Too Old to Be a Mom?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

The issues.

WebMD Feature

Sept. 29, 2000 -- Older moms -- even really old moms -- pushing strollers, wiping babies' noses, are a common sight these days. And it's not just the 40-something women in the neighborhood sandbox but any number of high-profile women, too: Susan Sarandon (baby at 45), playwright Wendy Wasserstein (49), and editor Helen Morris, the wife of Martin Scorsese, who recently gave birth at the age of 52.

Although most babies in the United States are still being born to women in their 20s and 30s, the birth rate for women 40 to 44 has been climbing for a decade. Not so long ago, women over 30 were regarded as high-risk older mothers, and strictly in the medical sense, they still are. But today the 30-year-olds are often the "younger mothers" at the preschool picnic. Birth control, delayed nesting among career-oriented baby boomers, lenient adoption guidelines, and advances in fertility treatments have worked together to create a rising tide of first-time parents who are in their 40s and beyond.

So far, most attention in this field has been on the medical safety of the older mother -- getting her and the fetus safely through pregnancy and birth, since risk to both mother and child increases as a woman ages. But now the critical mass of older mothers is gaining another focus: What happens after the child is born? The changing demographics of parenting have given rise to what amounts to a whole new social movement.

The Emotional Terrain of the Older Mother

Not long ago, personal experience with those changing demographics led Micky Duxbury, MFT, in a new professional direction. The northern California therapist, a specialist in adoption issues, began leading support groups for older mothers. "I looked around and saw that there was very little support for women in their 40s with young children, and even less written about the experience," says Duxbury who is herself 51 and the mother of a 5-year-old. "There were issues that older moms shared, but no one seemed to be talking about them."

The women in their 40s and 50s who came to her groups were relieved to find a place to talk about the implications of raising young children -- the physical challenges of keeping up with a toddler, for instance. But the issues run deeper, says Duxbury. Consider for a moment our views on mortality. Somewhere around 40, there's a shift in one's view of life's terrain, Duxbury says, as you begin looking at how much time is left and it's suddenly, clearly, finite. "Suddenly you realize you might not be around for your child's wedding, or will probably never know your grandchildren," she says. "So along with savoring and cherishing these long-awaited children, there's a bittersweet tinge."

Washington State therapist Marlene Koltin, who also leads support groups, says, "Older moms have issues all their own and long for a sense of community. They may not feel quite in sync with other moms." Older mothers may be going through menopause while taking care of an infant. They don't bounce back from sleep deprivation or stress like they did in their 20s. It's a little harder to get up off the floor after playing with a baby. Many older mothers are also caring for aging parents at the same time they are raising young children -- a balancing act that can be more than challenging.

Although women in previous generations had a significant number of babies when they were past 40, says David Bruce Sable, MD, a fertility specialist with pioneering St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., those children tended to be the last in a string, rather than the first and only child, as is often the case today. So, the topic of raising children without siblings also comes up. And, says Duxbury, most older parents admit to an occasional sense of not quite fitting in. For her, it was the moment that someone assumed she was her daughter's grandmother. "Yipes," she recalls thinking, "If I look like her grandmother now, what will my daughter think when she is 16?"

Breaking the Age Barrier

"What is immediately apparent," says Duxbury, "is that most of us didn't choose to be older parents. We didn't sit down at 20 and say, 'Oh, I guess I'll have a baby when I am 40.' Life led us down that road." Many older parents come to parenthood with a legacy of loss; they've had miscarriages and stillbirths and other disappointments, she says. They may not have found love until late in life. "As older moms, we never take parenting for granted," says Duxbury. "We look at our children as blessings that arrived after long and often arduous journeys."

Nancy Hemenway, who had her daughter Zoe when she was 45, is a case in point. "My husband and I didn't find each other until I was 38 and he was 37," says Hemenway, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, and is the executive director of INCIID (pronounced "inside'') the InterNational Council on Infertility Information Dissemination. It took years of trying to conceive, several miscarriages, and finally treatment by a reproductive endocrinologist, before Hemenway gave birth. Now, at the age of 50, she is about to adopt a second child.

"There are times that I get tired, but I think having Zoe has energized me," says Hemenway. "In fact, I can't imagine not doing this. My husband and I look at our daughter in awe, wondering, what would we have done without her?"

Weighing the Options

What about the ethics of having children when you know you may not live to see the child's 30th birthday? Philosophy professor Lawrence Hinman, PhD, of the University of San Diego, who has written thoughtfully on the subject, points out that there's no reliable way to predict how long any parent -- whether 20 at the time of birth, or 40 -- will live. To balance the odds, though, some older parents say they make a conscious effort to surround their children with as much extended family as possible, including lots of younger people.

Stamina? Staying power? "People age at different rates," says Richard Paulsen, MD, of the University of Southern California fertility center. And Hinman, an older parent himself, points out that a bookish 30-year-old parent may be less likely to get out on the soccer field with the kids than would a fit 60-year-old. Furthermore, the 60-year-old is likely to have more time to spend with a child, as well as more patience.

Although the decision to have a child late in life may seem a difficult one to the outsider, the older parents themselves seem consistently optimistic, whatever the challenges. "Older parents are a self-selected group," says Hinman. "You've got to be a little nuts to want it in the first place, but if you do, it works out."

All in Good Time

Indeed, some doctors say they are reassured by the stability of older parents. "They've made a conscious decision to have a baby," says William Gilbert, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. "That's very reassuring to me, as opposed to younger parents who haven't grown up themselves."

"Older parents are also better established financially," he says. "Biologically, we should have babies in our early 20s, but emotionally and financially, we should be older."

Older moms, to no surprise, tend to agree. "You don't know if you'll live to see your grandchildren, and that's kind of sad, but that's where we are," says mother and physician Nancy Pelzig, MD, of Nyack, N.Y., who had her first baby at 42 and a second at 46. "Overall, it's just such a blessing, you think, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?' "

"I'm in no way belittling younger parents," says Hemenway, "but I think I am much wiser and more equipped to raise a child now than I would have been in my 30s."

Karin Evans is a journalist, older mom, and the author of the recently released nonfiction book, The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past (Penguin/Putnam).

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