Are we better off waiting to be older parents?

As more women choose to have children in middle age, they feel that they're excelling as parents, their kids are happy and the downsides are no big deal.

Philip Ferreira was 54 and Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira was 41 when Arieh, now a year old, was born. Photo: Jimmy Jeong

The turning-point conversation about kids happened in Fiji. Kristina McKinnon and her husband, Rob, took a boat cruise to visit the outer islands. Other people’s kids were running around, roughhousing, snorkelling, yelling, a cloud of kid chaos, and Kristina loved it. The next part of the trip was adults only, and she and Rob agreed it had been better with kids. “We have a lot of love to give,” she thought. “We can do it.” She was 35. It wasn’t really a late start, considering she’d met her husband at 29, and the next few years had been about launching the marriage and getting professionally settled.

But it took a decade-long obstacle course to reach parenthood. After Fiji, Rob’s dad was diagnosed with dementia. The couple decided to rent out their home in Radium Hot Springs, B.C., and move back to their hometown of Victoria to care for him, building a suite for themselves on top of his ranch house. They started new jobs: Rob as a police officer; Kristina in administration at the University of Victoria. For the next five years, she tried to get pregnant, without success. It was a hard time. In every direction, Kristina saw children; they seemed to be multiplying, clogging streets and grocery store aisles.

At 40, Kristina went to a fertility clinic, where the doctor told her, “You have to get on this right away.” Three rounds of IVF came next—needles and hormones and mood swings. The transfer of each embryo was followed by the agony of waiting two weeks for results. Then the call: not pregnant.

A friend knew what they were going through and offered to donate her eggs. Rob’s sperm and the donated eggs added up to five embryos, one of which was transferred to Kristina, who was by that point 45. She got pregnant, and 10 years after that discussion in Fiji, Kristina gave birth to her daughter, Kaitlyn. “A perfect baby. Slept through the night right away,” she says.

Her father-in-law died when Kaitlyn was two. “Taking care of your kids through that helps. They rescue you from sorrow,” says Kristina. Her mom and stepdad moved into the house, which meant more sandwich-generation caregiving for Kristina. Her mom had a heart condition that gradually grew worse. After months of treatment, she died. To get through another dark period of loss, Kristina leaned on her sisters, and Kaitlyn’s solitude in the world as an only child suddenly seemed stark and alarming. Her cousins were 15, 20 years older; who would she have to turn to when Kristina and Rob were old, or if something happened to them, God forbid? On her way to work, Kristina would drive by the clinic that housed her two frozen embryos, from the same batch as Kaitlyn: “I could hear them calling.”

The doctors at the clinic Kristina went to wouldn’t transfer an embryo after age 50, so she had to make a decision within three months of her mother’s death. Kristina didn’t know if she was in the right headspace. “Was I being selfish, or do we still have time and energy and love?” The answer was no, and yes, yes and yes. Just before her 50th birthday, Kristina had the “emby”—her term—implanted and became pregnant. Like many older moms, she developed gestational diabetes, and she worried about the strain on her heart. During delivery, she said to herself: “Please don’t die on this table. You have to make it through for this baby.”

Two parents standing by a trampoline with their two kids on it
The leap: Rob McKinnon was 51 and Kristina McKinnon was 50 when they had daughter Sam, now two years old. Their daughter Kaitlyn (at right) is now six. Photo: Jimmy Jeong.

She did. Her daughter Sam arrived in June 2017, a few weeks before Kristina’s 51st birthday. Kristina’s stomach is still distended from torn abdominal muscles. She’s bone-tired, shuttling two kids, ages six and two, between activities and child care while working three days a week. The $50,000 cost of IVF on their line of credit means she and her husband are indefinitely postponing the home they wanted to build. “I wouldn’t recommend having a kid at 50,” she says. “A lot of people at work think I’m absolutely insane, and to be honest there are days we look at each other and say, ‘Oh my God—we’re crazy.’”

But she’s laughing as she says this, and being honest about the downsides isn’t the same as regret—is it?

“No! Being a mom is sheer, absolute joy,” says Kristina. “We experience everything brand new. You learn about all of humanity through watching them learn and grow up and have emotions. It’s an education for us to just go to kindergarten and meet the teacher, all these experiences other parents might take for granted. This is something we almost didn’t have. Here we are, getting to do this. It’s unbelievable.”

In 2012, the average age of Canadian mothers at childbirth, taking all births into account, hit 30.8 years, the oldest age on record in this country. For the first time, birth rates are higher for women in their late 30s than in their early 20s. In 2010, another seismic demographic shift occurred: Over-40 pregnancies became more common than teenage ones.

Because the vast majority of women having kids in their 40s and 50s require some form of assisted reproductive technology to become mothers, this cultural swing to older parenting has raised alarm bells about an attack on the natural order in some religious and conservative circles. Older parenting does seem supernatural, somehow; it undoes chronology and has the potential to rearrange society. Last year, an American psychologist warned a conference at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine that women who have children in their 50s and 60s will “traumatize” their kids. Too early in life, said the psychologist, these children will become caregivers and invariably face the monumental loss of a parent.

Mom pushing stroller while holding hands with young daughter outside I had three kids after 40But the several Canadian women who delayed parenting that I spoke to don’t seem like emissaries from a cold sci-fi future; their reasons for becoming parents later have arisen from the everyday realities in which they live. Women delay childbirth because they haven’t found a partner, or they’re trying to get established professionally in order to afford a kid, or they haven’t made up their minds yet. That last one is about choice, which is what feminism gave us, along with birth control. Since birth control allowed women agency over their reproduction half a century ago, maternal age has been rising incrementally in developed countries around the world. Assisted reproductive technology is the next generation of scientifically aided autonomy for women, allowing us even more control over our biology, including the time of life in which we become mothers.

For women who seize the opportunity afforded them by this moment in history and become later-life mothers, the challenges are many, including the aforementioned exhaustion and playground side-eye (“Are you so-and-so’s grandma?” is the dreaded question). But older mothers also project a very specific kind of joy.
Karen Kaffko, a clinical psychologist and professor at York University in Toronto who has worked with women going through fertility treatments, finds the anxiety of making multiple attempts at conception is later mitigated by thoughtfulness and delight. “They have a kind of mindful appreciation of every moment of their young child’s life,” she says. Parenting is regarded as a gift—and often a hard-earned one.

Older moms provide a counterpoint to the “I hate motherhood” trend of the past few years. A body of social science literature has shown parents are less happy than non-parents, and mothers are less happy than fathers, hence confessional anti-motherhood blogs and books like Orna Donath’s Regretting Motherhood. But parents who have their kids over age 34 display higher levels of happiness than those who have their kids earlier. This is likely because having kids when you’re older often means avoiding the stressors that make parenting hard, namely financial strain and instability.

As they move from aberration to a new normal, older mothers are reinventing the very institution of motherhood—maybe even improving it, which raises the question: Are older women better at motherhood?

***

Elizabeth Bruce and her 10-year-old son, Graham, live in an apartment in the west end of Toronto where the balcony overlooks a tangled ravine. Elizabeth, whose air of no-fools-suffered efficiency is offset by a head of playful, fiery-red hair, works from home one day a week rather than at her downtown office, where she’s the national manager of hospitality services at RBC. Graham will be home soon. He has a key to the building and walks from school on his own most days, a conscious decision by Elizabeth to instill independence.

“Oh, these snowplow parents,” she sighs. “I’m just amazed at the over-worry and concern. I just don’t have it. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I think the kids are going to be fine.”

Elizabeth waited to have a kid because her mother always told her and her sisters: Fly. Have a life. Don’t rush. “It was never my intention to find somebody, get married and have a baby,” she says. “That was just never on the forefront for me. It was, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with my life, for me.’”

She did a lot. She lived in Bermuda and San Francisco, travelled the world and dined in three-star restaurants. After the fallout from 9/11 devastated the hotel industry, she moved back to Canada, bought a house in Pickering and fell in love with and married a man named Mark, who had two sons from a previous marriage. But soon after, she was diagnosed with lupus, which explained her aching joints and breathing difficulties. When Elizabeth received the diagnosis, she left the office, burst into tears and called her mother: “I’ll never be able to have kids!” She was 38. The doctor disagreed, however, and Elizabeth did get pregnant, but she miscarried three times. One of those times, she miscarried twins.

She and her husband considered IVF, but it was too expensive, and adoption felt right. The adoption process took a year of interviews and a lengthy, privacy-invading home study. A week after they were approved to adopt, when the nursery had been painted pink in the hopes of a girl, Elizabeth found out she was pregnant. One of the first calls she made was to the adoption agency, to regretfully back out. The lupus made hers a high-risk pregnancy, so she spent much of the next nine months at a clinic in Toronto to make sure she stayed in remission.

A woman who has a child past age 40 has a slightly higher risk of having a medically complicated pregnancy, contending with issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and early labour, usually culminating in a C-section. And babies born to older mothers may have an increased chance of developing birth defects, especially Down syndrome. Early on, Elizabeth was apprised of the health risks posed for her child, but it wasn’t a deterrent. “I didn’t care about what kind of baby I was going to get. My feeling is that God gives you what you can handle. We were going to figure it out.”

After 12 hours of induced labour, Graham was delivered with forceps (“I feel like we could have done that at hour eight,” Elizabeth says dryly). She had just turned 41. Asked to describe her son, she lights up: “He’s smart. He’s athletic. He’s very kind. He’s very shy. He’s—everything.”

When Graham was 18 months old, Elizabeth and Mark split. She moved to Toronto and started over with a baby. So her experience of older motherhood is inseparable from her experience of single motherhood, which is also on the rise: 19 percent of Canadian children who are newborn to age 14 live primarily with a single parent, and 80 percent of those kids live with their mothers.

Graham has a good relationship with his dad, who remarried and has since had another son, but Elizabeth is the primary parent. Her plate is full, spilling over the edges, in fact, with parenting, working full-time and keeping her lupus under control. A basket of medications sits above her kitchen sink.

A 50-year-old woman looking at an ipad with her 10-year-old son
Family compact: Elizabeth Bruce gave birth to Graham, now 10, when she was 41. Photo: Jimmy Jeong

As an older mom, she can’t rely on grandparent support the way her siblings could when they had their kids two decades ago. Now in their 80s, Elizabeth’s parents are—knock on wood (she does)—relatively healthy. But her mother could sled and play road hockey with her first grandkids, and she physically can’t with Graham. One offshoot of delayed parenting is the fact that grandparents are often absent, either dead or physically limited, a phenomenon one Time magazine columnist bemoaned as “the grandparent deficit.”

But the concept of the nuclear family with the grandparents next door was really a postwar blip, and in the age of gay parenting, common-law partnerships and thruples, family is custom-built. Elizabeth has compensated for the gaps in her own reality—no partner, less hands-on grandparenting—by leaning on her sister and brother-in-law, and teaming up with a couple of older single moms she met through Little League. They share meals and driving duties, and commiserate about the kids, who all hang out. They even vacation together.

Despite the red hair and a face that looks more than a decade younger than 51, Elizabeth does get The Question: “Oh, is he your son?” with the emphasis on “son,” as in, “not grandson.” “He’s mixed race, so I don’t know sometimes whether they’re asking if he’s biologically my child or if I’m his grandmother,” she says. “But I cut it off. I’m kind of proud. Like, ‘Nope, I’m his mom.”’

Elizabeth brings her folding chair to every single one of Graham’s baseball games and gets very excited when he hits a home run. “Maybe too excited,” she admits. But she doesn’t overschedule him, and her parenting style is pretty relaxed, which may be an older parent thing, too. “I just see the bigger picture. ‘This, too, shall pass’ is my favourite expression.” She makes healthy lunches. She enlists a French tutor. “I’m lucky I can afford it,” she says, a fact she attributes to being established professionally before she had Graham.

But if she does the math (which she does sometimes, late at night), when he graduates from university, she’ll be in her mid-60s. She works hard to stay healthy, buying only organic food, doing her 30-minute workout video most days. “I have a huge amount of anxiety over something happening to me. I get emotional. I can feel the tears coming into my eyes—I just almost get sick to my stomach at the thought of…” Tears do begin to well up, but she pulls them back. “So I’m going to live to 90. That’s the only solution.”

***

Motherhood is a shape-shifter, a construct that reflects and refracts its era and milieu. Today, our lifespans are longer, so we’re young longer, and we live—and mother—like we’re younger, too. The boomers decided not to age, and the mentality stuck: youth won. Readily available hair dye and injections make middle age harder to identify. Age levelling continues with technology, where information and cultural references travel back and forth across generational lines; social media ushers experiences out of silos for the sharing. We probably know more about our parents’ lives, both inner and outer, than they knew about their parents’ lives.

As the distance between the old and the young collapses, it doesn’t seem so strange to have kids later. The ultimate sign of allegiance to youth is, of course, bearing children, like Halle Berry (46 when she had her second baby) and Rachel Weisz (48 when she had her second). “It keeps you young” is something women who have kids later in life are often told, and it actually might.

Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, calls himself “Dinosaur Dad” because at age 63, he has a 15- and a 12-year-old. (His academic area of expertise: procrastination.) “It changes what aging means if you engage in the life tasks of the young,” he says over the phone, having just made pancakes and dropped his eldest at school. “When you’re in your 60s, it’s often the time to be winding down, disconnecting from the world. But I’m deeply engaged in the life tasks of a fortysomething. Psychologically, I’m younger.”

But, of course, no matter how young one behaves, biology is a fact and fertility is limited. The problem for women is that the optimal time to reproduce collides with the optimal time to get educated and build a career. Considering the realities of having kids today, delaying parenthood is a pragmatic move. Political bluster about universal child care tends to disappear after elections, and in overpriced cities and uncertain economies, the cost of raising a kid (on average in Canada, some $260,000 from birth to age 18) requires economic stability.

Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women’s, gender and sexuality program at the University of Houston, writes in her book Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood that women who become moms later earn higher salaries than women of the same age who had their children earlier. In effect, older moms often avoid the “wage penalty” of young motherhood. Being settled, financially and professionally, before having kids is used to guarantee security when the system doesn’t.

Women today are also likely to have multiple partners throughout their lives, so they often don’t settle on which one they want to have kids with until later. Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira, a teacher and small-business owner in Victoria, dated through her twenties and never met the right person.

“I wanted, at the end of my life, to be surrounded by kids, this loving family, like my dad was when he died. I had a good family growing up, and I wanted that connection.” At 37, she froze her eggs and “shelved them,” she says. When she still hadn’t met anyone at 40, Natalie used a donor from an American sperm bank (a Jewish guy who included a touching essay with his donor profile; someone she would have dated if he wasn’t 26) to create two embryos. “I was tired of having my life revolve around a man. At 40, I decided, ‘I’m going to make my own family.’” Her mother helped her with the financial hit: about $25,000 in total. But then, six months before the planned embryo transfer, she met Philip—a tattooed hairdresser—and they began a relationship. Fifty-three, with two grown kids, he was open to parenting with Natalie. A few months later, he was by her side when the transfer was performed. They married in their backyard last summer, when the baby, Arieh, was three months old.

“I got the family I always wanted. I wish more women knew about egg freezing,” says Natalie. But when she looks back on the experience of becoming an older mother, she gets a little pissed off. “People talk about egg freezing as if it’s a selfish thing women do, putting their careers first. But men don’t seem to be aware of the biological clock, and so we have to do all that work—the emotional and physical planning, the financial output. No one looks at men and says, ‘It’s irresponsible for you to be waiting because there are all these women out there with biological needs.’”

Tammy Chomiak and her wife used a sperm donor too, and Tammy went through six unsuccessful rounds of insemination, a gut-wrenching experience. With IVF, Tammy did get pregnant, giving birth to a daughter at 37 and a son at 38. Now she’s 40 with two kids under three. Sometimes, in groups of moms in their mid-20s (she lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., where she’s observed that moms seem to have their kids younger than in Vancouver), she’ll feel a bit older, a touch awkward. They have different cultural shorthand; a decade between life experiences. But Tammy is certain those extra years she had before motherhood serve her and her kids now—she has what psychologists identify as the advantage of “emotional preparedness.” “I don’t think I fully knew myself until I was in my 30s. I’m a bit wiser, a bit smarter, a bit slowed down. You’re not partying anymore; you’re more into being at home. I think knowing who I am helps me parent.”

Older moms may be happier, but what about their children? When Brenda Reynolds was 44, with two fully grown kids, ages 18 and 22, she found out she was pregnant. She visited her doctor with stomach cramps and bloating, only to discover she was 23 weeks along. This was a shock; an earlier pregnancy test had been negative. The night before giving birth, she spent time at Walmart with her son, shopping for supplies to accompany him to college. Today, she’s a part-time real estate agent in the small southern Ontario town of Coldwater and the 50-year-old mother of five-year-old Jax, a Tasmanian devil of a kid (he stops running for intermittent Lego and YouTube sessions only). Brenda and her husband, who is 60 and became a grandfather from a first marriage when Jax was one week old, are exhausted. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun: Brenda loves her son’s sly sense of humour and relishes her reunion with forgotten domestic pleasures like back-to-school shopping and baking. With her first kids, Brenda was a single mom working three jobs—now she has more time to devote to Jax. But Brenda’s mother, who is blind, lives down the street and needs daily visits and hours-long drives to Toronto for treatments. Brenda hasn’t had a vacation in years. Some friends have vanished. People her age aren’t talking about feedings and nap times; they’re discussing cashing in their RRSPs. Sometimes when they’re all out together, her now 24-year-old daughter gets mistaken for Jax’s mom. But most of all, Brenda worries about what it’s like for Jax to have older parents, about the stresses he’ll invariably face as his parents age or, worse, pass away.

And yet, most research suggests long-term outcomes for children born to older parents are positive: Because they are more likely to have a favourable home environment, with economic and emotional stability, they are more likely to exhibit high levels of self-sufficiency in adulthood. One study of 1.5 million Swedes concluded that children of older parents are less likely to drop out of high school, are more likely to go on to post-secondary education and tend to perform better on standardized tests than their older siblings. They may even—and this is odd—be taller than the children of younger parents.

Kaffko has been a counsellor for over 25 years and doesn’t worry about older parents’ effect on child development. “I have never counselled a child with issues because of having older parents. If there’s conflict in the home, that’s the issue, not age.”

These findings may not placate anyone who frowns upon older parenting, caught in what Elizabeth Gregory calls “the yuck factor.” At the heart of discomfort with the idea of older mothers is, in our youth-venerating culture, a set of assumptions about aging: that it’s negative, gross, the end of the sex that leads to reproduction. Pychyl has a more positive outlook. “The question of ‘Is it good or bad to be an older parent?’ bangs on notions of normality and ageism. We have this normative idea of development in our society,” he says. “Kids who grow up with older parents are going to be more accepting and understanding of age. It won’t be long before we start thinking differently about this altogether.”

I think of that when I’m at Elizabeth’s apartment and Graham comes in after school. He’s wearing a Toronto toque and carrying a drooping backpack. Shyly, he listens a bit while his mother and I talk, dangling a ribbon above his cat, Molly. Tomorrow, Elizabeth will be joining his class on a field trip to a museum, and he’s working out who will be in his group for exploring ancient Rome (Gabriel, Colin and someone else, he forgets who). I ask him what his mom is like, and he smiles: “Crazy. She laughs a lot!” He lists fun things they do together—watching Lemony Snicket, going to Cuba, hanging out.

I tell him we had been talking about his mother being older. “Yeah, some of the other moms are younger,” he says thoughtfully. Does it matter? I ask him. “No,” he says, looking at me like it’s a really weird question.

Read more:
8 things not to say to an older mom with a baby
After you turn 40, being a mom gets better than ever

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