Reproductive technology accounts for the sharp rise in the numbers. Women over 45 who want to carry their own babies most often use donor eggs, though egg freezing, a more cutting-edge method, offers early adopters another option, a kind of reproductive DVR for circumventing the inflexible and often inconvenient schedules handed down by Mother Nature. (Save your shows, and watch them when you have time; put your own eggs on ice, and wait for Mr. Right.) Egg freezing now gets write-ups not just in medical journals but also in Vogue, where a long feature on the technology appeared this past May between articles on avant-garde gastronomy and the fashionable art of mismatching patterns.
But just as important as those medical advances is a baby-crazed, youth-crazed culture that encourages 50-year-olds to envision themselves changing diapers when a decade ago they might have been content to calculate the future returns on their 401(k)s. Nothing—not a sports car, not a genius dye job—says “I’m young” like a baby on your hip. “He’s given the house a renewed spirit and purpose,” John Travolta told People magazine earlier this year about his new son, Benjamin. Travolta is 57. His wife, Kelly Preston, is 48.
Born before the Stonewall riots, gay men in their fifties never expected to be invited into the ranks of the conventionally domesticated. But thanks to decades of activism, they too have the option of choosing a very traditional path: first love, then marriage, then that backbreaking baby carriage. They realize “that they can have what they always thought they couldn’t have,” says John Weltman, founder and president of Circle Surrogacy, a Boston agency that matches prospective parents with surrogate mothers. “They’re seeing it happen.”
Last winter, the gossip columns reported that Stefano Tonchi, the 51-year-old editor-in-chief of W, had married David Maupin, his partner of 25 years, and that the couple was expecting twins through a surrogate. The guest list for their East Hampton baby shower was said to include Tory Burch and Martha Stewart. Now that their daughters have arrived, the couple’s acquaintances are wondering how Tonchi (who declined to be interviewed) is coping with the addition of two barfing babies to his fastidiously posh apartment.
Whatever their tastes in home décor, old parents face a version of the judgment implicit here: They have no idea what they’re in for. More than that: This is just not right. 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.”
Herewith, the results of an unscientific poll.
Should people have babies at 50? I asked my mother (who had her third and last child two days after her 32nd birthday). “No,” she answered instantly.
“Jesus,” responded a colleague—male, straight, early forties, and the father of three young kids. “Wasn’t it hard enough at 30?”
“I think it’s bizarre,” said a friend who is gay and pushing 50 of his peers on the baby-shower circuit. “Jimmy has two grandpas? It seems like more than a midlife crisis.”
I posted a variation of the question on UrbanBaby, the go-to online chat board for parenting snark. “Freakish” was one commenter’s assessment of people who have children late in life. “Unfortunate for them and the DC (Dear Child)” was another.
Concern for the misbegotten children tops the list of objections. Obstetricians, who have to deal with the fallout of these procreative impulses, are especially harsh (in private, for these people are their patients). “I see them in the hospital, all stroked out,” the result of pregnancy-induced hypertension, an OB once told me. These are cases in which baby lust seems to obliterate any sane calculus of the real dangers involved: After 35, the risk of preterm labor increases by 20 percent, and preemies can have lung problems, digestive problems, brain bleeds, and neurological complications, including developmental delays and learning issues, depending largely on their gestational age at birth. After 40, a pregnant woman is likelier to become afflicted with preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and hypertension—the worst outcomes of which can result in the death of the fetus and occasionally the mother as well. It is also after 40 that the risk of having a child with autism increases—by 30 percent for mothers and 50 percent for fathers, says Lisa Croen, a senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente. Advanced paternal age is likewise associated with miscarriage, childhood cancer, autoimmune disease, and schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. “Everyone wants to believe it’s not going to happen to me,” says Isabel Blumberg, an OB/GYN at Mount Sinai. (Ironically, the risk of Down syndrome among over-45 parents is low: Donor eggs are young eggs, and don’t make the mistake during cell division that leads to that condition.)
What really bugs the acquaintances of these oldest parents is their denial about their decrepitude. Everyone with kids knows that parenthood is the never-ending revelation that you can always be more exhausted. It’s squatting and standing and bending and lifting and standing up again. It’s handling poo and being smeared with goo and never, ever, ever, sleeping. How can the oldest parents possibly hack it? Babyhood is hard enough, but as they grow, children need to run around in the fresh air, ride bikes, and throw balls. How can an aged dad keep up when his physical strength is known to diminish 15 percent each decade after his 50th birthday? When he’s got even odds of eventually getting heart disease? How can a 65-year-old mother summon the stamina and mental toughness to enforce a curfew? “Children are entitled to at least one healthy, vibrant parent,” says Julianne Zweifel, a psychologist who treats fertility patients in Wisconsin. “Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean you’re healthy and vibrant.”