Birth Beyond Forty

More women are having babies in the autumn of their childbearing years

Announcing your thoughts of having a baby after age forty results in a variety of less-than-positive responses. Usually, eyebrows rise. Then, depending on the intimacy of your relationship, responses range from, "How old are you anyway?" to "Why don't you adopt?" to a more diplomatic version of "You can't be serious!" I've been on the fence about making this decision since I turned forty almost a year ago.

Until I began work on this story and interviewed three moms who delivered after age forty, not one woman with whom I discussed my tentative plans told me without hesitation to "go for it." The warnings have become predictable: "You're just getting some freedom now that your son is almost ten. Birth defects are much higher among babies born to older moms. You'll be almost sixty when your child graduates from high school."

Yet, despite all these discouragements, no one mentioned the additional health risks to older moms--or, on the other hand, the benefits of raising a child when you've achieved the wisdom required to survive the tempestuous twenties and the ambitious thirties. No one, that is, except the mothers with firsthand experience.

Maternal risks associated with mature births

Maternal risks to mature moms are real and well documented, according to Dr. Steve Calvin, who specializes in "high risk" pregnancy care at the University of Minnesota, Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, and United Hospital in St. Paul. He explained that the risk of having an "operative delivery" doubles in older moms. (Operative, he says, encompasses all medical procedures employed in nonspontaneous deliveries, from being induced to having a Ceasarean section.) He also confirmed that the risk of chromosomal damage increases dramatically--to almost one in 200 births to moms over age thirty-five. In addition, older moms suffer more frequently from gestational diabetes (occurrence is three times more likely). Older moms are also at risk for having larger babies, and premature deliveries occur almost twice as frequently. There are greater incidences of placenta previa (a situation in which the placenta grows over the cervix) and uterine bleeding.

The only good news from Dr. Calvin is that babies delivered to older moms tend to fare as well as babies delivered to younger moms. And it's no longer such a rare occurrence to be a new mom over age thirty-five. In a study done in Hawaii from 1975-1994, the number of women falling into this category increased by 129 percent.

But prospective over-forty moms have yet another issue to consider: older moms often have a harder time getting pregnant in the first place. Invitro fertilization works well for women up to age forty, according to Dr. Hugh Hensleigh, an embryologist at the University of Minnesota. But by age forty-one or forty-two, he says, the success rate declines to almost nothing. However, using a donor's ovum works really well for women in their forties and beyond, according to Dr. Hensleigh.

When I began looking for older moms to interview, I was surprised by three things: how easy they were to find, how eager they were to talk, and how, in spite of the story painted by medical statistics negative enough to warrant significant attention, the experiences of the moms interviewed and others I met while doing research for this article were overwhelmingly positive.

Cordelia delivers Sadie, the girl of her dreams

Cordelia Anderson, of South Minneapolis, had already given all her baby things away and announced to her six-year-old son, Sam, that he wouldn't be having a sibling. Then, in the spring of 1997, she began having dreams about babies, and there was a girl in the dreams. These dreams were similar to ones she'd had when she conceived Sam. When Cordelia went in for a medical checkup, her suspicions were confirmed by a positive pregnancy test.

Planning for a new family member was an "exciting adjustment" for Cordelia, Sam, and husband/father John Humleker. Cordelia runs a training and consulting business called Sensibilities and is well known for co-developing "Good Touch, Bad Touch," a curriculum on sexual health and violence prevention used by many schools. Pregnancy did slow her down a bit; she gained forty-four pounds "straight out" as she did with her first baby, which contributed to her tiredness. But she got good medical care and ran several miles every day until the day her daughter arrived.

Cordelia has some worries about being an older parent. "We have a responsibility to do everything we can to be healthy; I'd like to be around when [my children] go to college," she says. And she's had some anxiety about the new baby's affect on her work schedule--especially since infant care is very difficult to find. "We lost our original slot because our provider decided to get a job with benefits," Cordelia says wryly. "And I'm [extra] picky because of my abuse work." But her husband does more than half of the family chores, which makes a huge difference in her ability to get professional tasks done. "He does everything he can, but, of course, he can't nurse," which cuts into Cordelia's daily schedule considerably.

Still, she's clear that the rewards of raising her unexpected daughter's arrival outweigh the challenges, and she's not about to bow to the negativism women experience as they age. "You have to be confident about what it really means to be in your forties now," she says. "Dear Abby had a column on the topic of older parents recently, and several readers pointed out that older parents could be dead or too tired to keep up with young children." Cordelia admits she can't do backflips anymore, but points out that children of older parents who responded to the Dear Abby column said parenting has nothing to do with age. It has to do with attitude and love. "Some people are in a better position to give that in their twenties, thirties, or forties," says Cordelia. Now, she says, she has something she didn't have when she was younger--sage wisdom to offer her children.

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