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Parents of a Certain Age

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In Perls’s view, menopause, the definitive end of a woman’s natural fertility, can be regarded as an evolutionary relic. Ten thousand years ago, when humans died at 50 and childbirth at any age was perilous, menopause had what evolutionary scientists call “a survival benefit”; it protected the species by allowing women, in their final years, to devote themselves to their existing children and grandchildren without assuming the potentially fatal risk of pregnancy. But now the average woman lives to be 81. At 50, she’s nowhere near dead.

At no other time in human history have people expected to reach their 50th or even 60th birthday and have one of their parents at the party. We have come to sentimentalize the wedding portrait with three or four generations, but it’s that sense of entitlement that’s out of whack. A dramatically lengthened life expectancy (21 years in the U.S. since 1960) is a luxury, given to us in the developed West by modern medicine. To lose a parent at 30 is not, by any historical measure, a tragedy.

And even when a parent does die before a child reaches adulthood, that child can thrive. In a 2009 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers at Arizona State University asked 91 college students to wear monitors that tracked changes in their blood pressure, and to note whether those changes had been preceded by everyday stressors—a fight with a friend, say, or a traffic jam. Half the subjects had lost one parent before age 17. Half were from intact, two-parent homes. The psychologists found that the bereaved students who felt emotionally connected to their surviving parent coped better with life’s hassles, while those who felt neglected by their surviving parent freaked out at the slightest problem. But the most surprising data came from students whose parents were both alive and fell into a category the researchers labeled as “highly protective.” These subjects boiled over at minor setbacks almost as much as the bereaved and neglected group. Another aphorism to add to your parenting-tips collection: Helicopter parents may do more damage than ancient ones. “Evidence from both animal and human studies,” the researchers wrote, “supports the notion that moderate levels of stress in childhood are associated with better handling of stress in adulthood.”

Here’s the final point, and the trickiest. People—straight or gay; married, partnered, or single—who have babies at 50 are often wealthy. The average egg-donor cycle costs $25,000, but the cost can run as high as $35,000 for the eggs of an elite, Ivy-educated girl. A surrogate costs as much as $110,000, which insurance often does not cover. Adoption, depending on how you do it, costs between $20,000 and $40,000 out of pocket.

The resources of affluent older parents provide their children with small but significant benefits. Compared with their 30-year-old peers, 50-year-old women have “access to their own money and clout in the world,” says Elizabeth Gregory, a women’s-studies professor at the University of Houston and author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood. Thus established, they can chaperone the field trip without job anxiety; financially secure, they can take an extended parental leave when the baby comes.

When I spoke to the literary agent Molly Friedrich by phone, she had just returned from playing “really, really bad tennis” with her two adopted children (9 and 14, from Guatemala and Vietnam, respectively) on a local court covered with “seismic cracks and holes—exhausting and ludicrous.” She is 59 years old and adopted these two kids after her two biological children were grown, because she “couldn’t think of a good reason why not. Every decision I’ve made has been pretty impulsive, not to say reckless. We have a lot of love, we have the space, and we can carve out the time.” In this line of thinking, kids are not a crimp on a lifestyle but brought into a family to share its advantages. “My feeling is—this is going to sound insanely narcissistic—twenty years with my husband and me versus twenty years in an orphanage, there’s no comparison,” says Friedrich. “They have a much better chance flourishing with us than in the places they were born.”

The relative wealth of older parents blunts their supposed shortcomings in other ways. Research supports intuition: Rich people live longer than others. Demographers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have found that the gap in life expectancy between richest and poorest Americans has widened since 1980 to four and half years from three. Rich people are likelier to have good health insurance, and insured people live longer because they can avail themselves of checkups and screening tests. Rich people are likelier not to be smokers, they’re likelier to be thin, and they’re likelier to have good cardiovascular health. (They may be able to play some catch after all.) These data point to loathsome injustices far beyond the scope of this article. But where the welfare of children is concerned, the good health that comes with wealth counts as a check in the plus column.


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