The Age of First Motherhood is Rising, But Why at 50+?

I think the better question is, Why is the “baby-having drive” of some people at midlife so strong?  Part of the answer is related to a quote early in the article; 54 year old John says to 47 year old Ann: “You have the body of a young girl. You need a baby.” First, a few numbers…

According to Miller, the number of first time moms at midlife is not only rising but “booming.” In 2008 the number of first time mothers ages 45 and over was double what it was in 1997.

Women end up “circumstantially infertile”  for any number of reasons, including not having found the right co-parent in their more fertile years, or they weren’t ready given their careers. So like Ann in the article, they reach midlife and finally they are ready. But now their body is not.

This does not mean, however, they can’t have the experience of parenthood. Many midlife couples adopt; according to Miller, nearly 25% of adopted children have adoptive parents 45 and older.

ivf-babyBut many more at later ages, want to have their “own” child. They are intent on carrying a child, and will put their bodies through a lot to do it. IVF with donor eggs are virtually always how pregnancy is going to happen if it is going to happen. Thanks to medical technology, it is even possible for women who have already gone through menopause to do intense hormone therapy to be able to carry a child.

Why are so many women so intent on having to carry their “own” baby? A most powerful component: being under the spell of our youth-crazed culture.  If you are able to get pregnant it means you are fertile, and if you are fertile, you are still young, still virile. Even if it is not the woman’s egg (because it is too old) but a younger women’s donor egg, if she can carry and deliver a child, it must mean she is not aging, but still youthful, still part of that youth revered set.

It is a certain kind of denial–not a “denial of decrepitude,” necessarily, as many people in midlife and later these days are far from decrepid. But it is a denial of the fact that they are aging. Their body is the first to remind them, but the booming botox and beyond, and fertility treatment industries can fool them into believing it is just not so.

What would happen if we revered the aging process–would so many women have to go the mat to have to carry “their” own child?  What would middle aged people do if they had wanted to become parents but for one reason or another had not had them?  My guess is that women would not feel they have to fool their body into being younger again so they could carry a child.

If we revered the aging process, I’d like to believe that those in midlife would wisely face the reality that their “organic deadline” had passed (even for guys–older men have higher chances of having biological children with problems), and wisely ask themselves how they could get the experience of parenthood another way.  Maybe more would adopt children at all ages, not just infants.  And if that was difficult, they would use their energies to improve the adoption system to make this easier. Maybe more would find ways to be involved with infants, children, and young people in a myriad of ways to support them in growing up.

If we revered the aging process, at midlife I bet we’d see far fewer women fighting biology and more plugging in to how they can use their parental needs and energies with the children who are already here. They would wisely find ways to get their needs met in ways that help the larger context of the world. They would not need avenues like midlife pregnancy to support the illusion of youth.

What do you think? When you read Miller’s piece, what strikes you most?

17 thoughts on “The Age of First Motherhood is Rising, But Why at 50+?

  1. What strikes me most about these stories is how the partners of these women all donate their sperm and get to actually be the biological father of these children while the mother can’t. As the article noted, men over 50 also carry a risk of inflicting upon their offspring all sorts of ailments, yet they are willing to risk that. They use young women’s eggs without even attempting to use their own so that they can have healthy offspring. Why not use young men’s sperm as well? Oh, right, it’s because statistically, men are less likely to be open to raising children that are not biologically theirs.

    The article neglected to mention the pressure these men might be putting on these women. I’m sure these women do want children, but would they really go through all this if their husband’s just said, “we should adopt, no need to put that kind of strain on your body.” I mean, just look at that guy’s statement: “You have the body of a young girl. You need a baby.” What do you think that really says to that poor woman?! Obviously, adopted kids won’t be good enough for him. So, she has to give him a baby. And, I imagine that besides “trying to feel youthful,” these women insist on carrying the child in order to give the men a better connection between themselves and what is HIS kid, not hers. I’m not sure to what degree this is a subconscious feeling, but I’m certain it’s there. Men are more attentive to the needs of the mother’s of their children than just a partner; it’s an evolutionary imperative. If she doesn’t “give birth” to HIS kid, she’s barely more than a glorified step-mother in his eyes, and somewhere deep down she knows that.

    Honestly, someone needs to start screening these men too. Let’s see how many of them are willing to go through their wife having IVF, giving birth, and raising a baby if THIER sperm isn’t allowed to be used. I bet you the demand for women wanting IVF after 50 will drop drastically.

  2. I’m sorry but I completely disagree with you. I have no desire to ever be pregnant & don’t really understand the drive that most women have, but I think it’s painfully clear that there is a natural & extremely strong biological urge to carry your own child.

    Not only is this backed up by millions of years of evolution but also the evidence is all around you in the way that the vast majority of people think & behave – even young couples who can’t conceive go through IVF before adoption – it’s just more desirable to have your own genetic offspring.

    The argument that these women want to feel young is a very shallow one in my opinion & doesn’t serve the cause of the childfree at all as it makes us look completely out of touch & judgmental. Do you not think that being pregnant makes these women feel like women rather than just young? Having a child is not a cut off, rational decision, it is a biological need for most women.

    1. plabebob-thanks for writing–No need to be sorry– this is an issue that gets pple talking on all kinds of channels. While I don’t think what I write is the only thing that can be going on, I do think seriously about it. Many mothers want that next child to feel they are still fertile, stil young, etc. But it is not just moms–people with and without children by choice can be driven by the youth-craze thing — we just do it in different ways. Re biological need, that is where I have to disagree with you. There is no real scientific evidence of the bio clock or the like…however, pronatalism as a powerful social value structure has convinced us that it is the case…..~l

  3. The intense hormones needed to help a 53 year old get pregnant could come back and bite them.

    Reproductive technologies have not yet been studied to see their affects on late in life reproductive cancers.

  4. I know two women who had their first pregnancies late, one who gave birth at 49 and one at 50. In both cases they were married to men who were younger–one five years and the other ten. I don’t know the dynamics of their relationships well enough to speak about what compelled them to go through the ordeal of invitro at this stage in their lives(one couple had been together since they were in their 30’s). I will say that both women are always exhausted to the point of literally nodding off while visiting me and my husband. Whatever cosmetic advances utilized to make a person’s exterior look younger, the body still ages and feels the effect of age, regardless of whether or not a woman is physically capable of carrying to term. One of these, women who now sleeps around 4 hours a night, has aged ten years in the last two. She now looks worn out and exhausted and indeed says she is. She no longer has the energy of a 30 year old and while she makes best efforts taking care of a small child, it puts an incredible strain on her and her relationship with her partner. I also have to wonder how he feels about the marked change in her facial appearance. It seems that at least in her case, the youthful appearance that implies fertility at middle age was wiped out by having a baby.

    When the children of these women are teenagers, they will be in their 60’s (one close to 70). I have to wonder what thought was given to how the physical ailments typically associated with aging would impinge upon parenting and the emotional and financial stability of the child’s home environment. My own mother was 43 when I was born. My father died of heart failure while I was at university. My parents aging and my father’s death had a profound effect on my young adult life that was far from positive. I was worrying about how my mother would manage alone and mourning my father when I was just starting out in life. I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve since lost my mother to cancer. She didn’t see me marry or meet my husband, but once.

    I also have to say for those who make the argument about biological imperatives–yes,we are mammals but are brains are sufficiently developed to the degree that we can reason and think analytically (at least some of us)and make rational choices. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should–it’s not all about what the prospective parents desire–the quality of the future of the child has to be factored in as well, obviously. As far as not feeling like a woman if you don’t have a child–what a crock. What does that even mean? And another point, if men feel so connected to their biological children–why are there so many single women raising kids on their own and why are there so many men who walk away from their families only to be part-time or absentee fathers. Any woman who labors (no pun intended) under the illusion that having a child will bind a man or husband to her need only reference the divorce statistics to see the flaw in that thinking.

    1. Ruby–thanks so much for the stories of the two women you know and your own parents. I think your first two paragraphs should post on the NY Mag comments section to the article. The author tries to debunk all of the supposed negatives but what you have witnessed and experienced is a great example of how what she is trying to prove is just not always the case. ~L

  5. You are welcome Laura.

    It’s all well and good to theorize about how the children of “older” parents will manage, it’s quite another to be one of those children. It will be decades before we have sufficient data/cases to evaluate the long term effects of being born to older parents. I’m just one case, but I’ve talked to other people who’ve experienced what I have. There are personal as well as medical ethics involved here that seem to be overlooked by many, including those members of the medical profession for whom IVF is a money making endeavor. The argument is made that these doctors are giving women the chance to experience motherhood, which as has been pointed out already can be achieved in myriad other ways, however it also expands the potential group of women from whom doctors can make money. To ignore the business/financial aspects of IVF re: the medical community is to be in serious denial.

    Another interesting point regarding one of the women I know who gave birth at 49–she was unable to adopt in Europe because many countries have a cut-off date as to the age of adoptive parents. The reason being the agencies want to make sure the parents are going to be around to raise the child. Those age restriction laws for adoption should give IVF doctors and their potential patients pause, but apparently they don’t.

    For personal reasons I feel pretty strongly that sometimes one has to just accept that you may not get everything that you have wanted in life. Accepting that is part of being an adult. If there is some biological urge (which I don’t believe, at all) I suspect it would kick in before 50+. And if you haven’t felt like a woman if you are of the female gender by the age of 50, I would doubt that having a child would change that as most will be entering peri-menopause if not menopause in their late 40’s early 50’s. Not to mention that wanting to feel like a woman is an extremely poor and weak reason for bringing a child into the world under any circumstances. I know for a fact that there are no requirements for ensuring that IVF parents have sufficient financial resources to support a child long term in addition to a back-up plan for care should the one or both of the parents become unable to manage. One of the women I know is not financially well off–she cannot afford a nanny or a full-time baby sitter so now her elderly mother, who is 74 years old, feels compelled to fly in from another state to help her daughter when the baby’s father is out of town on business which he is quite frequently. Again, it’s all well and good to write a glowing article promoted by a naked, toned woman with gray hair enjoying her pregnant body. It’s quite another to dig into the daily details of what it really means to give birth and raise a child when you are past fifty. The author can attempt to debunk all she wants but no one really knows what it’s like in the homes of people who are trying to manage in these situations. It’s the rare parents who chose to have children under normal circumstances who will admit to the downside of parenting and we all know (and studies have shown) that there is a downside. If two people spend tens of thousands of dollars and jump through flaming hoops to have a child well past the biologically normal age range of conception I would guess they would be even less inclined to admit it maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all.

    My husband and I met up with one of the couples I’ve mentioned here recently. We arrived bearing gifts of iced coffee and scones and they were so grateful they almost cried. When my husband mentioned to the father in passing that we were going to leave the task of populating the planet to others, the stressed out new dad sighed and said, “You are a wise man.”

    Someone has to be an advocate for these children of the soon to be retired, I wonder who that will be?

    1. Boy reading your thoughts tells me there really needs to be a “counter” article that looks into the real lives of people who start kids at midlife, and tells stories from informed people such as yourself… appreciate your comments!

  6. Laura,

    Thank you for allowing me space to comment. I think it is important to look at both sides of this issue because obviously the ethics and regulations have not caught up to the IVF industry. I think we caught of glimpse of how some doctors screen (or don’t screen)in the Octo-mom story.

    From an evolutionary perspective, there is a reason that fertility in normal healthy females declines as we age–because younger mothers are more likely to be around to nurture their children through to adulthood. I think it’s rather irresponsible of the author of this article to tout a new normal for women in their 50’s and beyond around motherhood. We currently get pro-natal messages from every corner and now we’re meant to believe that regardless of age one should continue to try to have children because that’s what women do. How very retro.

    I think that Kate and Molly also make excellent points. If the sperm needed to create a baby post-50 also came from a donor I wonder how keen the male partners of these women would be on proceeding. And what effect do these hormone therapies have on the bodies of women whose reproductive systems are naturally going into sleep mode? Not to mention the challenge of managing the mood swings and physical discomforts that coincide with fluctuating/dwindling hormones when you are caring for an infant or wrangling a toddler.

    And, I absolutely agree with your comments Laura that we refuse to accept the stages of life in our culture and think we can somehow trick nature rather than embracing and celebrating the wisdom and experience that we’ve gained in our journey and put it to use in helping others who are already here.

    1. So well put–“We currently get pro-natal messages from every corner and now we’re meant to believe that regardless of age one should continue to try to have children because that’s what women do. How very retro.” Pronatalism is powerful and I agree that articles like these now push the exaltation of motherhood even further…to this — a heavy sigh.

  7. What ruby said! Realizing we can’t have absolutely everything we want is part of life. Didn’t the parents in the article have full lives before kids? I can’t get over the fact that John wanted another kid b/c he felt bad about how he raised his oldest AND he’s a psychiatrist. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on his relationship with his adult child? Speaking of which, I often wonder about the effects of late-in-life births on the parents’ adult children. Aren’t they often expected to step in and raise their siblings? It just seems so selfish and shortsighted in lots of ways. Laura, I think you nailed it when you said having a baby is a way for 50 year old woman to prove she’s still youthful. (Although when older men feel free to marry much younger women, and have kids, it’s a tiny bit understandable.) Some of the issues older parents face (like having less energy for kids) are surmountable, but some (severe health consequences for the kids) not so much.

  8. I think in the interest of fairness it would be wonderful if we could set up billion-dollar industries to help parents become _childfree_ at any stage in life. Let people change their minds at any age. Help them get rid of their children, divorce themselves from their children, give them all up for adoption, change their status, and society will just have to deal with the consequences. If infertility is to be reversible at all costs, then parenting should be reversible at all costs, too. If reproductive choice is absolute at any age, then that should be an option, too.

    I’m disgusted by the fact that there are fertility clinics everywhere but there are still medical services who refuse to do vasectomies or tubal ligations. If we make one available, the other should be, too, dammit.

    On a totally different note, I wonder about the financial ethics of these fertility clinics. They make money off of every treatment whether pregnancy happens or not. Isn’t that a kind of conflict of interest, making more money from a few failures than a single success? It would be better if they were like those lawyers who only get paid if they win your case.

    1. Scott, Indeed–I wonder how the fertility industry would change if they only go tpaid if it resulted in successful pregenancy? Maybe more people would try it, that I say oh dear…

  9. It’s easy for men to say such things when they aren’t the ones putting themselves through the rigors of pregnancy, which I think dramatically increase as a woman gets older. If a guy had ever said such a thing to ME, that I “need a baby” in my late forties, I would have told him he’s out of his bleeping mind, and if we weren’t married, he’d be history in a New York minute.

    This is only my opinion of course, but I think more couples, of all ages, need to seriously discuss the issues of kids and whether or not they want to take on the tremendous responsibility long BEFORE marriage is even considered. While I know that many women want to feel younger, I do not think that having a baby at 45 or older is a good way to accomplish it.

    1. Susan, I felt the same way when I read the “you need a baby” comment ! When I interviewed couples for Fam of 2 I was surprised how many cf couples did not talk about it seriously before marriage. They let the decision “evolve.” Risky! I see this less with gen y ish ages, but just my humble opinion at this point…L

  10. Hey, Laura, I had forgotten to say that I loved your “Families of 2” book, and I have referred to it frequently. I read those stories of the couples who hadn’t discussed the question of kids much (if at all) before marriage, and you’re right, it was risky.

    Another question that doesn’t seem to come up as often as it should before marriage is that of how MANY children a couple wants if both are agreed on being parents. One partner may want a large family of three or more kids while the other doesn’t want more than two, and may even want to stop at just one child, as I did. As it turns out, a lot of what I call “done after one” moms like me have taken almost as much negative criticism from people as CF folks have.

    In any case, I believe more couples would be far better off discussing the questions of IF to have children and how many kids each partner is comfortable with long before marriage. And if there’s a fundamental disagreement that can’t be settled, then maybe that couple shouldn’t get married at all.

    1. Glad you like Fo2—I like your point about discussing how many kids way in advance as well. Couples may change their mind once one comes on the scene (e.g., I thought I wanted 3 but now–maybe 2!) and they get the realities of parenthood. Getting flack for having one just seems insane to me, although is in keeping with pronatalist messaging that is everywhere–have as many as you want–biological that is…in today’s times with 7 billion on the planet it is irresponsible for a couple to have more than 2 biological together Tops. I want to live to see the day when the mentality is adoption is the first choice!

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