Age and Parenting: How Far Can This Go?

If you're a follower over on Facebook, you know that we've been talking about the recent New York magazine article, "Parents of a Certain Age" today. The topic of age and parenting is clearly an interesting topic to me, considering younger moms (previously the norm) are quickly becoming the minority. And even though yesterday we discussed whether or not that's just a regional issue (the average age for first-time U.S. moms is 25 years old), New York magazine confirmed the statistics:

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.

So there you have it. The numbers are steadily creeping up towards 30 years old, especially if we look to Europe for an example of the trend. And although the article starts off by posing a simple question (Is there anything -- ethically, biologically -- wrong with being over 50 and pregnant), it quickly bleeds into a war on the ages.

The question of whether an older woman should use modern resources to parent a child is a weighted question on its own. Of course the issue gets muddled when talking about genetic abnormalities, but to simply assume that an older woman won't be healthy enough or active enough treads into dangerous waters. I find it similar to how society tells younger women that they're not mature enough or financially stable enough. And as far as the life longevity issue, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and my son would lose me at 2 years old. Yes an older parent statistically has less time to live, but no one can know for certain. There are also good chances that a 50-year-old parent will be around for the next 30 years, possibly long enough to see their grandchildren.

But what's interesting to me is why parenting over 45 is booming more than any other age range -- and why biology seems to be disregarded more than ever. 

The author -- a first-time mother at 40, by the way -- starts off with the scientific facts:

  • 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

But in the next breath, she goes on to say that this is a case of ageism -- "the last form of prejudice acceptable in the liberal sphere."

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.

I would argue that it's not discrimination, it's science. It's reality. Not because older parents aren't capable of loving and caring for a child -- plenty of grandparents have sole custody of their grandchildren -- but because chronological age dictates the safety of procreating. So perpetuating this idea that women are better off waiting -- See there are more 40+ women than ever giving birth! We're all doing it! You can do it too! -- is actually borderline irresponsible. And delusional. Science and medicine may have extended our lives, but they haven't been so successful when it comes to fertility. (Reports say it will take another million years or two for our biology to catch up to our extended life span.) Sure IVF can help with fertility issues -- which is wonderful -- but there are real genetic risks to waiting. It can take endless dollars and years for it to happen. It might not happen at all.

Why are we ignoring these facts? Why are so many women taking the risks? Why push past our biological clocks? It's one thing for women who haven't found the right partner, but it's another issue when society -- when women like this author -- tell us that it's a financial, professional necessity. Society has made 20-somethings stereotyped as dependent and immature. Society has labeled young mothers as unambitious and unsuccessful. When mentioning that the "ideal" age is now around 30, the author says: But a certain kind of woman—an ambitious woman—is just getting started at that age. And a baby will cost her. (Just getting started at 30? Is this indicative of first-time maternal age being delayed even further?)

To further drive home the point of why women should put off childbirth:

Most delay children because they want the independence that comes with work as well as the nontrivial benefits of professional success: a good salary, health insurance, and a stable place in the world. The economic trend lines indicate that the ranks of these women will increase going forward, their decision to put work before childbearing for some period of time not “a lifestyle choice” but a necessity.

But I'd argue that if you want to be sure you'll have the healthiest child -- or even just a child at all -- then putting childbearing before work is not a lifestyle choice, but a necessity.

How long can these societal norms hold any weight? How long until we realize that money, success, shouldn't be the reason to delay having children? How long until we stop treating pregnancy and motherhood as something that stalls our life, but rather something that immeasurably enriches it? Being a 20-something (and apparently 30-something, according to the author) mother might cost her the promotion, but maybe she won't want it. Motherhood gives us more balanced priorities and a more refined focus. And what about all of the working mothers making a decent living, carving a place for themselves in the world? There are plenty of younger moms who go on to be wildly successful. Younger moms who go on to change the world. Younger moms whose highest ambition is to raise the best children they can.

How long until we recognize that fertility is something to value, not something to put on layaway? That sometimes nature knows what it's doing?

Listen, I think there certainly are 40+ women who are biologically able to produce healthy and happy children, as well as be phenomenal parents. My aunt and a friend of mine both fall into this category (after "oops" pregnancies, not IVF) and I couldn't imagine their children not existing. But it's the trend of delayed parenting becoming the norm (fueled by society's misconceptions about motherhood and younger women) that I find unsettling.

If becoming a parent is important to you, then know that there is an expiration date -- as unfair as that seems. And coming from a younger mom, an ambitious woman, I'm just as professionally and personally fulfilled as I've ever dreamed to be.