorts women’s understanding about the basic facts of fertility.
“The public, in general, lacks fertility information—period,” says Maja Zecevic, PhD, a research scientist and the founder of Opionato, a fertility awareness and education platform. Hers is a statement echoed by other experts InStyle spoke to for this story; fertility fog, as it’s been called, can be a mix of misunderstanding, idealism, and a lack of accessible information about the way that reproductive capacity declines as women get older.
The prevalence of celebrity moms in their 40s birthing children for the first time—and who, by all appearances, seem not to have struggled at all—contributes to the confusion.
“When celebrities get pregnant, and it’s announced, it’s not always specified how they got pregnant” or how taxing the process was, says Zaher Merhi, an OB-GYN and the Director of Research and Development in IVF Technologies at New Hope Fertility Center in Manhattan.
“It’s their right not to share that information, of course,” he adds. “But while it’s good that women can have children at a later age—whether they’re celebrities or not—I think what is computing to patients is that they still have the chance to get pregnant later, easily, with their own eggs, which is generally not true.”
While it varies from person to person, egg quality diminishes exponentially leading up to a woman’s early 40s, and, with age, it can become harder and harder for women to get pregnant the old-fashioned way, without reproductive assistance.
“There is a difference between having a child, and having a child with your own DNA,” Zecevic adds, and, when it comes to celebrities, “the thought of having a child, versus how that child was created, can be confusing to the public.”
Put another way: It’s easy to think that, at least when it comes to childbearing, we’re just like them. In reality, there’s often a more complicated story behind the paparazzi photo of the fit, 40-something mom with a newborn cradled in her arms.
“We talk about celebrities and pregnancy, but we don’t know when something is assisted reproduction,” says Zecevic. “Some celebrities use surrogates. Others use IVF. But we don’t really talk about the fact that these are really costly procedures, and they can afford it—which is not necessarily true for the average person.”
Donor eggs, Zaher adds, are another expensive option that often goes undiscussed. “It’s important to make clear that, a lot of these older celebrities, in my opinion, used donor eggs. Having said that: Some of these women might have frozen their eggs 10 years ago.”
None of which is a criticism of assisted reproduction, celeb moms, or the choice not to disclose private medical information—parents are more than entitled to their privacy, especially on this subject. The issue is the optics without context, and the worry is that women don’t see the whole picture. As a result, more and more, women are making irreversible decisions about family planning that are built on a false premise. Rather than understand that carrying a baby to term may not be an option for them in their 40s, they may assume that they can delay pregnancy until they are ready for it—and, once they are, find themselves emotionally unprepared and without the necessary finances or biological circumstances.
When you consider the wellness, fitness, and various fountains of youth the rich and famous have access to, it’s easy to equate looking young with being fertile. “But your ovaries run on a different clock,” says Zaher, adding that genetics and age play a huge part in fertility in general.
Both he and Zecevic also emphasize another area the medical community needs to better inform women about: pregnancy at an older age can also be higher risk for a woman’s health overall.
“There are risks that make things more complicated, in terms of cardiovascular health, kidney problems, high blood pressure, and the Cesarean section rate,” says Maher (though risks differ depending on the specific individual).
Of course, there’s another way in which female celebrities resemble the general population, at least when it comes to having kids. We live in a society that puts a premium on youth in most ways; leaving the workforce—whatever workforce—in your prime earning years, which also happen to coincide with your prime childbearing years, is a decision that is often times accompanied by long term financial ramifications.
Furthermore, in an industry where looks are everything, and your face and body might be your calling card, having a kid in the years when you still want to be considered a starlet could be complicated. Like all women, celebrities choose to forge forward with or put off starting a family for any number of reasons. But while they might have increased access to cutting edge procedures and the best doctors in the business, the reality is that star status also comes with its own unique set of pressures.
The takeaway for the rest of us? There’s always more to motherhood than what meets the eye. And so the next time you’re scrolling through Instagram and come across a 40-something celebrating her baby shower, feel free to congratulate her. But also remember: She is more likely the exception than the rule.