We are all becoming increasingly aware of a dramatic rise in the number of women becoming mothers in later life. As recently as 2011, the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) made the startling announcement that the only group of women to show in an increase in fertility for two years running was over the age of 40.
Yet, it has taken more than 40 years for the “quiet revolution” of social change to create a baby-making pressure cooker for modern women. Today, they are faced with the uncertainty of finding “Mr. Right” in time, a 50% risk of divorce, along with the dilemma of whether to choose motherhood over a promotion – all driven by the economic necessity of a two-paycheck household.
In the new millennium, bread-earning women are now powering our economic engine. There’s no going back.
What’s the Problem With Age?
Advances in medicine, nutrition and overall wellness mean that, today, women have an average life expectancy of over 81 years of age. At 40, they have only lived half a life. We’re all for encouraging baby boomers to have second careers and begin life anew. Why not motherhood?
In a sensational article on motherhood after 50, penned by Lisa Miller for the September 2011 issue of New York magazine, Boston University’s Thomas Perls suggests that “menopause, the definitive end of a woman’s natural fertility, can be regarded as an evolutionary relic.”
Simply put, he’s saying that menopause is outdated. We’re only just waking up to a significant cultural shift in our notions of motherhood – one that’s moving from the face of a youthful, dewy-eyed Venus to the lined visage of the wise older woman.
The contrast, and the emerging face of later motherhood, is making many people deeply uncomfortable.
How Medicine Coined the Term “Granny-Moms”
Our current perspective on older women and motherhood is influenced by medicine. When it comes to establishing our own opinions, we often look to the leading authority for guidance.
“Elderly primigravida,” a medical label that was first coined back in 1950, was applied to first-time mothers over 35 who were considered to be an obstetric risk due to their age. This terminology, suggesting that later life mothers were an anomaly – meaning not “normal” – is still in use, even after 60 years of profound social change.
Today, despite their significant and rising numbers, expectant mothers over 35 are still labeled as “advanced maternal age” (AMA) – a term that suggests they are past their “use by” date. We might as well call them “granny-moms.”
A Breeding Ground for Anxiety
Being labeled as AMA is the hallmark of the pregnancy experience for older expectant mothers in our health-care system.
Later mothers are subjected to more rigorous and invasive prenatal testing, genetic counseling, with higher rates of labor inductions and C-sections.
Some prenatal care providers suggest that doctors and nurses treat midlife expectant mothers like "train wrecks waiting to happen.”
Where in this is the reassuring bedside manner or the sensitive terminology – the natural ancillaries of a doctor’s codicil of “doing no harm?”
The Media Sensation
We equate youth with beauty. Research has shown that attractive people are usually happier, earn more money, and tend to be given the benefit of the doubt by others.
Later mothers who are attractive, and don’t look their age, are less likely to be criticized for being a “granny-mom.” The attractive cultural icons of over-40 motherhood live unnatural lives, outside of the usual social norms. Midlife mothers like Nicole Kidman, Kelly Preston, Celine Dion, Madonna or Susan Sarandon are the beautiful people with a get-out-of-jail-free pass for maternal ageism. But throw a pregnant woman who looks old before a camera and a knee-jerk response of revulsion and hostility erupts in the public consciousness – a response to what is fascinating, yet repellent.
The media has kept us enthralled with repugnance since 2006 when Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara gave birth to twins at 66 in Spain. However, while media coverage kept us in its grip, her outspoken advocacy of later motherhood inflamed public censure and criticism. In 2010, the story of Susan Tollefsen, a 59-year-old British schoolteacher who received IVF from a private London clinic, resulted in comments of fear and loathing in the UK newspapers. Tollefsen’s pregnancy was characterized as a “defiance of nature” and “an abuse of medical skill.” Politicians argued it set “a dangerous precedent.”
But the real show-stopper was a 70-year-old woman from India, Rajo Devi Lohan, who successfully gave birth in 2008 after IVF treatments her husband paid for, in part, by selling their cattle. Lohan was featured along with Tollefsen and Lauren Cohen, an American who birthed twins just before turning 60, in a 2010 TLC television documentary Pregnant at 70.
The Dirty Double Standard: Older Men vs. Midlife Women
Public criticism has characterized later life mothers as selfish, suggesting they’ve delayed motherhood for short-term personal gratification. Symbols of our hostility toward them can even be found online – granny-mom bashers who sell magnets and coffee cups that say, “Gee, I forgot to have a baby…”
Yet, while similar criticisms can be applied to older fathers, the public is strangely silent. For centuries, older men have been slapped on the back and given a congratulatory cigar for fertilizing a female. But, in recent years, the media has breathlessly reported that it appears that men, as well as women, have a biological fertility clock.
The reality is that as early as 2004, the British Medical Journal published scientific evidence that there’s a significantly increased risk of schizophrenia in the children of older men.
In 2009, the New York Times published an article citing a panoply of research conducted over the last decade, indicating that babies from older fathers are more likely to be born a few IQ points short of their peers, and develop bipolar disorder, and autism.
If that weren’t enough, in 2008, a French study showed that, after 40, not only does a man’s fertility take a nosedive, but his aging sperm increase the chance of miscarriage in their partners.
These double standards simply highlight the futility of ageist criticism or censure.
In the midst of public melee and debate, it’s easy to lose sight of the prize. These mothers “of a certain age,” who grow more numerous each day, are the forebears of our next generation, who will shape the world to come.