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Parents of a Certain Age

Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?

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The first time they had sex, during that initial exploration of unfamiliar flesh, John Ross uttered words to Ann Maloney that would sound to her like prophecy. “You have the body of a young girl. You need a baby.”

This compliment, though gallant, could not have been objectively true. The first time Maloney and Ross had sex, he was 54 and she was 47. Maloney may have looked good for her age, but she most certainly did not have the body of a young girl. And the subject of babies, not in wide use as a come-on in any cohort, might have struck another woman so deeply middle-aged as creepy. But Maloney had no children at the time, and she wanted them—badly. As she recalls that ancient intimacy over martinis at an Upper East Side restaurant, her voice reverberates with remembered pleasure. Her husband gazes on fondly as she describes the moment when, as she approached 50, her fantasy came true. Maloney had deferred motherhood for the typical reasons: an unhappy first marriage and a late career switch—in her case from interior designer to psychiatrist—that required years of school and training and a radical relocation from suburban Texas to New York City. When she met her future husband, Maloney was establishing her practice and building a national reputation. She was, finally, ready.

Ross had his own procreative urges. Also a shrink, also divorced, he felt that he and his first wife hadn’t raised their son, now 35, “the way I thought he should be raised. I wanted to rear a family in a better way.” As often happens between mature couples who know what they want, things progressed quickly. The two married within eighteen months of their first date. With their medical backgrounds, they were clear-eyed about this biological fact: The odds that a woman over 45 will get pregnant in the usual, no-tech way are dauntingly low. So, skipping agonizing years of “trying,” they began the process of securing a donor egg. With Ross’s sperm, Maloney’s womb, and the gametes of a much younger woman, they would build the family they both craved.

Donor eggs result in live births about 60 percent of the time, no matter how old the mother-to-be is. But clinics set various age cutoffs, and when Maloney and Ross were attempting to conceive, she was 48, which represented the outer limit. Even after NYU raised concerns about her age, Maloney says she never wondered if she was too old to have children.

Eventually, Columbia University took the couple on. A donor was identified, ejaculate dispensed into a sterile cup. Some of the resulting embryos were immediately transferred into Maloney’s uterus, the remainder sent to the deep freeze for future use. Ann Maloney gave birth to Isabella in February 2001, a blissful event followed by severe postpartum depression followed by the hormonal rages that accompany the onset of menopause. A townhouse was purchased, two flourishing practices shuffled and reshuffled to accommodate newly complicated priorities. Lily was born when her mother was 52. This time, Maloney had to be brought out of menopause with hormones before she could get pregnant.

Today, Maloney and Ross, 60 and 66, inhabit their home with a rotating crew of housekeepers, a couple of fish tanks, a cockatiel, two bearded dragons, two dogs, two cats, and a dwarf hamster. Lily and Isabella are 7 and 10 and come with a docket of demands befitting their age—soccer games, birthday parties, sibling fights.

“You don’t know how high-energy, actually, both of us are,” Ross says. “I acted in 32 productions at Harvard, worked with Erik Erikson, graduated near the top of my class. We are both very intense, and also nurturers.”

You know such people. They are your colleagues and friends, your boss or your mother’s cousin. You see them on the subway—as I did recently at the Bloomingdale’s stop. From behind, the woman looked like a Manhattan-mom archetype: a slim-hipped, pony-tailed blonde in jeans struggling with a stroller. As I passed her, I saw that she had the too-tanned and haggard face of a very fit grandma. In parks and playgrounds, you note a grizzled grown-up and his dimpled charge, and you do the math and you wonder.

The age of first motherhood is rising all over the West. In Italy, Germany, and Great Britain, it’s 30. In the U.S., it’s gone up to 25 from 21 since 1970, and in New York State, it’s even higher, at 27. But among the extremely middle-aged, births aren’t just inching up. They are booming. In 2008, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, about 8,000 babies were born to women 45 or older, more than double the number in 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Five hundred and forty-one of these were born to women age 50 or older—a 375 percent increase. In adoption, the story is the same. Nearly a quarter of adopted children in the U.S. have parents more than 45 years older than they are.

The baby-having drive in this set is so strong it’s recessionproof. Since 2008, birthrates among women overall have declined 4 percent, as families put childbearing on hold while they ride out hard times. But among women over 40, birthrates have increased. Among women ages 45 to 49, they’ve risen 17 percent.


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