The Soapbox: In Defense Of Older Mothers

Magazines seem to love writing about women’s choices, particularly if they can inspire readers to conclude that we’re making the wrong ones. Just before the new year, a much-talked about New Republic cover story focused on women and men becoming parents at an older age. The piece was written by an author who is herself an older mother and was concerned about a steady increase in birth defects and autism in recent years, although it’s been difficult so far to prove a direct correlation. Meanwhile, one of Boston Magazine’s cover stories that same month was about a growing breed of women who believed that it’s okay to have an “occasional” drink while pregnant.  Yes, that was the language — “occasional” 00 yet the subject was so provocative that it warranted top billing. Let’s not forget the May Time cover of the woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (she didn’t appear to be drinking wine at the time). Soon after came the story in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter that blared: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (The Atlantic has published at least three stories since 1995 about women facing diminishing marriage and pregnancy prospects if they wait; one of the most famous such pieces, “Marry Him,” from 2008, urged women to settle for “Mr. Good Enough” rather than waiting to have babies.)

It isn’t these stories themselves that are frustrating as much as the fact that they appear to blame women for waiting to have children – as if it’s impossible to fathom that they didn’t find decent or willing men to date at the right time. Some of the stories blame the feminist movement, as if having more freedom is simply so confounding to women that they just can’t figure out what to do with themselves. There’s a wide swath of people in this country who appear to resent the idea of women having leeway in making life choices, and hope we’ll get our comeuppance if we don’t marry the first person who holds a door for us.

Judith Shulevitz’s New Republic story inspired swift reactions around the web. Health experts pointed out that we don’t know the long- range effects of a society of older mothers and of infertility treatments, which is a valid concern.  Shulevitz’s story doesn’t explore why women delay childbearing — but the reactions around the web were full of assumptions.  On Slate, Kate Roiphe responded by writing:

One of the problems of our bourgeois, post-feminist world is the lingering sense that you can, according to the absurd cliché, ‘have it all’ … that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s.

Adventures in our 20s, eh? Hmmm. I do remember going on a date with a man of 32 who told me seriously, “I think I drive better when I’m drunk.” Guess I should have settled and had a baby with him.

The New York Times’ parenting blog cited Shulevitz’s story and threw it open for readers to discuss, and certainly, readers responded. Some called the idea of bearing children as an older parent “selfish” and one commenter named Hazlit said, “I am tired of young women rejecting young men of their own age because they don’t have enough money or because their careers aren’t far enough along.”

I have often wondered where these fictional selfish, superficial women are, besides on TV dramedies. Most women I know couldn’t help their delayed childbearing “choice.” Since Shulevitz surveyed her friends, I figured I’d survey mine. Several of them report that they are still childless at 40 because they continually met  men who didn’t want to commit, or who simply didn’t seem like kind people. There’s no societal pressure on men to have babies while women are most fertile.They can wait quite a long time if they want, and still find someone kind, compatible, and supportive. Yet, women are made to feel “picky” if they hold out for any of those basic qualities in a partner. Another reason why some of my childless friends have delayed starting a family is because of today’s economy. Babies aren’t cheap, especially when both members of a couple are unemployed. The Wall Street Journal cites a study last year by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys suggesting that many couples today put off starting families because of student loan debt. Other of my friends have delayed childbearing to take care of their parents. We don’t have a large number of siblings to share the load, as in past generations. For friends caring for elderly or infirm parents, it’s a struggle to fit in their romantic life between taking care of familial responsibilities.

I say, where is the look at the heroic, single women who attend charity events, produce community theater, or squirrel away money to be stable in case no prince charming comes along at the right time? Isn’t A baby brought into this world is always going to be better off than if he never had the chance, even if his mother is over 35? Or over 40?

As a woman who got married at 36 and had children at 38 and 40, I was not reveling in any amazing adventures in my 20s. I had wanted to have children since I was old enough to think about it. I focused on my writing career by default, because falling in love and starting a family weren’t happening with anyone I met, and I figured it made sense to be productive and save money while I could. It’s not greedy to desire a family as well as a career one enjoys.

Let’s stop assuming women are being selfish if they end up having children a few years later than their mothers did, which in 1970 was — on average — around the age of 20.8. That simpler time seems not so long ago, and yet, only two years before that, women still were not allowed to enroll in Princeton, Yale, the University of Virginia, Williams, or Rutgers. Can anyone say this was better?

Caren Lissner’s first novel, Carrie Pilby, was published in 2003. She is now working on the SOMEDAY MOM BOOK for those who have motherhood as a someday-in-the-future dream. Visit her website .