Number of 'older' women having babies continues to grow

Published: Friday, July 27 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Amy Wasserman and her husband, Scott Plotkin, adopted their first child, Lily, when Wasserman was age 44. (Family photo) Amy Wasserman and her husband, Scott Plotkin, adopted their first child, Lily, when Wasserman was age 44. (Family photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — It seems to Mandy Krell that she has been waiting for a long time. The Lansing, Mich., native didn't meet a man she wanted to marry and with whom she'd like to have a child until she was 39, a bit later than she expected. Now she is waiting for that longed-for child who has not, so far, arrived.

What has come into her life is a bad economy that left her unemployed and fearful about being able to afford a child on one income. And she worries that her opportunity to have a child may have passed.

If Krell does manage to have a baby in her 40s, she will be less alone than she would have been in decades past. The number of births, particularly first-time births, to older mothers is growing. First-time maternity for "older women" — and this may be the only area besides sports where women in their late 30s and 40s are considered "old" — is becoming less uncommon. But women who have or are trying to have children then, naturally or with assistance, agree it is a journey filled with both challenges and joys.

Angel LaLiberte with her kids, Leo and Isabella. (Family photo) Angel LaLiberte with her kids, Leo and Isabella. (Family photo)

"Forty is the new 20 when it comes to having babies," wrote Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of 15 books on family issues and parenting, in a Psychology Today blog. The Council on Contemporary Families said 40 percent of babies are born to women over 30 and that 1 in 7 babies is born to women over 35, while the Pew Research Center in 2010 reported that more babies were born to women older than 35 than to teenagers. It is a change, Pew said, driven by medical advances, later marriages and new views on motherhood.

In good company

June's National Vital Statistics Report said the pregnancy rate for women 40-44 has increased steadily since 1991 to 18.8 pregnancies per 1,000 women in that age group. It didn't count women who have babies beyond 44, but that number is growing, too.

Paula Pant, 28, plans to wait until her mid-30s to start a family. Her own parents adopted her when they were 43. (Family photo) Paula Pant, 28, plans to wait until her mid-30s to start a family. Her own parents adopted her when they were 43. (Family photo)

The National Center for Health Statistics reported that nearly 40 percent of women who had a first baby at age 35 or later between 2006 and 2010 went on to have at least one more, compared to 26 percent in 1995.

Research gives mixed reviews, but there is much good news among the bad for older moms: Children born to moms over 40 tend to have higher IQs and more impressive early vocabulary, according to a study from the Institute of Child Health, University College London and Birkbeck College in London. Those children are less apt to need hospitalization or have accidents. The researchers theorized older moms are either more cautious or are better able to identify and help children avoid risks.

Different research showed that women who delay motherhood live longer than those who give birth at younger ages, perhaps even to 100. And studies consistently show that older moms are typically better educated than young moms.

Leo and Isabella with their mom, Angel LaLiberte. The Santa Cruz, Calif., woman was 40 when she met and married their dad and started a family. (Family photo) Leo and Isabella with their mom, Angel LaLiberte. The Santa Cruz, Calif., woman was 40 when she met and married their dad and started a family. (Family photo)

But researchers have found a downside, too. Older moms are more prone to health problems linked to childbirth. While most women in their late 30s and early 40s will have healthy pregnancies and babies, the March of Dimes said, the moms' older age confers greater risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, miscarriage, delivery complications, prematurity and stillbirth than younger women face. Autism numbers rise. And the chance the baby will have a genetic disorder increases with maternal age. So does the possibility that fertility has declined or gone away.

Still, numbers are sometimes misinterpreted. A report that a woman at 30 only has 12 percent of her eggs didn't note it was comparing a woman that age to a 20-week-old female fetus. By that measure, a girl of 15 only has half the egg cells and a healthy woman of 25 only 22 percent. While fertility declines, and it may take longer for a couple to conceive after 35, studies say about 90 percent of women at 35 can conceive without aid, as can 75 percent of those through age 39 and about half of those who are 41, said Elizabeth Gregory, director of women's studies at the University of Houston, in a fact sheet prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families. "Rates plummet thereafter, and few women have children after age 44 with their own eggs," she said.

New York attorney Jocelyn Nager with her kids, Pearl and Sarah. (Family photo) New York attorney Jocelyn Nager with her kids, Pearl and Sarah. (Family photo)

Having babies

Jocelyn Nager joked that by the time she looks at colleges for her daughters, Pearl, 5, and Sarah, 8, she'll get the AARP discount. Nager, a lawyer from New York City, got married late and didn't think she'd be able to have children. It was not, it turned out, a problem for her.

Pushing 40 with the first birth, she was established in her career and now enjoys the flexibility to set some of her own hours, with financial stability enough to send the girls to a nice school and summer camp. "There are a lot of extras I could not provide for my kids if I was in my 20s or 30s," Nager said. She still rides bikes with her girls and is very active.

"I think I'm not a typical 48-year-old," she told the Deseret News. "But really, what is typical these days?"

Different challenges

Amy Wasserman, a Palham, Mass., artist who sells her work through Amycreates.com, always knew she'd want to have a baby. After she married Scott Plotkin at age 38, she learned she couldn't become pregnant. They eventually became foster parents and when she was 44, in 2003, they adopted their 2-year-old foster child, Lily.

As a mom, she said, what she lacks in stamina she makes up for in patience and wisdom.

She is sorry she could not experience pregnancy herself. But she has no regrets about having a child in her 40s instead of her 20s. Wasserman is confident she recognizes her daughter's long-term needs — including how important it is to be inspired by successful, hard-working women, she said — more than she would have when she was younger.

Paula Pant is 28, but plans to wait until her mid-30s to have children, unfazed by statements like "older parents won't have the energy to play with their children," or "they'll never live to see their kids grow up."

Pant, who was raised in Cincinnati and lives now in Atlanta, was adopted when her folks were 43. "They played with me and kept up; 40 is not that old." The quirk that came with her parents' age, she said, was that much of her childhood she saw them plan their retirements. Pant doesn't think it's a coincidence she now writes a financial-issues blog, "Afford-Anything.com," with lots to say about retirement.

The biggest drawback to older parents was that generational differences were "amplified." Some things she wanted to do that were common with her peers were very foreign to her parents, two generations removed. Still, she will wait, too, she said, "half for economic reasons, but half because I want the freedom to travel the world, to move on a whim, to do the fun things you can do when you don't have the responsibility."

She won't push it, though, she said. She doesn't want increased risk of genetic or physical complications that come after 35, however small that chance.

Jennifer Archer is 40, married just shy of 15 years, and contemplating whether to have children. Her baby right now is her Shiba inu dog, Koho, on whom she dotes. Real babies are a great deal more daunting, she said.

Her own parents had her when they were 20, which they told her is too young. They encouraged their own children to get an education, to work and travel and grow up first. Now, after years of doing what they want without children, she and her husband, Tyler, wonder what kind of parents they would be and if they're ready for that. "I think we're at a stage where we've agreed to give it a good go and see what happens," said Archer, who work for KSL in Salt Lake City. "But it scares me a little, too."

Experts and experience

On her 40th birthday, Angel LaLiberte, the sound of her biological clock pounding in her ears, gave up on finding Mr. Right. She remembers being in a "dark place, deeply depressed," as she realized she'd likely not marry or have children.

The Santa Cruz, Calif., woman was packing up those dreams and moving on when he walked into her life and her heart two weeks later. The problem was, Bill Cozzens had been told that he couldn't have children. At a fertility clinic, he had been handed a shiny brochure, its cover sporting a cup-half-full photo of an old couple, no kids but a burgeoning retirement account and a still-good life.

When they married a decade ago, Cozzens and LaLiberte decided to try for kids anyway, and with the help of a medical procedure for him she was carrying their baby, Leo, five months later.

She'd grown up with siblings and wanted Leo to have that, too, so a miscarriage when she was 43 was devastating. They went to another doctor, who told her to forget it; she was too old, Cozzen's previous fertility problem too complicated. She wept in the parking lot. They didn't know then that medicine sometimes gets it wrong. She was already pregnant. When Isabella was born, six years ago, they thought about sending the doctor a photo.

She calls herself a flower power mom and has a blog by that name, a meeting ground for older moms who share experiences. "We are the shock troops, if you will, for a demographic and a future where no woman or mother as a minority collective has gone before. It's both scary and fascinating."

Older moms definitely get more tired, she said, and have to learn to pay attention to their own health. It's part of giving kids "the energetic mom they're entitled to." A drop in fertility is real. So is the criticism some people feel emboldened to offer about an older mom's choices. And it's harder to find pals among the moms of kids' friends, since they're 20 years younger.

But the pluses are quite lovely, she said, including studies that prove later mothers cope as well as younger ones with newborns, don't feel more stress and tend to be more patient with their children. "That younger mom might have more energy, but I have discipline, experience and knowledge," she said. "And I'm more financially secure. That matters. It's an expensive venture to have kids."

By the time she became a mom, she'd worked a couple of decades, honing skills. "I had been a homeowner, I knew how to manage things, I'd trained to handle tough decisions."

As for older mothers dying before their children are grown, life happens. Her own mom was not an older mom, but died when she was 24. Besides that, she added, these days, 40 is midlife, with decades to go.

email: lois@desnews.com

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