“Mommy, he’s not sharing.”
It’s a beautiful day at the town pool near Sea Cliff, Long Island, with summer colors as bright as a Disney movie. Kate Garros stands in the shallow end, as her daughter, Alexandra, age 7 and slick as a seal, swims up to tattle on her twin brother, John. Kate has blonde hair and a wide, friendly face; her polka-dot blue suit covers her without flattery or fanfare. The twins are hers, conceived through donor eggs with her second husband when she was 53, but chronologically she is the peer of the grandparents seated in a row on the pool deck, lavishly slathered with sunscreen. Garros paid the senior-citizen rate at the pool’s entrance.
Ally and John climb on Kate as she talks, wrapping themselves around her body and pushing into her flesh before wriggling away in different directions. We chat about schools, sports, and summer vacation as the children approach and retreat, showing off new strokes and somersaults. Ally persuades her mom to make a bridge with her arms under which she can swim. The first time goes fine, but as she leaps onto the pool deck to do it again, she accidentally steps on her mother’s finger. “Ow! That really hurts!” Kate holds up her hand and steps away from the pool’s edge. She has arthritis, and her daughter has hit a hot spot. Later, heading for the parking lot, John asks his mother a question that measures the miles between them. “Mom,” he says, “do you like Cee Lo Green?”
According to the life-expectancy charts issued by the CDC, a child born to two 50-year-old parents will lose her father when she’s 25 and her mother when she’s 30. She will grow up, says Monica Morris, with an awareness that her parents are older than other parents, and she will worry, more than her peers, about their inevitable mortality. Morris is a sociologist, and for her book Last Chance Children, she interviewed 22 adult kids of older parents. One recalled that as a girl, she would enact a nocturnal parental ritual in reverse: She, the child, would creep out from her bed to listen at her mother’s door for the precious sound of breathing. “She was just terrified,” Morris says, “that her mother would die.” That same kind of child may grow up to discover that just when she needs to prepare for grad-school exams, put in long nights at the office, or tend to small children of her own, her parents have grown frail and in need of care. Her own children may never have grandparents.
Nancy London finds that she’s in the awkward position of having to reverse herself. As a co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1973 (the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade), London was among those who argued—convincingly—that biology was not destiny, that women should take control of their lives through birth control and find pleasure and independence in sex. Her 2001 book Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles attempts to provide empathic guidance to women who find themselves, as she did when she had her daughter at 44, having to deal with small children, elderly parents, and their own menopausal mood swings all at once.
But for London, 50 is too far. She now believes that biology is destiny and that a woman who delays childbearing for decades because she has other priorities isn’t living in reality. In the seventies, the Second Wave feminists wanted to “have a career, travel, have sexual adventures, whatever we thought freedom meant,” London recalls. “But then we had to find out that biology is not some patriarchal concept created to keep us barefoot and pregnant. To mother is part of our nature. To toss that out the window and say, ‘Hey, that’s not for me,’ and then at 50 to say, ‘Oops, forgot to have a baby’—something is not processed in our thinking.”
London has a suggestion. The human body has an organic deadline—menopause, which occurs around age 50—after which baby-making is no longer possible. Why not respect it? 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,” London says.