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Should older women have babies? Paula Coston looks into why not… or why

June 7, 2015
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she... didn't know what to do???

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe./She had so many children she/we… didn’t know what to do???

OK, so I’m 60, never had children (never found the right mate), even tried to adopt for three years and that failed; always been sad about that – though these days I assuage my mothering longings in other ways. (I’ve written about childlessness many times on this blog, as my BoyWoman regulars will know.) But now I’m thinking: could I still be a mother, even at my age? I mean, to a naturally born baby of my own? How would I feel about that: morally, physically, emotionally? Could I cope: not just with the demands, but with my own conscience, and with societal attitudes in reply?

The prompt that got me quizzing myself was the recent news (23 May 2015) of a 65-year-old German teacher, Annegret Raunigk, already mother to 13 children, who’s now given birth by Caesarean to quadruplets. (By my tally that makes it 17.)

Annegret isn’t unique. In 2008, following IVF treatment two 70-year-old women in India gave birth. (Apparently on that continent, childbearing at 50 is not so uncommon.) Worldwide, 2008 saw about 8,000 childbirths to women of 45+, 541 of these to the over-50s. In 2012 154 babies were born to British mothers over 50 (and the UK has the highest age threshold for women entering on motherhood in the first place: average age 30). Globally, the number of births to women at 40+ has gone up 13% from 26,419 in 2008 to 29,994 in 2012, meaning that today, 1 in 25 babies are born to mothers who are beyond 40. (There are even websites now, Older Mum: http://oldermum.co.uk and A Child After 40: http://achildafter40.com.) In the US a number of grandmothers have produced offspring for their daughters. Of course, I’m not a grandmother either; but how must these women feel? And how should society respond?

My knee-jerk is to condemn: selfish, population explosion, straining world’s resources, mutter mutter mumble…. But I think I’ll dig more deeply among the research and my brain cells, weigh up the pros and cons. These women are my sisters, after all.

One constellation of reasons why not to try this at home? According to traditional statistical sources, woman’s fertility begins to decline after age 27: after 40, she has about a 5% chance of getting pregnant each month. This means that the ‘miracle’ stories of late motherhood are often IVF stories, or at least, tales of some kind of ART (Assistive Reproductive Technology), whether those women – some of them celebrities – choose to say so or not (Would I want to undergo the trials and tribulations of ART, and all that expense?, I wonder to myself….) The news media lap these up – never, of course, dwelling on the high proportion of failures and maternal journeys to despair. And whatever the means of impregnation, the risks of dangerous complications shoot up as a woman gets older: gestational diabetes; high blood pressure during pregnancy; premature birth; low baby birth weight; multiple pregnancies; miscarriage; ectopic pregnancy; a child with chromosomal abnormalities, e.g. Downs, etcetera etcetera. Then, of course, there’s the (arguably outdated) medical profession’s attitude to older expectant mums: anyone over 40, would you believe, is classified as of ‘advanced maternal age’, ‘elderly primigravidas’, a 1950s term, and at ‘high risk’. Hmmm.

But are there any counter-arguments, facts and figures? A 2013 article by psychology researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University in Atlantic Monthly, quoted in A Child After 40, states that there are: that the general wisdom above is often based on French birth records dating from 1670-1830, an era before that of reproductive science, antibiotics and advanced nutrition. The Real Challenges and Benefits of Having a Baby After 40 (http://achildafter40.com/challenges-benefits-baby-after-40/) also cites, via Twenge, ‘some rarely mentioned modern research’ which concludes, apparently, that women aged 35-39 have an 82% chance of conceiving within a year if they have sex twice a week, and other findings that – before the era of contraception, at least – 89% of 38-year-old women were still fertile. Further studies quoted on the same website seemingly show that since most women of 50+ use donor eggs, the risks of chromosomal abnormalities are low; and (2012, University of Columbia Medical School) that 50-year-old pregnant women fare just as well as those aged 42. Their researches also discovered that women over 50 had similar rates of complications, such as gestational diabetes and premature labour, as women under 42 who’d had eggs donated; and although older women had slightly higher blood pressure rates, the difference was small, and might and have been due to chance. So who and what to believe?

Back to the negatives. In 2012, geneticists in Iceland found that fathers pass on more genetic mutations to their children as they age, some resulting in schizophrenia and autism, with 40-year-old men twice as likely to father a schizophrenic child. Dr Avi Reichenberg, a psychiatrist at King’s College London, has also been looking into how genes are affected by factors other than the underlying DNA (a study known as epigenetics). How people eat, drink, smoke, are exposed to pollution, pesticides and other endocrine disrupters and get stressed may cause sperm cells to mutate, with consequences for the resulting offspring; and it’s obvious that, the older you are as a parent, the more time you will have had to be genetically affected by your lifestyle and surroundings. Reichenberg goes on to confirm the Icelandic guys’ findings that ‘the proportion of children of older fathers or mothers who have psychiatric or neurological disorders is higher than in children of parents of average age.’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9928198/Are-older-parents-putting-our-future-at-risk.html) This trend, plus the other higher physiological risks that are recognised for newborns to late mothers, inevitably put more strains than are felt from younger mothers on our health and care services. Oh dear.

Upsides again? Reichenberg reminds us that The risk has always been there. It’s only now that we are starting to understand it.’ So this is nothing new. And there’s more along the ‘nothing new’ line. Turns out that in fact, for the first half of the 20th century the number of births to mothers of 40+ was much the same as it is now – in fact, there was a great surge in late motherhoods after World War II, when couples were reunited (with more babies born to women over 40 in 1947 than in 2011!). It’s only that feminism, and all the female opportunities that that and better birth control brought, plus an increase in separations and divorces, have brought these figures down since – not any underlying truth that older women aren’t able to procreate; and only contraception, and smaller families, that made society start to feel that conception after 35 seemed unnatural.

Further ‘Bah! Humbug’ thoughts against the whole idea of later motherhood: Talking of feminism, at age 60 would I really want, suddenly, to have to change my routines; abandon or curtail some of my hobbies and passions; maybe give up my job, or go part-time? de Beauvoir, Friedan, Greer et al. paved the way and fought hard for what I’ve got now – and I appreciate it hugely.

But what of the positives for offspring of these births? After all, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the children than ourselves as potential parents, here, in the first place? According to research, the children of IVF in older mothers performed better on a whole range of intelligence tests. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/singletons/201110/50-is-the-new-40-having-babies) And other work, too, has shown that ‘three-year-old children of older mothers are likely to have better language development and to experience fewer unintentional injuries…. Positive and responsive parenting generally increased with maternal age up to about age 40.’ (Jacqueline Barnes, Julian Gardiner, Alastair Sutcliffe, and Edward Melhuish, The parenting of preschool children by older mothers in the United Kingdom, in European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2013, publ. Taylor and Francis). Clinical psychologist Oliver James agrees: ‘There is evidence that older parents are better parents: they related well to their babies and toddlers, they provide better discipline, and the outcomes are better.’

More reasons why not? Given that older women, these days, are having babies around 40-50, I wonder how many have thought through that their peak years of rearing are likely to take place around the time of their perimenopause/menopause – as ‘The Real Challenges and Benefits of Having a Baby After 40’, A Child After 40.com, puts it: when ‘the King Kong of postpartum will meet the Godzilla of perimenopause’, creating ‘a potentially explosive impact between estrogen, progesterone and stress hormones, not-to-mention emotional highs and lows’. As I remember from my own menopause, that can be a heckofalot to cope with. But there are two-edged arguments here. Some insist that, however lively we feel these days into our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, childcare will sap those levels of energy. But…

On the pro side: Annegret Raunigk, she of the 17 children, says ‘[They] keep me young.’ She seems to believe that a positive attitude will help her physical and emotional wellbeing: ‘I’m not actually afraid. I simply assume I’ll remain healthy and fit.’ Lisa Miller, writer of Parents of a Certain Age in New York Magazine, interviewed 60 and 66-year-olds Maloney and Ross whose children are 7 and 10: ‘”You don’t know how high-energy, actually, both of us are,” Ross claimed (http://nymag.com/news/features/mothers-over-50-2011-10/). And sure enough, some studies have found that 50-somethings mothers reported less parental stress and the same levels of fatigue as 30- and 40-year-olds (Psychology Today, above).

Any more why nots? Yep, heaps. Women who start popping babies late tend to have smaller families, whether they like it or not – especially those using ART, donor eggs or surrogacy for a first child, since this can drain the resources to finance subsequent children. Is it good for more children to be an only child? Some may say yes, some may say no. And as the Daily Telegraph article puts it, with this and an ageing demographic generally in many countries, ‘society is becoming increasingly top-heavy, with a dwindling supply of young people around to work, pay taxes and do the heavy lifting’. But there’s more to it than that. Having a child at 55 or older brings a higher chance that you won’t live to see them into adulthood. It also becomes less likely that they’ll ever know and love their grandparents, or others close to you of the generation above. You may find yourself involved in providing elder and toddler care simultaneously. Maybe more worrying still, who will care for you if you can no longer care for yourself? With the cracks widening in the current social and health care systems of many countries, there may be far fewer places we can turn for aid in a future not so distant: the cert is dwindling that your own offspring will want or be able to do this particular kind of ‘heavy lifting’.

And yet… In 2010, over 3 million grandparents in the US were responsible for raising their grandchildren, and few have questioned their fitness to do that! Moreover, women over 40 are more likely to have pursued higher education, achieved personal growth and are now ready, fully, to dedicate themselves to parenthood; there’s also more chance that they’ll have attained management/executive roles, won themselves significant salaries and built up more savings and resources – so perhaps they can afford more care and more ART after all?? It seems that in late mothering, as in much, our society and female existences are full of contradictions.

So what about the notion that older women are selfish to want children, especially multiple mothers like Raunigk? Don’t they sap our planetary resources, which are anyway shrinking, or contribute to a population explosion? Well, despite the increase in births among the over-40s, actually birthrates among women overall had – at least, in 2011 – declined 4%. Hang on. I’m getting v. confused.

More objections to late parenthood: It’s no fun to experience the ageism at the school gate, at parents’ evenings or in other gatherings; or to be assumed to be a grandma, not a mother to your child. Could I, or many, take such current everyday biases?

I’m still bemused. And here some final, even more bemusing thoughts. In May 2015, the scientific and popular press reported that, thanks to experiments in mice, we might soon be able to turn off one of the female body’s genetic switches, delaying (indefinitely?) the onset of the menopause, and thus prolonging the production of our own healthy eggs (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/menopause-may-soon-be-postponed-1068161.html). Other experiments are looking at re-inserting tissue from our ovaries later in our lives, thus keeping the ovarian tissue pumping oestrogen, postponing perimenopause. Diets, too, such as the ‘paleo diet’, are being tried.

In 2014, overall human life expectancy around the world hit an all-time record of 71.5 years, and human beings are healthier than ever before. Whether we like it or not, choose to be a ‘late’ parent or not, science is changing the goalposts around us.

If we can afford the science, maybe we just have to accept that we’re going to fund some vast physiological adjustments; and if we do that, maybe we’ll have to militate to fund corresponding changes in societal attitudes, familial living arrangements, health and social care systems, too, to match.

Do I now want to consider being a mother at 60? Yuk. Somehow, despite all the above, for myself, it seems unnatural, self-centred and, for me, too late. Here and now, with the failing health and social care systems that we have, I still can’t relish the idea.

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2 Comments
  1. Paula, I adhere to the last line of your blog post about the health system and social care system. You could also add ‘adequate pension’ to that list because once you have a child at the age of 60, if in paid employment, then having to take time off work for maternity or any longer amount of time will reduce your pension contributions. If you are self-employed then that’s another consideration too.

    • Jane, thanks for your comment! – and for adding a really important point to my post. So glad you took the trouble.

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