What's Too Old For Motherhood?

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?


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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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