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Parents of a Certain Age

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Fiona Palin, 49, with daughter Kiki, 5 months.  

And if you meet the love of your life at 50 and the desire to start a family sets in? You can try to adopt. Or “maybe what you do together,” she says, “is grieve for your loss and find another way to serve the planet.”

I should note at this point that I realize how lucky I am. I had my first and only baby when I was 40 years old, and joyously brought her home to the brownstone-Brooklyn neighborhood where we live. Thanks purely to the fluke of my inhabiting that particular moment and our particular place of residence, my age has been an unremarkable fact of our lives. No one has doubted my mothering abilities or questioned my motivations because I had my child later than most people; lots of the moms in my daughter’s class are around my age. But it’s only because I happened to fall on the acceptable side of the line that I was spared the bigotry directed at parents who dare to cross it. Had I waited a little longer to get pregnant, or lived in an earlier era, I would have been one of the freaks.

Here is why the arguments against old parents put forth by this article thus far are actually all bunk: They rest on the assertion that people above a certain externally imposed cutoff should not have children because it is not natural—and nature is a historically terrible arbiter of personal choice. American states used to legislate against interracial couples on the basis that miscegenation was “unnatural.” Some conservatives continue to fight gay marriage and gay parenthood on the grounds that homosexuality is “unnatural.” Broad-minded people see these critiques for what they are: bias and personal distaste hiding behind an idea of natural law. And yet some of these same broad-minded people still feel comfortable using chronological age to sort the suitable potential parents from the unsuitable. That’s because those judgments, and the backlash they’re fueling, are a product of ageism, the last form of prejudice acceptable in the liberal sphere. Sitting so ostentatiously on the boundary between “youth” and “age,” 50-year-olds threaten an image we hold of good parents (i.e., the handsome, glossy-haired ones depicted in the house-paint ads). By acting young when they’re supposed to be old, they cause discomfort for the people around them. Parents like Kate Garros have felt this all too acutely. “If you don’t meet people’s expectations of what a mother looks like, they can’t hack it,” she told me.

The reason people couch their objections to older parents in concern for the children is to mask their more impolitic uneasiness about the parents themselves. But those objections are hypocritical: The number of grandparents in America who have primary responsibility for children rose 8 percent to 2.6 million people between 2000 and 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. But they are not deemed unfit caregivers simply on the basis of their age—on their ability to throw a ball or stay up late. What’s more, the available science says that for all the disdain directed at older mothers and fathers, their kids are likely to fare just fine. There are, to be sure, myriad ways to inflict grief and suffering on children (including and especially by having them too young), and the heightened dangers of a middle-aged pregnancy demand private risk calculations. But being an old parent, in and of itself, does no harm.

When a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, the choice prompts something like a moral gag reflex.

In 2008, Brad Van Voorhis, head of the fertility clinic at the University of Iowa, decided he wanted to measure how well children conceived through in vitro fertilization do on intelligence tests, hoping to dispel lingering concerns about their cognitive abilities. So he and his team compared the standardized-test scores of 463 IVF kids ages 8 to 17 against the scores of other kids in their classes. They found that the IVF kids scored better overall and in every category of test—reading, math, and language skills. And they found that the older the mother, the better the kid performed.

Van Voorhis guesses that the children of older mothers outperform their peers because the mothers, who’ve waited so long to have them, are more engaged. It’s a recipe for success: “Fewer kids at home, more attention to the kids they do have, and more money to devote to their education.” Other studies corroborate these findings. In research published in the journal Fertility and Sterility in 2007, Richard Paulson, head of the fertility program at the University of Southern California, found that mothers in their fifties reported less parental stress than those in their thirties and forties, the same level of mental functioning, and the same perception of fatigue. The fiftysomething women in his small national sample, incidentally, were also less likely than their counterparts to employ a nanny. They are more checked in.

Some evidence even suggests that having babies late extends a person’s life. Boston University’s Thomas Perls has been studying centenarians since 1995. He found that women who gave birth to children after the age of 40 were four times more likely to live to 100 than those who did not. His study has nothing to do with reproductive technology or adoption: It shows a connection between an unusually healthy reproductive system and longevity. But longevity is complex, and Perls hypothesizes that there’s something about living with kids—all that running around, all that responsibility, all that social connectivity in the shape of picnics and playdates—that maintains health. People who’ve made a big investment to have little kids take care of themselves, and people who take care of themselves live longer.


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