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What's Too Old For Motherhood?

By Rebecca Odes |

People are having babies older all over the place. But the top end of the older mom spectrum is growing especially fast. The number of women over 45 who had babies in the past 10 years has more than doubled. Over 50, the increase is even steeper: 375%. And nearly 25% of babies are adopted by parents who are 45 years older than they are.  Technology is an obvious factor. Not long ago, motherhood just wasn’t an option past a certain point. But there are other things going on. Women have always been pressured to look younger than they are. But advances in cosmetic surgery and dermatology have made it more possible for them to impersonate younger women. The aesthetic of beauty has blurred to include a kind of ageless artificiality, embodied by Courtney Stodden, the 16-year-old who looks like a 35-year-old Real Housewife.  And as Lisa Miller, author of the New York Magazine article “Parents of a Certain Age“, says, “Nothing—not a sports car, not a genius dye job—says ‘I’m young’ like a baby on your hip.”

Most women who are drawn to parenthood in their late 40s or 50s are not consciously chasing the fountain of youth. They are answering a deep longing, the way most of us were when we conceived our children. They may have always wanted children but never found themselves in circumstances to have them. Or they may have discovered a longing for a child late in life. Whatever the motives, parenthood at this age is often met with quite the same reaction from the culture at large. Says Miller: “A new child may be a blessed event, but when a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, that choice is seen as selfish and overwhelmingly prompts something like a moral gag reflex. One post I saw on a parenting message board put it this way, and seemed to speak for many: ‘Just because you can,’ it read, ‘doesn’t mean you should.’”

Nancy London, who made a career of defending women’s rights to their own bodily choices—first as an author of the original female emancipation handbook: Our Bodies, Ourselves—and then in her own book, Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles.  Hot Flashes was written after her experience with pregnancy at 44. Her book was written to help other women find support. Now London wonders whether picking up the motherhood ball at midlife might be messing with mother nature.

” In our fifties, we take stock, get reflective, move into another phase not so defined by drama and personal drive. We do not, traditionally, mop mashed potatoes off the floor. Choosing to have children at 50 disrupts life’s natural trajectory, causing needless suffering and disharmony for both parent and child. …It’s irresponsible.”

But the idea that nature is the all-knowing governess of right and wrong is questionable. According to Thomas Perls, who studies aging at Boston University, menopause no longer serves an evolutionary purpose in the modern age. We argue that “the laws of nature” should be disregarded in matters of same-sex marriage, but not in older parenthood. This, Miller says, is because while it’s no longer acceptable to express bias against people for race, gender, or sexual orientation, ageism is still alive and well in the cultural mindset.

Miller is an older parent herself, though, she acknowledges,  still on the “acceptable” side of the fence.  But she does a decent job of parsing the knee-jerk objections to older parenthood, and laying out some data to defend these people’s roundly criticized choices. Because the facts, according to Miller’s research, don’t really back up the commonly held beliefs: that kids with older parents are somehow missing out, at greater risk, or suffering more than children who have younger parents.

Older parents may be slower and sicker, but they’re richer and more engaged, says Miller’s research. Even the obvious question of whether these children are at risk of losing a parent sooner doesn’t seem to have an obvious answer. Life expectancies are climbing to the point where these children are at no greater risk of being orphaned than any child was 25 years ago.

According to various criteria, there are many kinds of sub-optimal childhoods and sub-optimal parents. Some don’t have enough money. Some don’t have enough time. Some don’t have partners. And some might be less likely to be around when their kids turn 30. But does that make the 30 good years any less good?


I’m almost 50 and I want to get pregnant— Am I the only one?

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About Rebecca Odes


Rebecca Odes

Rebecca Odes is a writer, artist and mother. She was inspired to write her blog, From The Hips, during her first pregnancy when she discovered every pregnancy book she came across made her feel anxious or irritated. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

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17 thoughts on “What's Too Old For Motherhood?

  1. g8grl says:

    Everyone who has children has them for selfish reasons. Under the best of conditions the only real reason people have children is because they want them.

  2. Anon says:

    If you need to do anything other than have sex and get pregnant the old fashioned way, then you are too old. No matter how old.

  3. Juliet says:

    Anon, clearly you did not have fertility issues. My partner and I would not have been able to conceive naturally even if we started at age 18. And, inferring from your comment, you think all same sex couples are “too old” to have kids.

    I understand both sides of this – logically, as long as you can carry a pregnancy to term or prove to an adoption agency that you’ll be a fit parent, you’re as entitled as anyone else to have kids. But on a visceral, gut level, I believe there is an age at which people should not have kids. Like other right-to-choose issues, I disagree with some other people’s choices, but I’m not going to get in the way of them making those choices.

  4. Manjari says:

    Why do you even bother calling yourself anon as if everyone can’t tell who you are by your broken record of comments?

  5. diana says:

    at first i was like no way if you go through menapause and cant concieve naturally then dont have kids, but reading and reading a few comments i have changed my mind , its everyones right to propergate and have children i just hope they are ready and prepared when they do so its a huge, huge responsibility one that ensues joy,stress, responsibility and unwarranted advice that may deemed helpfull or helpfull parenthood will make you question yourself time and time again, and i hope these older 50 moms live to see the accomplishments of there children and are there to support them and give unwarranted advice for when parenthood surprises them….there is no more me when you have a child and even when they are 50 they still want mommy and daddy around but that may not be likeley for 50 + new moms and dads children….I personally would never thats my perogitive as id like to take care of my self after 5 sons and enjoy my time with no responsibility or pitter patter joy worrying about them 24/7 is a fact when you have a child, id rather enjoy visits from the gran babies lol

  6. goddess says:

    Meh- not for me personally, but her body, her choices.

  7. Bob Rodriguez says:

    having kids at any age over 42 is just plain gross and nasty. . . like michelle duggar and all of her kids, there is a time and a place for birthing

  8. Móna Wise says:

    Age is just a number. My Dad died at the age of 50. He did not get to see me get married or have my own kids. If you have the means and want to build a family by getting pregnant at any age you choose, then who am I to stop you. Go for it, have lots. They enrich your life like nothing else will.

  9. Angelica says:

    Do you have the TIME, ENERGY, and MONEY to raise a child over 50? Will you be able to RETIRE and put your child through COLLEGE? Will you be alive when your child becomes an adult? There is so much more to it than having a child simply because you can, and that goes for all potential parents.

  10. Whatevs says:

    “Will you be alive when your child becomes an adult?” I dunno… I think that’s like saying to a firefighter or a cop or someone in the armed forces, “Maybe you shouldn’t have children since you most likely won’t have time to see them and there’s a much higher chance of your death.” I mean, if we’re going to judge someone for having a child later on in life, then let’s go all the way – let’s judge everyone who has a job or a disease or a genetic component that means they have a higher likelihood of dying.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Good point @Whatevs. Age is only one of many risk factors!

  12. carmen santiago says:

    us women is not to old to have a baby we have a chans to have a baby ok i am 39 year old and i have 3 kids and i am going to have more kids as soon as i can ok i have a son that 18 year old and i have a girl that 9 year old and i have a 2 year old baby girl ok

  13. Zelie Martin says:

    Egad – if every one waited to have a baby until they could put the wee one through college – no one would have babies! College isn’t for every one anyway so I think that’s hardly a good benchmark in making that kind of decision/

  14. goddess says:

    As long as you are not planning to have one while ON, or PLANNING TO USE, entitlement programs funded by taxpayers, go for it. Meaning: as long as you can feed them, shelter them, cloth them., provide for their educations, health care and child care without PLANNING TO USE public assistance, go for it.

  15. Sarah Wright says:

    I’m just amazed at how judgmental people are. Especially Nancy London. Who are these people to judge something so personal for anyone? Are all fifty-year-olds alike? So why the blanket prescriptions for what they should be doing with their lives? My own mother had four kids and started just after she turned 31, so my younger sister was born after she was forty. People used to ask my grandmother what was “wrong” with my mother. This was because she had wanted to go to college and then work for a while before she met my father and started having kids. In those days you were considered ancient to be having kids at the ages she had us four kids, respectively, and I don’t think it’s really all that different from what is going on now. She also wanted to have her kids 3 and 4 years apart. I think that was smart.

    As for adoption–I am so sick of that ignorant, superficial, specious attack. When people say that I know they don’t know the first thing about adoption. There are some pretty complex issues out there right now about adoption–for example the black markets that exist in many countries that steal babies and make a huge profit selling them to adopting families–as well as the cost of adoption which is way out of reach for many families.

    I have a son and now a daughter who I had way after I had my son. I am just gobsmacked that people take issue with the fact that I had her in my forties and never even inquire as to my husband’s age, half her parentage. He’s 5 years younger than me and no one would even comment on how old he was when she was born; it wouldn’t even be a blip on anyone’s radar. Do I wish I started having kids when I was younger? Yeah, I do. It didn’t happen for me because I didn’t want to have kids without a partner and couldn’t have afforded to do so even if I’d wanted to. Did it take me a long time to find the person who I wanted to have kids with and who wanted to have kids with me? Yeah, it did. It also took me a long time to get a career going. Does this make me an inferior person, an inferior mother? I don’t really think so. And I don’t think that’s how my mothering should be measured.

    This smug, superior crap about when in your life you should do anything at all infuriates me. It’s just more of the usual “mom shaming” that people can’t seem to get enough of.

  16. Anoosh says:

    I think a factor that no one is considering is the ways that work and the cost of living are pushing women to have children later. Wages are declining for everyone, so it takes much longer to attain a level of financial stability to have kids than it did for our parents. My parents were able to get good jobs with a BA (Dad) and an MA (Mom). Now I have an MA, but my husband has a PhD and an MA in Library and Information Studies. So it took him much longer to get the credentials he needed for the job he wanted. Also, women continue to be punished professionally for having children, so women — who also, in general, earn less than men — often feel like they must work until they attain a certain level of success to afford the likely pay cut that will come with parenthood. It irritates me that people continue to regard these “trends” as “choices” that individuals make for themselves, which are often interpreted as selfish or some kind of sign of declining morals/sense of decency/whatever, when in fact larger forces are driving these “choices.” So why can’t we critique the way that companies stigmatize motherhood and agitate for better pay, better maternity and paternity leave, and universal child care rather than picking on women who decide they are finally ready and able to have children?

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