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Too Old to Be a Mom?

The issues.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Sept. 29, 2000 -- Older moms -- even really old moms -- pushing strollers, wiping babies' noses, are a common sight these days. And it's not just the 40-something women in the neighborhood sandbox but any number of high-profile women, too: Susan Sarandon (baby at 45), playwright Wendy Wasserstein (49), and editor Helen Morris, the wife of Martin Scorsese, who recently gave birth at the age of 52.

Although most babies in the United States are still being born to women in their 20s and 30s, the birth rate for women 40 to 44 has been climbing for a decade. Not so long ago, women over 30 were regarded as high-risk older mothers, and strictly in the medical sense, they still are. But today the 30-year-olds are often the "younger mothers" at the preschool picnic. Birth control, delayed nesting among career-oriented baby boomers, lenient adoption guidelines, and advances in fertility treatments have worked together to create a rising tide of first-time parents who are in their 40s and beyond.

So far, most attention in this field has been on the medical safety of the older mother -- getting her and the fetus safely through pregnancy and birth, since risk to both mother and child increases as a woman ages. But now the critical mass of older mothers is gaining another focus: What happens after the child is born? The changing demographics of parenting have given rise to what amounts to a whole new social movement.

The Emotional Terrain of the Older Mother

Not long ago, personal experience with those changing demographics led Micky Duxbury, MFT, in a new professional direction. The northern California therapist, a specialist in adoption issues, began leading support groups for older mothers. "I looked around and saw that there was very little support for women in their 40s with young children, and even less written about the experience," says Duxbury who is herself 51 and the mother of a 5-year-old. "There were issues that older moms shared, but no one seemed to be talking about them."

The women in their 40s and 50s who came to her groups were relieved to find a place to talk about the implications of raising young children -- the physical challenges of keeping up with a toddler, for instance. But the issues run deeper, says Duxbury. Consider for a moment our views on mortality. Somewhere around 40, there's a shift in one's view of life's terrain, Duxbury says, as you begin looking at how much time is left and it's suddenly, clearly, finite. "Suddenly you realize you might not be around for your child's wedding, or will probably never know your grandchildren," she says. "So along with savoring and cherishing these long-awaited children, there's a bittersweet tinge."

Washington State therapist Marlene Koltin, who also leads support groups, says, "Older moms have issues all their own and long for a sense of community. They may not feel quite in sync with other moms." Older mothers may be going through menopause while taking care of an infant. They don't bounce back from sleep deprivation or stress like they did in their 20s. It's a little harder to get up off the floor after playing with a baby. Many older mothers are also caring for aging parents at the same time they are raising young children -- a balancing act that can be more than challenging.

Although women in previous generations had a significant number of babies when they were past 40, says David Bruce Sable, MD, a fertility specialist with pioneering St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., those children tended to be the last in a string, rather than the first and only child, as is often the case today. So, the topic of raising children without siblings also comes up. And, says Duxbury, most older parents admit to an occasional sense of not quite fitting in. For her, it was the moment that someone assumed she was her daughter's grandmother. "Yipes," she recalls thinking, "If I look like her grandmother now, what will my daughter think when she is 16?"

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