“Old” is a relative term, constantly changing depending on the company you
keep and the times you live. When I had my first child, I followed my inherently nosey nature and read the doctor’s chart that was left in the room while I waited. There for all the world to see at the top of my chart were the words “Elderly Gravida”. Elderly??? Moi??? Me of perfect cholesterol, low heart rate, and kick-butt quads??? Who did they think they were kidding? I told anyone who asked, and a few who didn’t, to get with the program: thirty was the new twenty.
My words came back to me the other day when I was stuck in another waiting room. I couldn’t find my favorite waiting room time killer—People Magazine, so was forced to read the standard women’s magazines. Maybe it was a fluke, but in two different magazines I saw my words: “_____ is the new _____”, only this time the word pairings were “forty-thirty”, “fifty-forty”. If I had continued to read, I’m sure I would have seen “sixty-fifty” and “seventy-sixty”. This morning I read that the 66, almost 67, year old UK woman that is expecting a baby via egg donor and IVF said that “physical age doesn’t matter; it’s how I feel inside.”
Of course, I want to believe that’s true. What self respecting middle aged woman (boy, I hate that term middle aged) wouldn’t want to cut ten years off her age? I want to believe that age is just a number? I routinely consult with singles and couples in their 40s and even 50s about the best way to start a family, and they want to believe the same. Most of them begin with the fact that they are in great health, they don’t look their age, they don’t feel their age, etc. But most of those past the age of 45 also wonder how old is too old to become a parent?
Many of my close high school friends had children in their early to mid-twenties. I started at 29 and continued throughout my thirties. To them, I was an old mom. They expressed concern about my lagging energy, being out of step with my children’s generation, and having little in common with the parents of my children’s friends. Among my law school and law firm friends, I was one of the first to have children. They thought I was pushing things a bit. From them I heard concerns about sabotaging my career and missed opportunities.
“Old” is definitely a malleable word, and assisted reproductive technology is seeing how far it can stretch. Just this morning the news was of a 66 year old British woman who will soon give birth. She’ll join a couple of other over 65 year olds that have given birth, and heaven help us, a 70 year old Indian woman gave birth to the male heir she (and her family) coveted in 2008. (The American and British women have to go abroad because most US and UK clinics have age restrictions. To find out more about the safety, affordability, and legal considerations of fertility tourism tune into this Wednesday’s, May 20, Creating a Family show.) But just because we can become a mother in our fifties, sixties and seventies, should we?
I heard an interview recently with a woman who had twins five years ago when she was 57. She kept saying how the children kept her young. It’s a cliché that kids keep you young, but like most clichés, it’s also true, or at least partly true. My children keep me connected to popular culture, music, games, and TV. Thanks to my children, Modest Mouse, Ben Folks, Panic at the Disco, and Jimmy Eat World play through my iPod while I run. Thanks to me, Bob Seger, Creedence Clearwater, and Jimmy Buffet occasionally play through theirs. My husband plays basketball daily with our kids, and we all play Four Square when the car isn’t parked over the court. Thanks to our family Wii tournaments, I can play a mean game of Wii tennis. (I must admit that despite my children’s best efforts I’ve never been able to learn the finer points of those stupid Mario Brothers, but I refuse to admit that age has anything to do with it.) Because of my kids and their friends, I don’t worry much about this next generation.
Older parents can bring a certain calm and wisdom to the parenting table. The more you’ve seen of life, the easier it is to keep things in perspective. Older parents often don’t have the same career pressures as younger parents, and they often have more money. Money isn’t the end all, be all of parenting, but it can make life easier and can free you up to spend time with your children.
But as much as I want to believe otherwise, feeling young is not the same as being young. Age is more than just a number. Our bodies have a finite time on this earth regardless how we look, feel or act. If you start in your 40s or 50s, your child will not have you around for as long as if you started in your 20s or 30s. You may not be here to guide your children through their 20s and 30s. You take a greater risk of not being there for them in their teens. You may not see the full spectrum of your children’s lives—college graduation, marriage, and children.
You will be dealing with your declining hormones at the same time you’re dealing with your child’s rising hormones. You increase the likelihood of having young children at home when the time demands of your aging parents hit. You may have the energy in your late 40s to handle a toddler, but will you have the energy in your late 50s to guide a teenager? And yes, when you start a family in your 40s or 50s, you will sometimes feel like the odd woman out. You won’t necessarily fit in with the other parents in your child’s circle, but you may also be out of step with your existing friends who have much older children.
Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to starting a family later in life. Check out the April 8 Creating a Family show “How Old is Too Old to Become a Parent.”
Also look at the great books I review for older parents on the Adoption and Infertility Suggested Books page. Most older parents are able to acknowledge the negatives while still celebrating the positives.
With assisted reproductive technology, donor eggs, and fertility tourism, the door is wide open. Whether you should step through is another matter. The issues are clearer with the extreme cases such as the 66 year old that’s in this week’s news. She may be fulfilling her lifelong dream, but parenting is all about putting the needs of our children first. Is it fair to the child she conceived to have a mother in her 70s when the child is a toddler, and a mother in her 80s when the child is a teen. Is it fair to run the very real risk of orphaning her child? There is a lot more gray when the parents are in the late 40s or early 50s. I’ve certainly seen many devoted and good parents who started in their 40s. It’s also possible to adopt an older child to eliminate some of the disadvantages of older parenthood. Whatever you decide, make sure the decision is fair not only for you, but also for your future child.
P. S. Join me at the Creating a Family Facebook group.