Brand building through storytelling

Mommy’s too old

When a woman in her 50s or 60s becomes pregnant, she has another shot at youth. But what does she lose?

RONA (5)You could call me a woman of a certain age, but let’s not be coy. I’m 57, thank goodness—old enough to do what I want and healthy enough to enjoy it. With no more homework to supervise or lost Lego pieces to find, I could test my limits on the Inca trail. I could start a B&B in some enchanting coastal hamlet, I could help save coral reefs in Madagascar. There’s no limit to the dreams I could pursue.

I could even, God help me, have another baby. So what if my eggs disappeared long ago? Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, that’s a mere detail. Eggs can be bought like precious gems, fertilized in a laboratory and tenderly implanted in post-menopausal wombs like mine (total cost: about $20,000). In the words of New Yorker Aleta St. James, a self-described “emotional healer” and speaker who was nearly 57 when she gave birth to twins, “It is never too late. You are never too old.”

I get the feeling I’m supposed to rejoice, but her proclamation gives me the shivers. It’s not just that I don’t want a baby in my life. Now that I finally have a room of my own, I’m not about to trade it for a nursery. Nocturnal breastfeeding marathons were wearisome enough when I was 22 and could bound out of the feeding chair instead of bracing myself on the arms (oh, those complaining middle-aged knees).

I could laugh at this scenario, but some women my age are actually living it. That troubles me. On top of all the head-spinning options we’ve got already in the years of freedom and discovery, technology has given us a new one. And where it leads is not the wide world outside our doorstep, but the cradle. This is progress?

Easy for me to say: I’ve already borne and raised the only child I want. So who am I to pass judgment on Aleta St. James, who was 56 and single when she asked herself “What is my deepest desire?” and realized she longed for a baby. I have tried to tell myself, in the spirit of enlightened modernity, that whatever works for her is really none of my business. And she had everything she needed, short of a partner, to make midlife motherhood work—plenty of money, glowing health, a fertility specialist cheering her on. Here’s how she quoted him in a TV interview: “Aleta, you look young, you have the body of a 30-year-old, you look fabulous, there’s no reason why you can’t do this.”

No reason? We’re talking a lifetime commitment, not the advanced mountain hike at a spa retreat where they float scented candles in the Jacuzzi. When the twins are 25—still young enough to be boomeranging home to mom for free meals and laundry service—Aleta St. James will be 83. She could be flying a plane and dancing on beaches, but she could just as easily be hobbling on a walker. She might not remember where the grocery store is, much less that she’s out of milk. I hate to be ghoulish, but let’s be honest. Eighty is not the new 40, and motherhood is not a lifestyle choice.

Tell that to the sexagenarian mothers who have lately been raising eyebrows in Europe. Patricia Rashbrook, a British child psychiatrist, bore a son last year at 62. “She is slim, blonde, in perfect condition,” her doctor enthused, as if he were selecting a model for an outdoorsy fashion spread instead of a candidate for motherhood. Rashbrook already had two grown children by a previous marriage, but she wanted a baby with her new husband, a first-time father.

For Europe’s other 60-plus mothers, childbearing tends to be a solo project, wreathed in platitudes about self-definition. Adriana Iliescu, a retired, long-divorced Romanian academic who had a daughter two years ago at 66, has said, “The emptiness I felt in my life has been filled.” (Was there no other route she could take to serenity?)

Carmela Bousada of Spain, a pensioner, was nearly 67 when she bore twin boys in 2005—and became, for now, the world’s oldest mother. “Everyone has to have children at the right time for them,” she said with breathtaking nonchalance. “This was the right time for me.” Oh, Carmela. I ponder your story with mingled horror and pity. To pay for fertility treatments, you sold your home and moved to a one-bedroom apartment-not exactly ideal for your twins. And you talk about the right time for you.

Here in North America, we’re not yet seeing mothers who have crossed the line from middle age to old age. But it’s surely a sign of things to come that celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz, who in 1991 shot a naked, pregnant Demi Moore forVanity Fair’s most famous cover ever, has recently unveiled a more challenging icon of maternity: herself, naked and nine months pregnant at age 51. There she stands in the pages of her book A Photographer’s Life, with the heavy-hipped, swollen breasted monumentality of an ancient fertility symbol. While Moore gloried in her taut-fleshed womanhood, Leibowitz dares the camera to capture every dimple in her thighs. Her eyes are fierce and more than a little tired.

This is motherhood as battle, won at great cost by a woman whose life already brimmed with rewards. She had a close-knit extended family, a longterm love affair with the writer Susan Sontag (who died three years after the birth), a pied a terre in Paris and trips to exotic places. Apparently it wasn’t enough.

What’s driving this last-ditch quest to give birth? The obvious answer is regret, but no thinking woman can reach age 50 without a few late-night pangs over wrong turns and missed opportunities in her younger years. If aging women crave children in their lives, could they not foster a child or volunteer for a children’s charity? The babies they’ve proudly cradled for the cameras are genetically theirs: if not for the eggs of younger women, they’d have had to give up their dreams of maternity.

But we are living in an age that exalts the transformative power of dreams, and the hard-won right of every woman to do as she chooses. She can push paper at the office or stay home and push a stroller, she can accept her aging face or look forever 40, she can settle for Mr. Right Enough or seek a more alluring partner. At the far end of the choice continuum, she can now become a mother whenever she wants—not that anyone says it will be easy. (The older the mother, the greater the risk of diabetes, pregnancy-related hypertension and bearing a tiny, vulnerable baby.)

Every time a Carmela Bousada makes news, midlife women are bound to ask themselves, “If 67 is not too old, what’s wrong with motherhood at 51 or 52?” A prospect that once seemed unimaginable is now, if not exactly mainstream, at least something to consider, just because the fertility gurus can make it happen. The newest variation in late-life pregnancy, developed at a Montreal clinic, is freezing your eggs now for later use. According to a recent Globe and Mail story, the clinic has already drawn busy professional clients from New York and Hong Kong.

Once upon a time, back in the early 90s, Botox injections seemed a tad peculiar. I first heard about Botox from a bemused female dermatologist who wondered who could possibly want a shot of botulism toxin between her eyebrows. Women who want to hold back time, that’s who. Women not so very different from post-menopausal mothers.

In the twenty-first century, when women can head corporations and run for president of the world’s most powerful country, a pregnant woman still exudes a special kind of power. She’s doing the one thing no man can ever do, and that women have always been charged with doing—carrying life within her body. Angelina and Katie create even more excitement with their swelling bumps than they do with their red-carpet gowns, reinforcing the hoary old myth that a woman isn’t truly a woman until she bears a child.

At the rate we’re going, more women than ever will find themselves childless in their sixth decade. Forty used to seem old for a first pregnancy. Then my generation started waiting for the perfect moment—after the degree, the backpacking adventure, the first stripes earned in the workplace. Since the mid-70s, Canadian statistics have shown a steady drop in first births to women under 30-and a corresponding rise among women aged 30 to 44, the years when eggs decline in number in quality. Ninety-percent of 30-year-olds can conceive the old-fashioned way, compared to 53 percent of 40-year-olds.

Small wonder that women in their 50s are now turning to fertility clinics. Jan Silverman, a counselor in the clinic at Women’s College Hospital, has seen hundreds of mid-lifers who yearn to be mothers. Silverman says she tries to walk women through the what-ifs without passing judgment. Yet she adds ruefully, “There’s a disconnect between what they think it’s going to be about—this amazing, fabulous child—and what it actually is. My concern is not so much parenting the baby at 53; it’s parenting the teenager at 70.”

In Europe some countries have passed laws designed to curb the trend to brave new motherhood. It’s hard to see Canada going this route: we’re so squeamish about standing between people and their choices. Yet as far back as 1993, Canada’s Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies recommended against the use of IVF technologies for women past menopause. The recommendation sat around, in typically Canadian fashion. Eleven years passed before the Assisted Human Reproduction Act became law. It makes no mention of age as a barrier to IVF treatment.

It does say that the health and well-being of the child should be the priority in every case, but what this means in practice is anyone’s guess. The agency created to enforce the Act and regulate fertility clinics, Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, is only now beginning its work.

Meanwhile private fertility clinics can decide for themselves how to run their businesses. The unofficial cut-off age is said to be in the early 50s, but no one knows for sure. Confusing the picture even further is the vast and shady overseas market in fertility-treatment tourism, where just about anything goes. A while ago at my local cheese store, I rubbed shoulders with a 60-ish woman, stunningly turned out in a short flounced skirt and tight shrug, who looked at least six months pregnant. She could have had a tumour, I suppose, but from the obvious pride with which she’d put herself together, I’m pretty sure it was a bump.

Some would argue that her choice is a question of equality. Men become parents in their dotage; why not women too? Just look at the writer Saul Bellow—a new dad at 84, dead at 89. Far from being accused of selfishness, the guy was cast as a mensch. Meanwhile mothers in their spry 60s face public rebukes from their families while reporters tut-tut over their wrinkles. Fair’s fair, right?

I don’t buy it. Behind every grizzled father flaunting his virility, there’s typically a youthful mother who arranges play dates and chases balls in the park. She can reasonably expect to see her child through to adulthood. I do see an injustice lurking here, but it’s not about women’s “right” to have kids at any age. It’s about something more profound—women’s right to be valued in old age.

An old woman, no longer beautiful or fertile, has lost her time-honored role as ornament and breeder. Old men don’t have that problem–their value has never been rigidly tied to their status in the mating market. But the way to enhance an aging woman’s self-worth is not to put a baby in her womb, any more than the solution to a teen girl’s angst is a sex-kitten outfit and a breast enlargement. It’s to see all women for who they are and what they can give to the world, not just how they look.

An old woman has wisdom to share with the young. She can contemplate the future because she’s not caught up in the hurly-burly of tending her kids right now. If the late urban visionary and writer Jane Jacobs had borne a child at 67, would she have had time and energy to challenge the status quo in her 70s and 80s?

Our great-grandmothers would be astounded at this view of childbirth as a right, to be exercised whenever we please, by whatever means necessary. Throughout most of human history, childbirth was a woman’s obligation, assumed in her teens and stoically accepted until she reached menopause or died in labour. (This is still the case in countries where women have limited access to birth control.)

When my generation discovered the Pill, we thought we’d broken free of nature’s controlling hand. We couldn’t imagine what it meant to want a child, much less what it means to grow old. We didn’t see the natural law that still bound us, the one some women are determined to break—the loss of our fertility. I became a mother at 22, when nature wanted me to do my bit for the species. One forgotten condom was all it took. I remember childbirth as a nerve-tensing, heart-expanding physical thrill in which my sedentary body revealed its hidden power to push life into the world.

I used to fantasize about a second child, but I waited too long. Now that I’ve fulfilled my biological purpose, nature is through with me. She’s the snooty gatekeeper at Elaine’s, the New York restaurant where only fame will get you a desirable table; I’m the camera-toting tourist from Des Moines who won’t get anywhere close to Woody Allen. That’s the price I’ve paid for reaching the years of freedom.

I don’t miss the child I never had. What I do miss is trusting that I had forever to push the boundaries of my life. Twenty years from now, I’ll be an old woman of 77, knowing that my time is almost up. It will be too late to hike the Inca trail. I’ll have to focus on gentler pleasures, like reading War and Peace from cover to cover. And as I sink into the story, I won’t be interrupted by a kid demanding, “Mom, where’s my algebra book?” To live like a grownup is to dream within the limits of civility and time—as every good mother understands.

Published in Chatelaine, July 2007. Copyright by Rona Maynard.


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