Joyce at 34 is a documentary about a career woman who decides to have a baby at age 34. The film was made in 1972 and at that time, women who became pregnant after 30 were labeled “geriatric mothers” or “elderly prima gravidas.” It has been nearly four decades since I saw the film, but I can still remember the dramatic scene in which Joyce announces to her family that she is pregnant. In 1972, at age 34, Joyce was old.
Times have changed. It is no longer uncommon for a woman to have a first child in her thirties and with egg donation, increasing numbers of women are beginning their families well into their forties. We all know the reasons why women are coming to motherhood later in life. Some are marrying later (although not usually by choice). Birth control is better. Careers sometimes push pregnancy to the back burner. New marriages take nurturing. Homes are expensive. And of course, there is infertility: couples who begin trying in their late twenties, encounter infertiliy and age into their thirties before a child is born.
So parents are getting older and in some ways, this works out well. Older parents credit their age and their experiences in young adulthood with making them more patient, appreciative and informed parents. They have had a chance to travel, eat out, run marathons and do all the things that become more difficult (but not impossible), when children arrive. And because there are other new parents in their age group, a mid-forties woman no longer fears she’ll be mistaken for her child’s grandmother on the school playground. In many ways, it feels like forty has become the new thirty. But is there a point at which people are “too old” to become parents?
This is a question I have struggled with for a long time and the more time that passes, the more complicated it becomes. I’ve just listed a few of the advantages of postponing parenthood and I could add others. However, suffice it to say that the increased acceptance of older parenthood enables countless people to fulfill a central life goal: parenthood. Count among them all those who didn’t find a partner until they were in their 30’s or 40’s, as well as those who hoped to find a partner and when that didn’t happen, took a leap to parenthood in their 40’s and surely those who were divorced or widowed in their 20’s or 30’s and started over. Countless people who once feared that they would never become parents are now pushing strollers or volunteering at the pre-school bake sale.
But back to the question: is there a point at which people are “too old?” I believe there is but that said, I can’t say that there is a magic number or formula that indicates when an individual or a couple is “too old.”In talking with older individuals and couples who are considering parenthood, I encourage them to ask themselves the following questions before attempting pregnancy or adoption.
1. Think beyond the next ten years or so. You are active and energetic at forty-five, but think about your age—and what you might anticipate at that age—twenty or thirty years from now. Then think about where your hoped-for child will be at that point in his/her life. How do the numbers match up? A sixty five year old parent with a twenty year old college student. A seventy five year old with a thirty year old son or daughter who may want to travel with his parents or have her folks help her move into her new third floor walk up condo.
2. Consider having more than one child. This may sound like a crazy idea—if someone is possibly too old for one child, won’t two be more difficult? Yes and no. Two children will be more work now—at a time when you are youthful and have energy—but the two will have each other when their mid-seventies mom or dad may need some extra help.
3.Look at who else is in the family, especially who is in their twenties. Does one or both of you have an older child or children from an earlier relationship? Or are there nieces and/or nephews close by? Which of these young adults (or late teens) might want to take an active role in your hoped-for child’s life? I think of this as a “staggering of generations”—your child will have older parents but will someone close to them who is twenty years or so their elder.
4. If there are no young adults in your family who are likely to be involved in a child’s life, are there others close to you? Your friend’s children? Others whom you know well? Can you enlist them to be a part of your child’s life in some important ways?
5. Don’t delay. In some ways this is paradoxical advice. On the one hand, becoming a parent at an older age is a complex decision and one that needs to be made with care. However, you will want to act as soon as possible so as not to be older still when your child arrives.
6. Look forward, not backwards. No one plans to find themselves worried about whether they are too old to become a parent. Looking back with regret and self recriminations serves no good end. Remember that you made the best decisions you could at the time you made them. Yes, it is possible that some of those decisions caused you to postpone parenthood but again, you did the best you could at the time.
There are parents who say that their children age them, that they give them gray hairs. I have found that for the older parents I know, having young children seems to do the opposite: it makes them younger. I’m thinking of the woman I saw in the bank a few weeks ago. She looked familiar but I couldn’t place who it was, someone who seemed to be in her early twenties. Then I remembered she is the near 50 single mother of three daughters she adopted from China. And there are my clients, a couple who adopted their first child at 46, their second at 47 and their third when they had both turned 48.. Now in their early 50’s, I smile each time I see them in our town center, each with a toddler on their shoulders and one with a third toddler in tow.
Ellen S. Glazer, LICSW is a family building counselor in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. Her special interests are in adoption, donor conception and surrogacy. A mother through adoption and birth, she is the author or co-author of six books on infertility, most recently, Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation (co-authored with Evelina Sterling).