Mary Shearing, a 53-year-old grandmother and one of the oldest women to become pregnant with the help of medical technology, said nothing she does surprises her family and friends anymore.
Seven years ago the athletic woman, an avid skier and former amateur body builder, married a man 21 years younger. And on Monday she stood before reporters and television cameras to tell the world that in December she expects to give birth to twins.
Officials at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim believe Shearing, who has three grown children and two grandchildren by a previous marriage, is the oldest woman to achieve a double pregnancy via a technique that has been pioneered over the last five years to help women become mothers even after menopause.
By this technique, eggs donated by a younger woman are fertilized with the sperm of the patient's husband and then implanted in her uterus. The older woman's primary obstacle to getting pregnant, doctors say, is not the aging of her uterus but the aging of her eggs or the shutdown of the ovaries.
Probably the first woman over 50 to give birth in the United States with the help of egg donations was Jonie Mosby Mitchell, a grandmother from Ventura, who had a boy March 31 at age 52 after participating in a fertility program sponsored by USC, doctors said. The oldest woman to give birth in that program was 55.
Dr. David G. Diaz, director of Martin Luther's reproductive medicine program, said four fertilized eggs were implanted in Shearing's uterus May 15 and two have survived.
Although most of the handful of fiftyish women who have become pregnant by this method in recent months have chosen anonymity, Shearing said she wanted other middle-aged women who have struggled in vain to become pregnant to know they have an option.
She said since she and her husband, Don Shearing, were married, it has been their dream to have children. Standing beside his wife at the news conference, Don Shearing said he has no children and was looking forward to fatherhood.
And Shearing said: "I don't feel 53 by any stretch of the imagination."
Diaz said the grandmother had to pass physicals before she was allowed in the program to show she had no cardiovascular or other health problems that could jeopardize her health or the well-being of the baby. So far, he said, her pregnancy has been without any complications.
The Shearings said they tried to conceive naturally, but Mary Shearing miscarried only a few weeks into a pregnancy. They said they also looked into the possibility of adoption but discovered that Shearing was too old to meet the criteria of public adoption agencies.
"We went through a period of denial, telling ourselves that we didn't want a child," Shearing recalled. "Then all of a sudden we would wake up and said: 'Who are we kidding?' " About that time, she said, they heard of the egg donor program at Martin Luther.
Shearing, who is from Orange, said she is undaunted by the prospect of raising a second family and thrilled to have twins.
"That is just what we wanted," she said, noting that the couple wanted their baby to have a sibling but were wary of trying for another pregnancy. Friends and family members, including Shearing's 85-year-old father and 84-year-old mother, have responded to the pregnancy with enthusiasm.
"I think it is wonderful," said Shearing's youngest child, 29-year-old Elissa Johnson, who stood beside her mother.
Shearing said her eldest daughter, who is 32 and the mother of a 6-year-old and a 1-month-old, recently handed down some of her maternity clothes.
The couple said they intend to tell the twins of their origin when they are old enough to understand. "We are going to teach them to be different is OK," the expectant mother said.
The Shearings do acknowledge that raising twins will be a financial strain because both of them are unemployed. An electrical engineer, Don Shearing lost his job in the construction industry a year ago. Shearing said she lost her job as a secretary and property manager in April when the firm she worked for folded.
The couple said they paid the $10,000 for the fertilization procedure from their savings. "It's not cheap having kids right now," said Don Shearing.
While the Shearings have already picked names for the twins--Adam for a boy and Kelly for a girl are their first choices--they said they have 10 embryos kept frozen at the hospital in case something goes wrong.
Shearing decided to make public her pregnancy, she said, when she saw a segment on television that she believed presented the egg donor process in a negative light.
Shearing said she wants to give encouragement to older women who still want children. "If that's what they want to do, go for it," she said. "It is quite an experience."
(Orange County Edition, A10) Science Lends a Birthing Hand
Mary Shearing, a 53-year-old grandmother of two, is expecting twins in December at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim. Officials there believe she is the oldest woman to have a double pregnancy through in-vitro fertilization.
1. Egg donated by a younger woman is placed in a glass dish.
2. Husband's semen is added to the dish, and it is put in an incubator.
3. Fertilization occurs. Cells are allowed to divide until the embryo reaches a four- to eight-cell stage
4. In a few days, the fertilized egg is implanted in the birth mother's uterus.
Source: Martin Luther Hospital