I was speaking at a conference a while back when a woman approached me to ask about her options for becoming a mom. She was single and wanted to adopt a very young child or give birth through fertility treatment. She was 56 years old and said, “This is my last chance for being a mom, and I don’t want to miss it.”

becoming an older parent

In a strange twist of medical science, it would likely be easier for this woman to give birth to her child rather than to adopt. While it is possible to adopt a newborn or very young child at 56, it isn’t probable. It is, however, quite possible with donor eggs for a woman to give birth in her 50’s. But should she?

Ought There Be a Law?

Although infertility clinics can refuse to treat older women, there is no law in the United States that restricts in vitro fertilization (IVF) to women under 50. In 2008, the last year that this data was available, over 7,000 babies were born to women age 45-49, and almost 550 babies were born to women in their 50s. That number has surely increased in the last four years. And age 60 is not a magical barrier to pregnancy. Famously, Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara was 2 days shy of her 67th birthday when she gave birth to twin boys in Dec. 2006. She was treated at a clinic in California, although she told them she was 55. When asked if it was a good idea to have children at her age, she responded that her mother had lived to 101, so she expected to live a full life and hoped to see her grandchildren. She was diagnosed with cancer within a year of her sons’ birth and died when they were 2 ½.

Is 50 the New 40?

As much as I want to believe that 40 is the new 30 and 50 is the new 40, I’m not sure I really buy it. Life expectancies are certainly greater now than in our parent’s generation, but the human body still ages. At a great presentation at last year’s American Society of Reproductive Medicine Conference on How Old is Too Old to Have Kids, one of the presenters pointed out that people making the decision to have kids should not look at how long they will live.

Rather, they should look at how long they can expect to live in good health. A 45-year-old woman can expect 27.6 more years of good health but only 7.3 years in excellent health. (That statistic ticked me off!) A 65-year-old woman has 13.4 years of good health remaining but only 2.8 years of excellent health. (No data was given for women in their 50s.) Another way to look at this is to consider the risk of the mother dying before the child is 20.

Mother’s age at child’s birth

Probability of Mother’s Death before the child is 21









Who Should Decide?

Putting aside the risks of pregnancy and giving birth at an older age, should older women become moms either through birth or adoption? No doubt older parents have some advantages in parenting—notably financial and career stability and often an ability not to sweat the small stuff. It’s also true that our society tends to get worked up over older moms but conveniently overlooks the father’s age. And fundamentally, who should make the decision on how old is too old? A fertility clinic, an adoption agency, or the woman herself?

The Most Important Question

In my not-so-humble opinion, the most important question to ask is what’s in the child’s best interest. Not surprisingly, since motherhood past the early 40s is a relatively new occurrence made possible by donor eggs and greater acceptance of older parents adopting, there is little academic research on how the children fare throughout life. Two books, Last-Chance Children: Growing up with Older Parents and Latecomers: Children of Parents over 35, interviewed the children of older parents, although they defined “older” as over 35.

I suppose this fact alone speaks volumes on how we think of parental age and what is considered old. Few people now think twice about a 36-year-old mother.

What Do the Children of Older Parents Say?

On the plus side, children of parents over 35 reported that their parents were devoted and gave them plenty of attention. They described them as being patient and wise. They felt greater financial and emotional security, and they thought their parents’ marriages were more stable than their parents’ peers’ marriages.

On the negative side, children of older parents experienced the following feelings:

  • Fear of parental death or illness
  • A sense of a generation gap and embarrassment relative to parents’ ages and appearance
  • A feeling of being “different” that continued from childhood into adulthood
  • A need to become mature earlier than peers
  • Having to become their parents’ caretakers earlier than their peers
  • A sense of loss that results from a lack of siblings, grandparents, and other extended family members.
Image credit: sean dreilinger