“She’s an older mother!” The obstetrician bellowed to the attending staff and everyone else in earshot as I was rolled in the operating room to deliver my son.
“Do you have to announce that to the entire hospital?” I cringed.
Even as more women wait until their mid-thirties and early forties to become parents, most physicians consider them to be of “advanced maternal age” and high risk simply because they’re older. In one way, the extra attention paid to each advanced maternal aged patient is reassuring.
But, some feel that “older mothers” don’t have the energy to cope with sleepless nights or to run after their toddlers. I’ve spoken with parents in their twenties who decided not to have more children because they are worn down by a child who didn’t sleep through the night for the first two years of his or her life.
“‘Inconvenient biology:’ advantages and disadvantages of first-time parenting after age 40 using in vitro fertilization (IVF),”a 2012 study in Human Reproduction journal, looked at the pluses and drawbacks. The study was conducted by the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, and most of the findings apply to “older mothers” whether or not they used IVF treatment to become pregnant.
Advantages for Older First-Time Parents
Surprisingly, many of the older parents in this study had a very positive outlook, and believe they are at an emotional and social advantage. Although parents did see how being younger than 30 might be the optimal biological age for having children, they saw beyond age 35 as superior socially. For instance, the study reported some “older parents” found that interacting with other “younger” parents made them more culturally in the loop.
Despite common fears of the “older parent stigma,” or having less of their total lifetime to spend with their children, waiting until one’s late 30s or 40s to have a baby often means having an established career, financial security, a committed relationship with a co-parent, and a stronger sense of emotional readiness. For older parents, there was a distinct “No regrets” mentality, as well as cited attributes of “maturity,” “patience” and “self-awareness.” One man in the study put it this way: “I know that I’m way more self-aware than I was 20 years ago. I feel like I’m in a better position to communicate better with my child.” One mom feels she is a much calmer parent than her younger self would have been, saying she doesn’t “sweat the small stuff,” as younger parents might be more prone to do.
Many older parents also have more financial stability. Parents with established careers were thankful that they did not have to “prove themselves” at work by putting in longer hours or traveling while simultaneously raising a child.
Disadvantages—Not Hard and Fast
Thirty-eight percent of women and 26% of men who participated in the study cited the lack of physical energy as a disadvantage to becoming a first-time parent over the age of 40. Some “older parents” would have preferred to have children 5-10 years earlier. However, other participants say the physical demands of parenting help them stay more active.
“Nobody likes to think they’ve reached that murky milestone known as ‘middle age,’ especially women,” says Anne Barrett, associate professor of sociology at Florida State’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy.
Barrett examines how people view the start and end of middle age in the journal Advances in Life Course Research. She found that gender, age, race, and socioeconomic status influence views of middle age. Those likely to view middle age as occurring earlier were those in poor health and those who began families young, among others. She points out that “entering parenthood later predicts a later endpoint of middle age.”
Barrett looked at what strategies people use to retain positive views of themselves as they age. She reports some “people maintain a younger ‘age identity’ than their actual chronological age. She uses the example of a 60-year-old who feels a decade younger. “We could interpret this perception as a way a person promotes a more positive self-image in a culture that celebrates youth and devalues old age,” she said.”
A youthful perception might very well have to do with delaying childbearing. Children keep you young—at least until they are old enough to do things that turn parents’ hair gray.The assumption that older parents won’t be around to see their grandchildren is not necessarily true. As mentioned in an earlier post, Forty (or Close) is the New 20 for Having Babies,The New England Centenarian Study found that women who gave birth after age 40 were four times more likely to live to age 100 or beyond.
Longevity questions aside, first-time parents over 40 may end up having fewer children than they originally wished. Two-thirds of the families that participated in the Institute for Health and Aging study had only one child. Although many liked the idea of siblings, only one-third of the participants tried to conceive again with IVF citing the difficulty of coping with infertility treatments as one of their main concerns. Cost was also a major consideration.
The Bottom Line: “Expensive, but Worth It”
According to another study, “Expensive but Worth It: Older Parents’ Attitudes and Opinions About the Costs and Insurance Coverage for In Vitro Fertilization,” the median out of pocket expenditure for in vitro fertilization can range from $10,000 to $27,000 depending on the type of insurance the participant has. The participants in this study and those from the University of California, San Francisco study consider the costs to be very expensive, regardless of their higher-than-average household incomes. Nonetheless, participants in both studies agree that the costs were worth it. Because of the difficulty and uncertainty of their pregnancies, participants view their children as a “gift” or “blessing,” which ultimately triumphs over the expense of IVF.
With more women starting their families later, the rise in singleton-families is likely to continue.
Toothman, Erica L. and Barrett, Anne E. “Mapping Midlife: An Examination of Social Factors Shaping Conceptions of the Timing of Middle Age.” Advances in Life Course Research, September 2011, Vol. 16, Issue 3: 99–111.
Mac Dougall, K., Y. Beyene, and R.D. Nachtigall. “‘Inconvenient Biology:’ Advantages and Disadvantages of First-time Parenting after Age 40 Using in Vitro Fertilization.” Human Reproduction, Feb. 14, 2012, Vol. 27 No.4 (2012): 1058-065.
Nachtigall Robert D., MacDougall, Kirstin, Davis, Anne C., Beyene, Yewoubdar. “Expensive but worth it: older parents’ attitudes and opinions about the costs and insurance coverage for in vitro fertilization.” Fertility and Sterility, Nov. 25, 2011, Vol. 97, Issue 1: 82-87.