Midlife Moms

04/18/2002 at 10:00 AM EDT

Geena Davis had a decision to make. A Big Decision. Atthe age of 46, the statuesque movie star was very pregnant -- make that very, very pregnant -- and driving with her husband, physician Reza Jarrahy, 31, near her home in San Diego. She could reach the nearest hospital in 10 minutes or turn the car onto the 5 freeway and drive two hours to the L.A. hospital where she'd undergone months of prenatal care. "They decided to take their chances and head to L.A.," says her dad, retired engineer William Davis, 88. "There was nothing much happening when they started the ride, but by the end plenty was happening." By 2 p.m. April 10, the elder Davis, who lives in Wareham, Mass., got the happy news that his daughter had given birth to a 6-lb., 11-oz. girl. Naming his only grandchild might have been tough, but bringing little Alizeh Keshvar Davis Jarrahy into the world was evidently not. "She never had one problem during her pregnancy, not one bit of morning sickness," says Davis. "And Geena said the birth was no big deal. She was in labor something like 4 1/2 hours. For a first-time birth, and at her age, it's amazing. She's amazing."

More than he knows. In the past decade the number of U.S. mothers giving birth after 40 has nearly doubled, to more than 94,000 in 2000. The reasons are varied: late relationships, second marriages, careers so involving, says L.A. gynecologist and author Dr. Judith Reichman, that "women are suddenly realizing, at 40, 'Oh my God, I forgot to have a baby!' " But if celeb moms such as Davis -- and 41-year-old Hannibal star Julianne Moore, who delivered Liv two weeks ago -- help highlight the possibilities of midlife motherhood, a much-talked-about new book by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is raising significant questions about the difficulties of getting pregnant after 40. In Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett, 56, who herself struggled with late-life pregnancy, reminds readers that biology waits for no woman. Her ammunition? A Mayo Clinic study that asserts peak fertility occurs between 20 and 30 and then drops fast: 20 percent after 30, 50 percent after 35, and 95 percent after 40. In her own survey of 1,168 professional women Hewlett found that 42 percent of women in corporate America over 40 are childless -- only 14 percent said it was by choice. So what happened to the other 86 percent? "Nine out of 10 said they were confident they could get pregnant into their 40s because of assisted reproductive medicine," she says. "They swallowed the hype."

And as she sees it, celeb stories such as Davis's and Moore's obscure the real odds. Already the mother of 4-year-old Cal with longtime boyfriend Bart Freundlich, 32, the Manhattan-based Moore was raving about the joy of post-40 motherhood when she showed up svelte and radiant at the New York City premiere of her new film World Traveler exactly one week after the birth of Liv. "You want to do it again and again and again," Moore says. The problem, says Hewlett, is that so will other women. "Warm, fuzzy media stories about miracle babies," she says, "mean bigger queues of 42-year-olds with deep pockets lining up to do in vitro fertilization seven times."

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