The Parent Trap
Sam Seiders and his friend Christopher tear through Sam's living room, past Sam's parents, up the stairs, and into Sam's bedroom, where they commence the big-energy-in-small-space behavior embraced by eight-year-old boys when it's too cold to play outside. Sam's parents, Donna and Jim, are unfazed. Without missing a beat, they pick up the topic of discussion begun before Hurricane Sam tore through: a meditation on parenthood in the later years. Just as they warm to the subject again, the boys reappear. This time they're quiet, almost sheepish. “Don't look at anything,” Sam instructs. So, of course, everyone looks at everything, eyes finally settling on the shoe in Christopher's hand.
“You didn't check, Christopher?” Jim asks. Silent shrugs all around. The nooks and crannies in the sole of the shoe Christopher just wore through the house are filled with the leavings of a neighborhood dog. And with that — an incursion of fresh tracks on the carpet — Jim and Donna are whisked from their reveries and plopped back into the reality of their lives as busy parents.
Make that busy, older parents.
Nearly nine years ago, when donna seiders discovered she was eating for two, her friends were shocked. “Everybody said, to a person, 'Oh my God!'” she remembers. “To a person.”
Donna was not a naive high school sophomore, a post-college singleton, or anything like one of the voguish libertines on Sex and the City. The Cambridge resident was mature, with a stable job as an office manager for a consulting firm, a supportive husband, and stores of life experience. In fact, Donna was what some might call a matron, a married woman of a certain age. Donna was 46. And in Massachusetts, where the age of first-time mothers is the highest in the country and rising every year, she wasn't all that unusual. But that doesn't mean she wasn't surprised.
After Donna and her husband, Jim, were married in 1990, Donna quickly conceived, but the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Doctors found a cyst under one of her ovaries and advised against trying again. “They told me they'd have to go through heroics,” Donna says. “I just put it out of my mind, and we got a dog.”
A waggly, slender Llewellin setter named Strider joined the family. The trio prospered. Five years later, in 1996, Donna missed her period. “I thought it was menopause,” Donna says. It wasn't. “Lo and behold, I was pregnant.” The expecting Seiderses sold their one-bedroom Cambridge condo and their weekend house in New Hampshire and moved into a brick house tucked into a street-end nook in Arlington. And on August 19, 1996, Samuel Wallace Seiders came into the world.
“It was just a miracle,” Donna says. “He really was just a little miracle.”
The Seiderses were already middle-aged when Donna gave birth. Now in their fifties (Jim is nearly 60), they're parents in the thick of the peanut-butter-and-jelly years. How old do they feel? Are they creaking along behind their children, peering through bifocals as younger, hipper parents push strollers in circles around them? Or is being their age a plus?
Life expectancies are increasing: These days, 65-year-olds can expect to live into their eighties. Still, old age will arrive too early for parents like the Seiderses. They look ahead to college graduations, weddings, and grandchildren wondering if they'll need walkers, or even be alive, to see them. “We would still like to be able to run around when our kids are in college, not hobble after them,” says Shawn Bohen, who had her first child at 36. Jim Seiders says his goal is to witness Sam's graduate-school commencement, though he jokes that Sam may have to wheel him down the aisle.
Older parents say they think about their own mortality, something they guess younger parents don't do with the same intensity. Karen Mullin, once footloose and fancy free and now the mother of two, says she takes greater care when crossing the street (really); the Seiderses have chosen a guardian for Sam. They've delayed retirement and redirected some of the attendant savings. “What money we would have been going to Hawaii on is now tuition,” jokes Jim.
Most don't feel they stand out. Boston, after all, is flush with middle-aged parents. But for the quinquagenarian Seiderses, the strain of concomitant aging and parenting is a little more noticeable. At the grocery store, Jim has been mistaken for Sam's grandfather. (He does, in fact, have three grandchildren descended from a previous marriage.) Donna occasionally feels self-conscious around the gaggle of gabby younger mothers at school pickup time. Jim has had one knee replaced; the other needs to be done. Their lights-out hour is creeping ever earlier, approaching Sam's own bedtime.
Not only will old age arrive too soon, but grandparents may die while their grandchildren are still relatively young. Sam's grandparents have all passed away. Conversations about death will surface sooner. “Just thinking through how we talk about that and what that means” is an active part of older parenting, says Bohen. “And that [death is] inevitable in their lives much younger than in our lives, that there will be more death, and what that's going to mean.”
But older parents say the benefits of their situations far outweigh the negatives. They are more financially secure than younger parents and than they themselves were 10 years earlier. They can afford nice houses (in the Boston area, no less). They can pay for quality childcare. Their careers are well established, which earns them a measure of job security and flexibility they didn't have in their early thirties. This allows them to attend their children's doctors' appointments together, or stay home when the nanny needs a day off.
The intangibles tip the scales in the baby boomer parents' favor, they say. First, there's the “been there, done that” factor. They say having children at a later age leaves them with fewer regrets. “We've done a lot of things in our life, and we lived quite fully up until the time we had kids,” says Bohen. “I don't have a lot of regrets about, 'Oh, if I'd only gone to Europe' because frankly, I did a lot of cool things.”
The second, perhaps most wide-reaching intangible is what Lexington-based therapist Merle Bombardieri calls “life maturity,” and in her mind that's what makes fortysomethings better parents than their younger counterparts. “They don't get as hysterical about a high fever,” says Bombardieri, who teaches a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education for people considering starting a family. “If their child bullied someone, they don't decide that person is going to be a criminal quite as quickly as the 20-year-olds do. They have twice as much experience as a 20-year-old to bring into parenting.”
More experience, maybe. But also more risk. At the time of Sam's birth, Donna Seiders was of “advanced maternal age,” a phrase conjuring images of Whistler's Mother, but actually referring to any pregnant woman who will be 35 or older at the time of delivery. Risks connected with advanced motherhood can be daunting for those hoping to bear children.
Difficulties may begin as early as conception. As women age, their fertility decreases. When a woman is at the peak of her fertility, between 20 and 24, she has an 86 percent chance of getting pregnant within a year. By 35, her chances have plummeted to 52 percent, and by 45, a woman has only a 5 percent chance of conceiving within her first 12 months of trying. Should she succeed, she's at increased risk of conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, also associated with aging.
Then there are the hazards to the fetus. “Women at any age are at risk of having a child with a chromosome abnormality” such as Down syndrome, explains Louise Wilkins-Haug, medical director of Brigham and Women's Center for Fetal Medicine and Prenatal Genetics. That risk rises along with age, growing from around 1 in 200 at 35 to around 1 in 65 at age 40. (Older fathers pose a risk too: Nearly two dozen genetic conditions, including dwarfism and the rare Apert syndrome, have been linked to older fathers.)
As women's ages climb beyond 40, so too climbs the risk. “By the time you're 45, the risk that there's a chromosome abnormality early in the pregnancy can be as high as six or seven percent,” says Wilkins-Haug. Other increased risks include low birth weight and stillbirth. Older women also are more likely to have more than one child at a time, which is risky in itself. But the greatest risk for the oldest cohort of moms is pregnancy loss. “Certainly someone who is 45, their biggest risk is going to be getting to 24 weeks without miscarriage,” says Wilkins-Haug.
The numbers may sound daunting to late thirty- and forty-something couples pondering pregnancy. Wilkins-Haug, who gave birth to her first child at 38 and second at 46, says older women generally arrive at the doctor's office with unnecessary fears about pregnancy. As she recites the numbers, she underlines the happier reality: Even with increased risks, most pregnancies in advanced maternals end, like her own and like Donna Seiders's, with healthy babies.
Older women across the country are facing those risks and having babies anyway — in Massachusetts more than anywhere else. In 1998, when Sam Seiders turned two, Massachusetts became the first state in which women having babies at 30 or older outnumbered those under 30. Nationwide, the average age of first-time mothers is up, from about 21 and a half in 1970 to nearly 25 in 2000. Massachusetts mothers wait the longest — until they are, on average, nearly 28.
Several factors feed this trend, including the increase in the number of women completing college and starting careers, shifts in marriage patterns, and, in a few states such as this one, insurance coverage. Massachusetts is one of 10 states requiring insurance companies to offer all policyholders some coverage for fertility treatments. “Massachusetts takes the policy that infertility should be treated like any other medical condition,” explains Bonny Gilbert, a board member of Resolve, a national infertility association. The Bay State has the most progressive policy in the country, requiring insurance companies to offer coverage to all policyholders for everything from diagnosis to in vitro fertilization, with no restriction on number of treatments. “They don't put any limitations on medical care related to infertility,” says Gilbert. “Massachusetts is simply being the most fair about a medical condition.”
Perhaps the strongest argument for baby boomers pondering babies is the end result: children like eight-year-old Sam Seiders. Says his father, Jim, “There's no bigger gift in the world, or greater treasure, than a kid.”
To draw a straight line from a couple's careers to their decision to have a child later than the norm is to miss out on complex realities, warns therapist Bombardieri, who is also the author of The Baby Decision. “The stereotype . . . is people who are very into their careers or narcissistic,” Bombardieri says. “But actually, most people in their forties I've encountered have been through several years of infertility and miscarriages, or they married late.”
Such was the case with Bohen and Richard Morehouse. Both were dedicated to their careers — Bohen has been working at Harvard in various management positions since 1991, and Morehouse owns a photography gallery — and to starting a family. They began trying soon after their wedding in 1996. Bohen turned 33 that year, Morehouse 34. “It turned out we had a very hard time having kids,” says Bohen. After trying fertility treatments for nearly a year, she conceived but then miscarried. Part of her believed it was never going to happen. Adoption discussions began, fertility treatments continued. All the while, Bohen and Morehouse kept, in pregnancy chatroom lingo, TTC (trying to conceive). Finally, in 1998, at the age of 36, Bohen found herself great with child. Henry Walker Morehouse arrived on May 12, 1999 and was followed 19 months later by sister Imogen Louise, conceived without fertility treatments and born a few months after Bohen's 38th birthday.
The state deserves credit for reducing, just a little, the couple's conception woes, says Morehouse. “Without insurance, an uncertain process would have been even more stressful. At the time I recall feeling very lucky to live in this state,” he says. “Thank you, Massachusetts!”
While Bohen and Morehouse were forced by circumstance to hover in conception purgatory, some people don't think about children at all until they encounter what Bombardieri calls a “moment of truth.” “Parent ill, parent who died, seeing crow's-feet and gray hair when you look in the mirror, birthdays divisible by five or ten. Younger siblings having children is a big one, and then if friends who said they were never, ever, ever, ever going to have children and then they're having children — those are some very typical moments of truth” that cause a couple or an individual to start thinking about procreation, she says.
Karen and Joe Mullin experienced nearly concurrent moments of truth a year before they met.
In the 1990s, Joe Mullin was living the bachelor life, traveling, skiing, and frequenting sporting events and movies. Kids? No way. He couldn't fathom why anyone else might want them, either. “I couldn't understand why people would do it. It was a totally foreign concept,” he says. Then came Joe's moment of truth. His father died in 1998. “After my father passed away, I began to realize that I was missing the father-son relationship. I saw that my friends with children were carrying it on as dads. So I started to open up to the idea.” And he met Karen Holton.
When Karen's mother was diagnosed with advanced-stage melanoma in 1998, Karen experienced her own moment of truth. She returned to the Catholic faith, from which she had lapsed, and decided she wanted something she'd never wanted before: children.
For decades, Karen Holton had been a self-defined career woman. She grew up in a devout Catholic household outside of Philadelphia. Her father was a Seton Hall law professor, and Karen knew from a young age that she would be a lawyer. She graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1987, began a successful career as a litigator, and vowed never to have children.
Having grown up in a family of five, Karen had no illusions about the energy children required. “I knew how much work was involved and what a sacrifice it was,” she says. “I just was really focused on my career, and I loved to travel and I used to scuba dive, and I just realized you couldn't do it all. It wasn't sort of wishy-washy.” When she was in her early thirties, she asked her doctor to sterilize her.
Specifically, Karen requested a tubal ligation, a sterilization procedure that closes a woman's fallopian tubes. Her gynecologist refused. “He said he wouldn't do it to a woman who hadn't had a full-term pregnancy,” she remembers. “He absolutely refused, and I could hug him today.” So could Dylan, 3, and Jack, 2.
While her mother was still alive, Karen met and married Joe. She conceived, miscarried, conceived, miscarried, and conceived again. She was 38; Joe was in his late forties. Six weeks into Karen's third pregnancy, her mother died. Karen thought a third miscarriage was imminent, but eight months later, on her 39th birthday, Dylan Francis was born. “I truly believe my mother was watching over me,” Karen says today. “She always said boys are easier, so she sent me a boy.” Two, actually. Three weeks after Dylan's second birthday, and Karen's 41st, John “Jack” Lewis arrived.
These three couples speak eloquently about the challenges of advanced parenting. But when it comes down to it, such musings are abstract. Reflection is not part of the daily life of parenting an eight-year-old or a five-year-old or a one-year-old. As soon as you stop to cogitate, things happen.
Dylan clambers up onto the windowsill. Henry requests immediate assistance at the costume chest, where all members of the search party believe a pair of Harry Potter spectacles rests among the wigs and scarves and sunglasses. Sam wants a snack before dinner and wonders whatever happened to that bag of M&Ms Dad had in his pocket. Jack woos with waves and gurgles, using his diminutive charm to distract. Imogen hugs her new gray kitten, the extravagantly named Butterfly Rainbow Dash, so enthusiastically that Butterfly requires rescue from the love patrol.
In the few moments between such occurrences, these parents may have been pondering the pluses and pitfalls of having children at an advanced age, the benefits of life maturity. But when things start happening, all ruminating ceases. Boys on windowsills, girls with kittens, babies in diapers make no distinction between the advanced parents and those at the peak of their biological potency. They all need the same thing: someone, no matter how tired, to take care of them.