Last week, while flipping channels I came across an entry in the guide called 70 & Pregnant on The Learning Channel (TLC). I did a double take thinking that it must have been 17 & Pregnant. In the era of Teen Mom we’re pretty used to reality shows about young women who get pregnant “too early.” But I hadn’t misread it; this half-hour special was indeed talking about mothers who get pregnant late in life Intrigued, I tuned in and something surprising happened. The channel that has brought us Honey Boo Boo, Dance Moms, Toddlers in Tiaras, Virgin Diaries, and My Teen Is Pregnant and So Am I actually made me think. As I watched, I began to question my own preconceived notions about older parents.
I had my first daughter a few months before I turned 34 which is nine years older than the average first time mom in this country but not really considered old by anyone’s standard and completely normal for New York City where I was living at the time. There were plenty of mothers in my neighborhood who were older than me and I didn’t blink twice when friends had babies at 41 or even 44, but I admit to being prejudiced against those who had babies later than that. If I saw an older woman with an infant or toddler, I would assume she was the grandmother or nanny until proven otherwise and then I would scoff just slightly (what was she thinking, if I feel too old for this crap, how is did she thinks he could do it?). In fairness I was equally judgmental about the grey-haired men steering baby carriages though I always just assumed they had a much younger wife.
My opinion of older parents was not positively swayed by September 2011 article in New York Magazine. The cover featured a wrinkly woman with short, white hair and an enormous pregnant belly and the caption “Is She Just Too Old For This?” Yes, I thought instantly. Those featured in the article, like most of the magazine’s readers, were privileged white couples who argued that they had every right to have a baby in their fifties because they had been too busy with their careers or too unlucky in love to do it early in their adult lives.This sounded selfish to me and I judged them all.
I judged the woman who underwent six failed invitro fertilization (IVF) cycles and three miscarriages before becoming pregnant at 48 (why didn’t she just give up and adopt when she was still in her late 30s?). I judged the married psychiatrists who at 60 and 66 are parenting seven- and ten-year-old girls “with a rotating crew of housekeepers” (well, if I had that kind of help…). I judged him especially harshly because one of his reasons for having children late in life was that he didn’t think he’d been a good parent to his 35-year-old son from his first marriage the way he should have (so make it up to him, or be nice to his kids, why do you get a do-over?). The sense of entitlement that came through—either real, inserted by the author, or simply assumed by me—was upsetting and I started going through all the reasons I was opposed to fifty-somethings having babies.
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The biggest reason in my mind has always been lifespan. Yes, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (why is that always the example used for unexpected death?) or get a terminal illness when my kids are still in grade school but based entirely on averages, I should live until my children are well into their forties. According to the Social Security Administration’s calculator based solely on my date of birth, I am expected to live until I am 84.4 years old (though I better start exercising more if I really want that to be true). My oldest daughter would be 50 by then, my younger in her late 40s. That means that I will likely see them graduate high school and college, become women, and start their own families. The likelihood that someone (male or female) who has a kid in their mid-to-late fifties sees all these events is far slimmer. The high odds of dying and leaving your child an orphan before he/she is well-launched into adulthood has always been my primary reason for scoffing at older parents.
If death isn’t scary enough, what about the realities of old-age? I watched both of my parents take care of their mothers through debilitating illnesses (my grandfathers both died suddenly, which now seems merciful). My parents had to shuffle their own lives and jobs to drive to doctor’s appointments and sit by their bedsides but they were lucky because by that point my sister and I were old enough not just to take care of ourselves but to help. I got a taste of this just this past weekend when I went to help situate my father after back surgery. He will recover soon but I started to wonder if even the gap between me and my parents was too large as I had to make plans for my young kids while I went to take care of their usual babysitter. What if the inevitable care-taking role-reversal happens when the child is still in high school? It seems very unfair.
Lisa Miller, the author of the New York Magazine article says that this argument and the others people like me use to dismiss older parenting out of hand are “bunk.” She claims that “the reason people couch their objections to older parents in concern for the children is to make their more impolitic uneasiness about the parents themselves.” In the end she says, it’s just downright ageist to be uncomfortable—old people should know they are old and not try to act young by having babies and all.
She goes on to cite a substantial amount of research suggesting that older parents are less stressed, more engaged, and less likely to employ a nanny. She notes that the because the means by which they are able to have a child (donor eggs, IVF, surrogate mothers) are all so expensive, older parents skew wealthier and as such have much to offer their children. Moreover, because of access to healthy lifestyles, preventive medicine, and health care when they are sick, rich people live longer. While this speaks to so much of what is wrong with our society, it does take some of the wind out of the sails of people like me who looked at old parents as walking to briskly toward their grave only to leave a young child behind.
Additional research has found that women who have children after the age of 40 are four times more likely to live to 100 than those who did not. Thomas Perl, a professor at Boston University, conducted the research and believes that it shows a connection between “an unusually healthy reproductive system and longevity.” But he also thinks that there is “something about living with kids—all that running around, all that responsibility, all that social connectivity” that maintains health.
While some argue that giving birth after 50 is clearly unnatural because many women have to be brought out of menopause to do so, Perl believes that menopause is an antiquated biological concept. Not being able to become pregnant toward the end of their lives was protective for women when childbirth was dangerous and life expectancies low. Today, however, 50 is not near death and, for those with money and access to care, childbirth is not necessarily the death-defying experience it once was.
Parental age does potentially have a genetic impact on children. After 35, the risk of pre-term labor increases by 20 percent which can lead to babies with lung problems, digestive problems, neurological problems, and developmental delays. Advanced paternal age has also been linked with health issues such as autism, schizophrenia, childhood cancers, and autoimmune diseases. But aren’t all pregnancies really a game of genetic roulette?
The risks to a pregnant woman over 35 are also greater including gestational diabetes (which increase the likelihood of diabetes after pregnancy), pre-eclampsia, and high blood pressure. One obstetrician told Miller she saw older mothers in the hospital “all stroked out” as a result of pregnancy-induced hypertension. Even I was considered to be of advanced maternal age when I was pregnant with my second child at 37. I was made to feel old and fragile; it said AMA all over my chart and they watched my blood pressure like a hawk (which only lead to it going crazy every time I got anywhere near a gauge).
These risks to her own health are certainly one of the things that has made me question the decision of older mothers. Are the risks of pregnancy compounded by the difficulty of hormone shots and IVF worth it? Especially when adoption might be an option? But Miller makes a good argument that adoption over 50 is very difficult to secure and those fertility doctors who are willing to take on older patients do so with great care. One expert described putting each woman through an EKG to measure the health of her heart, sending her to a psychologist to explore her motivations and support system, making her run on a treadmill to see if her blood vessels can expand enough to accommodate the additional blood volume during pregnancy, and creating an artificial menstrual cycle to see if her uterus could sustain a pregnancy. I have to wonder if I could have passed these tests in my 30s.
So Miller made good points but even after I read her article I still felt uneasy about pregnant 50-year-olds and senior citizens at parent-teacher conferences. And then I saw the TLC special. It followed three couples from different demographics (very different from those profiled in New York Magazine) and told their stories more completely.
The special, which originally aired a couple of years ago, began with the story of Lauren Cohen, a New York woman who had her first child at 58 and then twins at 60. As they followed her through a morning of getting the kids (who were preschool aged during filming) out the door, the narrator pointed out that her arthritis prevented her from doing many of the daily chores like bathing them and changing diapers. Proof that she was too old, I thought. But then they introduced us to her 40-year-old husband who was happy to take on the role of the primary caregiver. I began to wonder, if the roles were reversed—he was 62 and she was the 40-year-old second wife who did most of the physical work of parenting —would I be as critical? And, given that he was still in his thirties when the kids were born could I really argue that they’d be likely to be orphaned any younger than mine?
The second story followed Sue in the United Kingdom who at 57 was considering a second round of IVF to give her 2-year-old daughter Freya a sibling. Her visit with her doctor focused heavily on the risks to both her and the second child and I thought she was crazy to even consider it. But as we watched onscreen conversations between her, her husband, and her mother, I realized how thoughtful they were all being about balancing the risks with the desire to give their daughter a sibling (something every parent has to do to some extent when considering a second, third, or fourth child). She also explained that she had already arranged for her niece to take custody of the children if anything were to happen to her and her husband.
The final story is one that made headlines a few years ago when a 70-year-old woman from a rural part of India gave birth to a healthy daughter. Through subtitles the woman described how she and her husband had been shunned by their village because they had been unable to have a child. Her husband had even married her sister in the hopes that she might be able to give birth to an heir. When that did not work, they sold much of what they had to try IVF. The fertility doctor tested both sisters and determined that the older one had a better chance of having a successful pregnancy. When asked why he agreed to work with such an old patient, he said that in his experience older parents were better parents. The interviews from the couple’s home took place when the baby was just over a year and showed her being nursed by her mother and taken care of by a gaggle of doting relatives. In a culture where extended family members routinely live together and share the responsibilities of childcare, my biggest issue (death while the child is still young) seemed kind of moot.
And so I started to think a little differently. Haven’t I spent most of my career arguing for women’s rights to make choices about their own reproductive health? The right to access birth control from a young age; the right to terminate a pregnancy that they do not want; the right to use reproductive technologies to help them conceive and stay pregnant; the right to prenatal testing and late-term abortions if that testing reveals anomalies; the right not to have children. How are any of these different from the right to get pregnant at 60?
Though I can tell you with a reasonable amount of certainty that my childbearing days are over and that I will not be pregnant at 48, 58, or 68, these women made me reconsider my judgment of those who are. After all, the same argument I have often made about gay couples becoming parents is true of older parents—not one of these couples got pregnant by accident. They had to really want a child.