Changing the World, One Old Mother at a Time

In an episode of New Girl from earlier this season, Jess loses her shit over being 30, childless, and potentially infertile. While I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg that the show took things a tad far ovary-panic-wise, I found myself nodding—just a teeeeeeeny bit—in agreement. I too am 30 and childless, and while I have no idea how fertile I might be, there is truth to the idea that the older a woman is, the harder time she might have getting pregnant if/when she wants to.

Myself and many women like me, who’ve grown up privileged, educated, single, childless, career-oriented, and feminist, have also figured that we’d get around to having kids eventually. Unlike generations of women who came before us, we have the option of delaying the babymaking process until we’ve taken care of other business we might want to accomplish, like advancing our careers and finding people with whom to have and possibly raise said babies. Many men are considering those factors too, putting off fatherhood as a result. It is a good thing that we have those options. But what happens when a whole bunch of people decide to have kids later in life? According to the latest issue of the New Republic, delaying parenthood might have further-reaching consequences than we realize.

cover of the new republic shows a couple holding a baby in black and whiteIn her article “The Grayest Generation: How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” Judith Shulevitz recounts her own story of fertility drugs and later-in-life pregnancy (she had her son when she was 37) and uses it as a jumping-off point to examine parenting trends in the United States and, to a lesser extent, abroad. Parents are older now than they used to be—first-time mothers are now four years older on average than they were in 1970 and the average first-time father is also about three years older. That might not seem like much, but it is a shift. Says Shulevitz:

A remarkable feature of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph, in part because it’s the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it. Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they’re not wrong about that. So each time an age limit is breached or a new ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) procedure is announced, it’s met with celebration. Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children.

Sounds great, right? But that’s not all. Shulevitz reports that along with the “feminist triumph” that is delayed parenthood come birth defects, learning disorders, unknown side effects from fertility drugs, parents who are too old to care for their children, grandparents who are too old to care about their grandchildren, lower birth rates, and economic decline. As a rational feminist who believes in reproductive rights, birth control, and planned parenthood (and Planned Parenthood), this piece still inspired a bit of New Girl-esque fertility panic in me. What if I’ve waited too long and now my gray-haired babymaking RUINS IT FOR EVERYONE?

But no five-page article can cover every base, and there’s plenty more to the story than this. First, every pregnancy has the potential for complications, health or otherwise, and age is by far from the only factor. Also, there are plenty of benefits that come with waiting to have kids. Some of Shulevitz’ (and, in a much douchier fashion, Ross Douthat’s) arguments linking the economy to birth rates are pretty much bunk. And of course there are plenty of drawbacks that can come with having kids at a younger age. As Alec Baldwin, himself a later-in-life dad, will tell you: It’s Complicated.

So what are we to do about our aging parental units? Just convince everyone to have children when they’re younger? No. Because the system that encourages some parents—women especially—to wait until their careers and lives are more established to have kids remains largely unchanged. Says Shulevitz:

It won’t be easy to make the world more baby-friendly, but if we were to try, we’d have to restructure the professions so that the most intensely competitive stage of a career doesn’t occur right at the moment when couples should be lavishing attention on infants. We’d have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right.

For the parents Shulevitz is talking about in her piece—and she’s only talking about a small group here, because there are plenty of people in the US and around the world who are under 30 and have kids—culture discourages taking time to raise families when they should be advancing their careers. She mentions women and men, but of course women are the ones who can’t “have it all” when it comes to work-life balance, whereas men don’t face the same consequences. Hence, women wait until we’re in our later thirties to have kids, and hence: PANIC.

Panic aside, Shulevitz raises some good questions. Though not as scary as it might sound, many parents are indeed having kids later, and many parents are also using fertility drugs and treatments to get pregnant. These procedures are relatively new, and we should pay attention to how they might affect kids and society at large. However, waiting to become a parent has its pros just like having babies at a younger age has its cons, and vice versa. And yes, examining this change in parenting is important, and it obviously caught my (and my ovaries’) attention. But I’m still waiting for the article about how society has changed to support women in all parenting (or non!) decisions. And I’m still waiting to have kids, too.

by Kelsey Wallace
View profile »

Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

10 Comments Have Been Posted

I really dislike the ableism

I really dislike the ableism in some of these studies, as well as the ageism. DON'T GIVE BIRTH LATE IN LIFE OR YOUR KID WILL BE [INSERT DISABILITY HERE], the message screams.

There are several ways we should handle this:

1) Develop a community-based system of care, rather than relying on "self-care" and "pulling self/family up by bootstraps." The elderly and people with disabilities (mental, neurological and physical) get shamed for EXISTING and being "a burden" on society--a society that is organized to cater to wealthier, younger, able-bodied people (except young adults, who were hit hard by the economy). The same goes for single mothers, young mothers, and poor families. If we have a community-based system it will end the stigma against people who do need additional support. Rather than complaining about more elderly people and more disabled people we should fight society's restrictive standards on who is able to live a comfortable, fulfilling life and who should be swept under the rug.

2) End the stigma surrounding adoption. There is too much paranoia surrounding the "backgrounds" of children or the notion that adoptive families are less like "real" families. The real problem is kids being tossed around in foster care and women pressured by society into a pregnancy they may not want. Adoption is certainly not right for everyone, and it comes with its own set of problems, but the same goes for pregnancy and childbirth!

I totally agree

I completely agree with you, Mandy, that institutional and cultural changes are in order here. Instead of putting the burden on women to have the "right" kind of babies at the "right" age, there should be room and support for all different kids of families. Unfortunately, we're not there yet, and like you say, ableism and ageism are big parts of that.

To your second point: I'd be interested to hear from readers who have experience with adoption. I mentioned this issue to a coworker yesterday and she told me she and her husband were told by the adoption agency that it would likely take 10 years or more for their international (China, in this case) adoption paperwork to go through. They filed in 2006 and still haven't heard anything. I'm not sure if that's a typical timeline, but if it is then that might also feed into fears about older parenting.

Thanks for your comment!

There is a difference between

There is a difference between domestic adoption and international adoption, as well as open adoptions (in which the birth mother has open communication with the adoptive parents and the child) and closed adoptions. One adoptive couple I know went through domestic open adoption, and it took roughly a year and a half. Different countries also have different policies toward international adoption; perhaps it is quicker to adopt depending on which country. Hopefully someone here has more direct experience?


I am adopted, and it is definitely a process. My mother was a single, career-focused lady that decided at age 30 to try to adopt. Because my mom isn't super wealthy (foreign adoption can cost tens of thousands), she went through DFCS, and it took 10 years for her to get me. My mom told me that most of the children that all of the children that they offered her before me (like 3 or 4 kids) had disabilities, and my mom knew with her career she would never have enough time or resources to devote to a child with disabilities. One thing I don't know is if my mom being single had any influence over how willing DFCS was to let her adopt. 1991 is when I was adopted, and it seems like now people favor open adoptions where the birth mothers are compensated throughout the duration of the pregnancy, which is also pretty expensive. All together, my mom only paid $600 for my adoption, and that money was for court costs, not for purchasing a baby. I am a big advocate of adoption, and I feel bad that there is a lot of stigma around adopting kids because of the child having "bad blood" or what not. As a person that was adopted and is in college (a good one at that) and is well adjusted along with being fatherless and adopted, I find that to be an incredibly offensive thing to presume about any child. There are no bad children, only bad environments and bad parents, so the only reason that a child that doesn't get adopted turns out bad isn't because of the stock that the child came from, it is because the child never got adopted, and therefore, never had the chance to grow up with a loving, nurturing family. Also, having an older mother was great, but I wish she would have gotten to parent when was younger because she has a lot of health problems, and I have felt a little young and ill-equipped to deal with all of them. Deciding to become a parent older, means that your kid misses out on some of your best years, and I don't say that from an ableist perspective, I say that as a child that feels very sad every time she hears a story about the person that her mother was, the person that she never got to see, and even though my mother is still with me, I wish so much that she could have been my mom when was in her thirties, not forties and fifties.

My husband and I waited to

My husband and I waited to have kids, and started trying when I was barely 28 and he was 30. I really expected conception to happen immediately, because I was always so terrified of it happening by accident. Two years later and I am 30 (today, actually) and 25 weeks pregnant with our first (and likely only) child.

When I went for my first appointment with my OBGYN, she asked my age, and reminded me that I would be 30 when the baby is born. She said this with a raised eyebrow, and proceeded to go on a five minute rant about testing available for women of "advanced maternal age", so I would know for "next time".

I was taken aback by this. Thirty years old doesn't feel old to have a kid to me, and trust me when I say if I had been younger, 24 or 25 even, I would not have been in a place emotionally, or financially to have a baby. Given that we glorify teenage pregnancies (cough, MTV, cough), I wonder if "advanced maternal age" will become the norm or not.

Advanced Maternal Age

I want to go off on a rant about how pregnancy and childbirth has been highjacked by the medical establishment. For me, this just amps up anxiety. To me "advanced maternal age" just irritates the crap out of me and guarantees a series of extra tests. Luckily, I have a doctor who knows my views and shares them: focus on healthy living and only do testing when it is warranted (as opposed to "just because you can" or "because it is recommended*".) If I ask for the testing she won't necessarily say no, but she would walk me through the *risks of the testing. The reason I'm bringing this up in this context is I was pregnant at 34 and delivered three weeks after my 35th birthday. And I almost ended up driving myself nuts about what type of testing to have and that my baby may be more likely to have XYZ ... [so?] I really had to step back, find a hospital-based midwife practice that had similar values to mind and stay focused on being as healthy as possible and take things in stride if something that required medical intervention arose. That allowed me to tune out some of the "advanced maternal age" crap. I could also say to myself that no one can predict what will happen. It isn't necessarily in my (or anyone else's) control. I'm taking care of myself and the baby in the healthiest way possible and really thankful to even be able to be pregnant (both because of my age and infertility in my family). [Along with pregnancy is not a sickness - these were my mantras to stave off anxiety stoked by the internet chatter and medicalization.]

I'm pretty darn sure I was not in a good place emotionally, financially, and relationship-wise to have a baby earlier in my life. And I'm not saying I had a bad time earlier in my life, but I thought of raising a baby as a really big responsibility that should take place when one is financial more secure and in the right relationship. I really struggle with watching our traditional college students get pregnant before they graduate and before they have had a full time job or paid their own bills... and then I think am I being a classist ass, because I can't help worry for them given how challenging it is in general to raise children (time-wise, emotionally, & financially). And yet women do it everyday. Young women do it everyday. My question is how this impacts kids being raised in poverty or major financial insecurity... So I worry about younger women through my own biases carried from my young adulthood when I was very focused on not getting pregnant. [Veering dangerously close to going off about the U.S. shitty family policies....]

By the way, it was a major trip to finally in adulthood try to get pregnant! Years of fearing an unplanned pregnancy and then a 180: anxiety with every month that past without getting pregnant. Something either comic or cruel (or both) about that.

My son is now 5 months old. He was born in a hospital with a nurse midwife, a nurse, and my partner by my side. He was born healthy, and we avoided all intervention and drugs save one ultrasound when we transferred to the midwife practice in my 7th month.


I realize I am an example of one, and that I cannot prove something like this wrong. But AT LEAST SOME of the panic about declining fertility is over-drawn. Thirty? Thirty is old to have kids? Try a great time to have kids because you're not the crazy self-obsessed twenty-something. My grandmother had her last child at 42, and it appears that I'll be having my second and last at 42, too. I got pregnant at 38 the first time. Both times, took only two months to conceive. I know that I am somewhat lucky. But this "precipitous" loss of fertility at 30 - not buying it. Sounds WAY TOO MUCH like the medical profession trying once again to limit women's choices. From what I read and what my midwives and doctor have reiterated to me is that the decline is gradual, though steeper after 35. Now I had some reason to believe that I came from pretty fertile (and long-living) stock because of both my mother's and father's families, tho' not themselves, who both died young.

But the reality is that there is NO WAY I could have been as good a mother as I am now when I was 27 or 29, or even fucking 33. No, I may not get to have much time with theoretical grandchildren, but I am healthy and can expect to nurture my actual children into adulthood, which is pretty damn great. And who knows? My grandfather turned 95 this year and has seen two great-grandchildren (yes, he was married to the 42-year-old grandmother, who died not of old age but in a car accident).

I regret that I may not have as much energy as the younger parents, but quality of attention and care - well, these things are just not affected by my age. Period.

Older parents can be WONDERFUL

I just wanted to throw in my two cents here, anecdotally from my own life. My mom and dad really wanted kids, but they both had major job opportunities. So they waited, and waited, on the theory that you shouldn't ever be the one to encourage your partner NOT to follow their dreams. They took the approach that they might have kids or not, but they already had a marriage and wanted to it to be solid.

The upshot is that my mom had my sister at 42, and me at 44, and we are both healthy and very happy (yup, even with a lot of babysitters and a lot of missed school plays. Though my dad became a SAHD and was a member of NOW, which was totally awesome - he died many years ago and I am very grateful for what a feminist he was). My parents gave themselves the lives they wanted, and it has translated into a lot of support for my sister and I having the lives we want.

I think Mandy is SPOT-ON about the ableism and ageism inherent in our idea of motherhood (specifically, but parenthood in general I suppose), and so I also offer this:

My mother has very honestly said, as a former pediatric specialist and aunt to a severely retarded nephew, that she would have had an abortion if my sister or I had serious health defects - she just knew that she wouldn't have had the emotional energy to give to both her patients and her children in that way, and my sister and I have never been particularly insulted by this fact (side note: I really love that my mother has always treated me as a mature person that she can talk honestly to). Her nephew grew up in the UK, with a strong medical support system, while she moved to the US and learned first-hand just how difficult our system makes it for parents of disabled children, and I know that she would be the first in line at the polls to vote in a more compassionate insurance and caregiving system that doesn't force potential parents to make those excruciating decisions.

Just my two cents, I know every family is different but my parents' path was a really good one for us.

Kelsey, you are delightful.

I feel like I've been having variations on this conversation forever. My mom was a couple months shy of 30 when she had me and had just turned 40 when she had my youngest brother. My aunt was 21 with her first baby and 42 with her second. My cousin had her first on her 41st birthday and her second a year and a half later. In my family, "geriatric" pregnancy is the norm, and I think we're a remarkably healthy and intelligent bunch. My cousin's almost-3-year-old is the most articulate toddler I've ever met, and my cousin has transitioned beautifully from being a dedicated workaholic career dynamo to being a fully engaged stay-at-home mom-- and she's loving every minute of motherhood largely because she didn't sacrifice anything in her life to have it.

A few years ago I ran a professional organizing business, and you know who most of my clients were? Women in their 50s who had moved from their parents' homes to their husbands', had kids early, and were just starting to discover themselves as individuals as their nests emptied. Several times I was called in as women left their husbands of 20-30 years so that they could have the kinds of life experiences I got to have in my 20s and early 30s. I'm glad I don't have to wait out my kids' lives before I can go after that advanced degree (check!), explore running my own businesses (check!), see a little bit of the world (check!), etc.

And finally, a larger part of this conversation is that it's more than just career pressures that influence women to have kids later in life. I think some of the fallout of the women's lib movement of our parents' generation is that many men in my generation are not adult enough to marry & take on the responsibility of a family yet. They're still playing video games and often living with their parents or with an equally adolescent roommate. I know a lot of women who would gladly have started down the traditional family path in their 20s, but the men our age just seem to be getting into the idea in their mid-30s.

My mom was 37 when she had me

I'm just a few months shy of my 32nd birthday, single, and childless. Does this freak me out? A little bit. But my mom was 33 when she had my brother and 37 when she had me. By far, my parents were some of the oldest parents in our rural, farming community. But when I think of the advantages I had by having older parents, I feel really good. My mom went to COLLEGE, which was really unusual in my peer group. My friends used to come over to my house just to listen to my mom talk about her life experiences. I had a friend just recently say to me, "Your mom was the only person I knew who had gone to college. I wanted to go to college to be like her." My parents were also really calm and settled-down in their lives, and I think that helped them raise really calm, well-adjusted children. Just my two cents.

Also: adopt domestically, people. There are a lot of children here who need parents. You don't need to wait 10 years to adopt from a different country. Adopt now, here.

Add new comment