Last Chance for Being a Mom: Should There Be an Age Limit

Dawn Davenport

41

becoming an older parent

Should there be an age limit on becoming a parent? How old is too old?

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 either adopt a newborn or 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.”

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

40

6.62%

45

9.86%

50

14.47%

55

21.60%

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 to not 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 book, 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’ marriage were more stable compared with the marriages of their peers’ parents.

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

  • 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

31/07/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 41 Comments



41 Responses to Last Chance for Being a Mom: Should There Be an Age Limit

  1. EERP says:

    We just lost our three children to a bitter custody battle. I first became a mom in my late 40’s. For me, being a mom is my Life’s Dream. I’ve struggled with all these issues, including some of the “negatives” the author cited. If one chooses to become an older parent, I think the parent has a responsibility to maintain health through exercise and diet. Also, a study by Johns Hopkins has shown that in women, biologically, 50 is really and truly the new 40. We are in fact, younger at the same age than our mothers. The other “negatives” mentioned, I hope, will wane as society becomes more accepting, and children of older parents become less self-conscious as children of other “non-typical” parents did over the decades.

    My husband’s mother, at 77, requires absolutely no caregiving whatsoever and runs laps around most of us. My mother, however, at the same age, was an invalid. So, while it may be a fear, I think a parent can wisely address that fear through communication, and good health management. For example, I am 50, but I pass for 40 anytime I want thanks to a healthy lifestyle.

  2. AJ, I answered your question, as best I could, in this blog: Are You Too Old To Begin A Family At 40?

  3. Yolanda says:

    I have decided to adopt an embryo, but don,t know if I will be able to carry a child, because of my medical condition (infertility). What should I do to ensure my chances?

  4. Tara James Tara James says:

    I would love to adopt another child, but I’m pushing 50 and I’m not sure I want to do an infant adoption, it’s killing me financially-as a single mom in New York. I haven’t counted out older child adoption though.
    I’m worried that my son in the prime of his life will have to deal with a senile incontinent mom by himself (the way all of my grandparents were near the end) OR I will die early like my mother at the age of 53. It’s a pessimistic way of looking at the future but I want to be prepared for the worst, and make sure that any child that I have isn’t burdened.

  5. Sue Taylor Sue Taylor says:

    I think it should be decided between a doctor and patient together – not by the government. I know women age 50 or 51 who were healtier than many of their 40 year old counterparts, had very healthy pregnancies and are amazing parents who are engaged with their children and truly cherish them. Sad to think their dreams of parenthood might not have been possible and those children never would have been born if laws were passed. That said, I don’t know many doctors who would allow treatment for a women past her early to mid 50s, and that is probably for the best. But the fact that it in the US it is decided on a case by case basis is how I think it should continue to be.

  6. AJ says:

    Dawn: Thank you so much for writing a blog post on this topic. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have found your site. What an incredible resource and service you provide to all of us trying to navigate the maze of complex decisions that accompany (in)fertility and family planning journeys.

    Carolyn: Thank you for your encouragement. It sounds like you have had a wonderful experience starting a family at 41 which gives me great hope. I’ll look into the resources you mentioned as well!

  7. Grete says:

    I am very happy to read all your considerations here. We currently have the same discussion here in Denmark, where the law now says that women over 46 cannot receive fertility treatment. Someone recently suggested to raise that age to 55, but it stirred a storm of hateful commentaries even from people who you wouldn’t expect to be quite so hateful.
    It seems that the mere thought of an older mom is just absolutely apalling here.
    So it’s nice to read views that are more balanced.

  8. Carolyn says:

    AJ,

    I’m just read through your post and am empathetic. Especially, if you are not even 40, why not do it? I had twins at 41. I am now 42 and are weighing the pros and cons of having another. I felt similar emotions reading your post. I’m interested in reading the ethics articles Dawn posted above. there is also a book I’m reading by an Economics professor, Bryan Caplan, called Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He references the twin studies Dawn mentioned in a radio show about personality and temperament of kids. I’m looking forward to hearing Dawn’s personal opinion. AJ, I don’t think you will ever regret having children! I’d say, go for it! If you focus on fear, you can always talk yourself out of something.

    It’s interesting, because in some ways 2 kids together are easier because they entertain each other more, so the parents get more if a break from having to entertain 1 child all of the time. I’ve been watching The Little Couple and they have adopted 2 around the same age. I realize this may seem tangential, but it adds to the discussion the idea that siblings add quality of life to children of older parents.

  9. aj says:

    Dawn,

    I am currently struggling – in fact, agonizing – over this decision. I am turning 40 next month and my husband is 45. After unsuccessful IVF treatments, we are considering adoption. However, as much as I dream of having a family, I’m worried we are too old to begin one at our age. At what age would you personally decide to give up on motherhood if you were in a similar situation? I feel that your answer would be so well informed that it might help guide me through this painful decision-making process. Thank you!

    • aj, what an interesting question. In order to do it justice, I’ll blog my answer so I can spend more time thinking it through. You can find out about when that blog is posted by signing up for the Creating a Family newsletter email list. Twice a week, we send out an email with this week’s Creating a Family show topic and other news about adoption and infertility. (http://www.creatingafamily.org/newsletter-form.php)

  10. Creatingmotherhood says:

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  11. Claudia says:

    I’m 46 yrs old, I have a 24 yrs old son and a 23 yrs old daughter who is married and has 2 kids from the marriage. I separated from my kids father 5 yrs ago, and I live with my boyfriend for almost 2 yrs., he’s 32 yrs old, and he’s asking me for a baby. Before he asked me, I had a conversation with my son about if my boyfriend wants kids how could be his reaction. He’s ok about it but he mentioned his sister won’t. Later I had the sane conversation with her, and her brother was right, she won’t be ok.She has kids already! My mom is very ok with the idea, so I’m and of course my partner. Funny is my ex husband had a daughter from previous marriage ( much 15 yrs older than my son), and he was 41 yrs old when my son was born. His daughter didn’t like having siblings from her father but her mother already had from another partner ( after she was born). Why girl make such a big deal?
    By the way, my boyfriend’s family loves the idea, specially his sister.
    I’m really thinking about it. Just download an app to track my fertility. I want to make him happy and myself and I think having a baby together will be awesome for us. We love each other badly.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I am currently 20 years old and my parents had me through ivf there 82 had me at 62 I disagree there are really no positives to outweigh all the negatives think 20 years ahead potential senior citizen parents think of ur son or daughter their needs in 20 years and then if u think ur still not being selfish then I don’t know what else to say

  13. I was very happy to see a few comments directly speaking about the child and the potential impact to them…

    Adopting parents need to think hard about the fact that if they are older that the odds are not in their favor of seeing the child grow to adulthood – and does a child who because they are adopted has already lost an entire family – need to lose another family – just because people wanted to be parents?

    I really doubt any doctor is signing off that someone will be around when the child is 18 and the parents are in their mid 70’s – not from the adoption physical – (perhaps they could assign a risk level assessment from an indepth testing and screening physical) … what they sign off on is that the person is fit to parent at the time of the general physical done.

    • EERP says:

      I think your comments are very cruel. My husband and I discuss this often, and he recalls many young children who had older parents. You write as if 60’s and 70’s are the end of the world. Most world leaders are that age. Count the number of great actresses who are leading international careers in their 70’s – and that’s Hard Work.

      At eighteen a child is almost a full-grown adults and needs wisdom, guidance and support – things a parent in his/her 60’s and 70’s have in abundance. Should an 18 y/o need the constant physical care of an infant, then I would suggest the age gap is the least of that family’s problems.

  14. Robyn says:

    Actually, my grandmother is 90 now, and aside from knee surgery and hearing loss, is doing amazingly well. She knows she can’t even baby-sit my kids though, as she doesn’t have the stamina, even if she does go to the fitness center everyday at 7 and do spin class and play golf 3 times a week.

    But that’s beside the point. The point is, I don’t believe in discrimination on the basis of just about anything, and that includes age.

  15. Robyn says:

    No, I wouldn’t. If a doctor signs off on the person’s health, and the person is prepared to parent, then age shouldn’t be a factor. Does that mean than an 80-year old should be able to adopt a newborn? Well, I would hope that an 80-year old would realize that parenting a newborn might be more than he/she could handle. OTOH, at 80, my Grandma acted 60, so…

    • Dawn says:

      Robyn, but acting 60 is not the same as being 60; just as saying for a healthy active 60 that acting 40 is not the same as being 40. The odds are extremely high (sorry to say) that your 80 year old grandmother will not be active and healthy in 10 years. They are pretty darn high that she won’t be active and healthy enough to adequately parent a 5 year old in 5 years. Kids are a lifetime commitment, and they need intense parenting for the first 18 years. Your grandmother will in all likelihood not be alive for those 18 years.

  16. barbaloot says:

    I adopted my son when I was 42 and he was 9 months. I don’t feel too old to be parenting him. I was conscious of picking guardians/ godparents who were younger than me. He has friend whose parents are 20 years younger than me, and friends whose parents are my age. I don’t think that is an issue; one of my best mama pals is 15 years younger than me and we are close because we see eye to eye on child rearing. All kids think their parents are dinosaurs anyway. My mother had me a week after she turned 22 and I still thought she was ancient growing up. My father was 35 and he was the more adventurous, flexible, hands on play with the kids parent.

    It is an awful feeling to want a child and realize that your time to do it is running out. I started feeling that way at 36! But I wonder why I rarely see older child adoption raised in this context. Babyhood is a fleeting time. Having children is NOT just about having a baby, but about having a family. It’s about every stage. I know the yearning to parent a baby is deep. I’ve felt it and I am lucky enough to have experienced it. But it is only one stage of parenting.

    It’s hard. And I don’t think there is a magic birthday that makes everyone too old. Some of us are older at 30 than others are at 45 – in good ways and bad ways! Age is only one factor. Personally, I don’t see myself adopting an infant again, but I deeply want to adopt again in a few years, hopefully a child two or three years younger than my son. I realize I have the privilege of saying that as someone who did get to parent a child from babyhood.

    • Dawn says:

      Barbaloot, adopting an “older” child is great option for many older parents (and younger parents too), and is certainly great for the kids involved, but it isn’t an option for everyone. People choose to adopt infants and toddlers for many reasons. Yes, to experience the baby stage of life, but also to have a longer period of time to influence and guide who this child will become.

  17. Robyn says:

    My mom was 25 when she had me. She died in 2009 at age 59. Meanwhile, my dad is still going strong at age 74. (There were 12 years between them in age.) No one knows how long they have, so I can’t say looking at life expectancy or health expectancy makes any sense at all. You have to go by the individual. Does the individual want to parent a baby? Is he/she in good health now? Does he/she have a support system? All adoptive parents have to have physicals, and some even have to get a doctor’s note stating that we’re fit to parent. If the person’s physician says it’s a go, and the person knows what he/she is getting into, then why shouldn’t it be OK?

  18. I should also add that my husband’s “advanced age” also makes us nervous that it may be difficult to get chosen by a birthmother….

  19. This is an interesting topic to me, since although I am 37, my husband is 46. We have talked often about wanting to complete our family (with our second adoption) in time for him to still have a modicum of energy for that child and not be retirement age before she graduates high school! Since our son is 7, we certainly would have preferred to have adopted our daughter several years ago, but our job situation (and accompanying financial picture) just did not cooperate. Now with our little “detour” (legal situation) until we can get the home study going again, we feel like we are racing the clock that keeps speeding up!

  20. Oh, and we need better education out there to tell women and men to start earlier so they are not wresting with the decision to start parenting at 50 ( whatever option) but at 35. Not that i want women to worry earlier, but if they knew at 35 that it is harder to have a baby at 42, they would not wait to 42 to start. I know a lot of very educated women who have no idea it is not easy to get prregnant at 46 ( w/o help).

  21. Jennifer says:

    Wow I felt like my last chance at motherhood was around 40. Interesting how people look at it differently. I’m now mid-40s and as much as I’d like another child – I don’t know that I can do it.

    • Dawn says:

      Jennifer, it is interesting how individual we all are at setting our cut-off age. Sometimes it is directly connected to your life circumstances.

  22. Jen says:

    From the perspective of a middle aged (almost 47) mother of a toddler (almost 3), it’s not about being “too old.” It is about the best interests of the child. We are acutely aware that our son needs many peers at school and other activities outside of the home. It is not unusual for us to come upon other families with young children – they are just not our age so we have nothing in common with them. He is well adjusted, we are financially more stable, we are infintely more patient, and I will say have a good grasp of what life is about – the ups and downs and feel our son will be well grounded and suited for any life he chooses. This would definitely not be something he would have experienced had he remained in an international orphanage. The largest concern would be who would take care of him if we die while he is quite young. The choices are not great as our family members are older, the young ones we feel are unsuitable, and the preferred one now has three kids ages 3,1,and 1 month. I couldn’t imagine asking them to take in another 3 year old! That being said, there’s no guarantee a 20 year old will outlive a 50 year old. The longer you live, the longer you will live.

    • Dawn says:

      It is so true that there are no guarantees in life! Picking a guardian is hard at any age, but you’re right, it is probably harder when you are an “older” parent for the reasons you mentioned.

  23. Lain says:

    The country I adopted from has a pretty firm mom no older that 40 years than the child (with 45 year for the dad). People sometimes get mad at that country and say that is “Unfair”.

    I look at my life at 50 and there is no way I would want an infant at this age.

    If I was childless, in excellent health, and married to a guy 10 years younger, maybe I could see it working out for the baby’s sake.

    But single or both parents older, I think the under 45 rule of thumb is best. There is a reason nature closes up shop at a certain point.

  24. Rosie says:

    We should consider age and parenting, yes, but not only in women. It is extremely Important that we don’t gender discriminate when it comes to parental age. The time has come to let go of this double standard. It is another symptom of the gender biased ageism that plagued our culture.

    The fact that women tend to live longer and, healthier lives than men makes this inequity even more irrational.
    Furthermore, there is actually no real medical evidence that pregnancy in older women is at all risky for them or their children – particularly when donor eggs are used.
    See this article by MD and medical ethicist Dr. Appel:
    http://www.educationupdate.com/archives/2012/MAY/HTML/med-ivf.html

    • Dawn says:

      Yes, I linked to Dr. Appel’s essay in my blog. He raises some interesting points and I recommend that anyone interested in this topic check his article out. We used to say that there were no health consequences for children conceived through “older” sperm, but their is some interesting research being done now on increased risk of certain diseases or conditions, such as autism, being connected to paternal age.

  25. Anon says:

    Haven’t older men been fathering children with younger women since…forever? I’m not so sure it is parental age so much as ability to care for the child adequately that should be the deciding factor. This is definitely a case-by-case decision, in my opinion, with all parties simply considering what’s best for everyone involved.

  26. Hi Dawn,

    I think you have talked about it before and I commented.

    Dad was mid to late 40’s and in extemely good physical condition – mom younger but still way older than any of my peers parents but they could physically keep up with us through our childhood/teen years. My peers grandparents were my parents age. It was obvious and different – probably the biggest difference was the two generation gap in attitude to parenting and what was allowed for a child to do.

    Because mom and dad were incredibly healthy/health conscious I never worried about death – could be because both grandma’s were still around for the majority of my childhood/teenage years. Longevity ran in both families.

    To me any older than than late 40’s is too old – your child will be an orphan early OR having to care for you, and your child’s children will not have grandparents and all the benefits that include. (of course anyone can die young too)

  27. g
    I somewhat get regular inquiries of 50 plus single women. (no younger husband) wanting to adopt. even women in 60s for newborns. while private agencies would not consider it. -it is done in child welfare alleluia the time. often kin but all the time

  28. I think we have to do what my grandmom always recommended: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

  29. That being said there needs to be a line somewhere. Oh and one last point, as in child welfare cases, often although the older parent is the one adopting legally, the family is actually adopting and there is a whole lot of co parenting going on in some of these situations. Thus an older pregnancy mom may have a whole family actually pareting the baby with her. Different cultures- different types of parenting.

  30. 2) If a man in his 50s ( or older ) and a woman in her 30s can have a baby , why not a woman in her 50s and a man in his 30s? And it seeems to me there are a lot of couples adopting were tha woman is 10 years older than the man. Not as uncommon as you would think.

  31. 1) Some older single parents have more resources if something should happen to them. The assumption of older parents and no sibs is for only some older single parents. Others may not have a parent ( child’s grand parent ) to rely on but instead cousins who are old enough to raise them, in additon to aunts , uncles, nieces, nephews, older siblings who are now adults etc.. if something was to happen.

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