Pregnant at 47: Kelly Preston and the Rest of Us

Hollywood is stoking dreams of things other than stardom.

Posted May 20, 2010

While news commentators and commentors on the internet are expressing a certain degree of shock about it, I cannot be the only woman in my forties who heard the recent news of Kelly Preston's pregnancy, at age 47, with some wistfulness.

The overlay here is that the pregnancy feels like a gift not only because of Preston's "advanced maternal age" — a label obstetricians slap on anyone set to deliver after age 35 — but also because it follows on the heels of the horrifying death of the Preston-Travolta's 16-year-old son, Jett, last year. That makes it a singular and unique story unto itself.

On the other hand, this is a bigger story as well, one that has those of us who had babies later in life and still experience moments of baby-craving wondering, "Hmm, if she can, could I? Should I? How? Why? Why not?"

As usual, Hollywood is pushing the limits of what we can imagine, and I'm not talking about the special effects in Avatar.

Access to the best innovations in plastic surgery and to the best trainers, nutritionists, and other wellness consultants have in recent years kept Hollywood actresses looking younger longer — thereby, the hope is, extending their acting careers. And it seems that looking younger may have them acting younger, and getting away with it, for longer.

For example, there is a discernable trend toward older women dating, partnering with, and marrying younger men in Hollywood, a trend that evolutionary biologist Steven Josephson, Ph.D. told me speaks volumes.

"In my line of work," he told me in an interview not long ago, "we might look at what is going on with [marriage, sexuality, and childbirth and childrearing] in Hollywood as the opposite of ‘way out there.' It may in fact arguably be predictive of what is likely to become accepted as normal in the years to come."

This being the case, a younger man may well become a status symbol for not only for the likes of Courteney Cox, Halle Berry (I know, that didn't work out so well, but that's not the point), Demi Moore, and Madonna, but the rest of us as well.

Sociologists and anthropologists have cited other Hollywood "trends" like childbearing outside of marriage as possibly having an impact on how the rest of us feel about such practices. Once scandalous, now not so much. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center report found that in 2008, 41% of births were to unmarried women versus 28% in 1990. While we may still value marriage as the "best" context for childbearing, there is no question that it is no longer the only context we can imagine as was the case in the 1950s and 60s. Hollywood alone isn't responsible for the shift, of course, but as usual, it was "ahead of trend."

The recent Pew Research Center report also suggests that Preston is both ahead of and on-trend. Using data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau, Pew assessed who gave birth in 2008 versus who gave birth in 1990. In 1990, 10% of births were to women aged 35 and older; by 2008 the percentage was 14%. When Geena Davis gave birth to twins at age 48 in 2004, it struck many of us as positively freakish. Sure, women have always had "change of life baby" surprises, and reproductive technology now makes many things that once seemed impossible possible. But was it "right?"

Women in Hollywood and across the nation who have access to reproductive technologies seem to be changing our expectations, however, and soon for women with resources the issue may be less, "Is it right?" and more "Is it for me?" Hollywood is stoking dreams of things other than stardom.

As women's reproductive careers get longer and longer, what will the impact of this particular dream come true for some women be for women as a group? Will it increase our status, our value in the sexual marketplace? Allow older women to compete with younger women for partners in ways they couldn't before? Put our health at risk? What does it mean when we can not only be babes in our mid to late forties--but actually keep having them?

In the next post of this two-post series, I'll get some answers from Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma who is co-author with Peter Gray of the book Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior (Harvard University Press) and has co-authored two papers on the trade-offs between early and late reproduction.