In Praise of Older Mothers

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These days, more and more women are choosing to become mothers later in life. Barbara Hannah Grufferman on why that’s a good thing

Full disclosure: I am an older mother. My first daughter was born when I was almost 38, and my youngest entered the world three days before my 41st birthday. Even though I’m 54 and going through the tumultuous teenage years, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Usually, I don’t think about it, except when I attend a meeting at my 13-year old daughter’s school and look around to see the faces of the other parents who are easily ten years younger. But since the publication of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and the articles that popped up in response, I was inspired to consider the benefits of being an older mother.

Most American women enter motherhood during their twenties and thirties, many even in their teens. However, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, teen births are on the decline, but women who have their first babies after age 35 is on the rise. Clearly, I’m not alone.

The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. In 1990, there were more births to teenagers than to women ages 35 and older. By 2008, that had reversed — 14% of births were to older women and 10% were to teens. Births to women ages 35 and older grew 64% between 1990 and 2008, increasing in all major race and ethnic groups.

No matter what age one is when becoming a parent, the truth is, none of us are ever fully prepared. But, I believe that, generally speaking, older mothers — especially those who have spent time in the workplace (often the main reason why women delay having babies) — are often better equipped to handle the trials and tribulations of motherhood, and everything that comes with it, than their younger counterparts.

After graduating college in 1978, I immediately became the quintessential working woman, and building my career was the sole focus of my universe. I was attending graduate school and working full time, leaving little room for much else. Getting married and having children was always part of my “life plan” — but not while I was working so hard to establish myself in the world, and gaining considerable knowledge and skills that I instinctively knew would come in handy when I finally became a mother. The Pew Research Center report suggests that this is one of the key reasons that women delayed starting families until later in life during the last twenty years:

Since 1990, birth rates have risen for all women ages 30 and older. The rate increases have been sharpest for women in the oldest age groups — 47% for women ages 35-39 and 80% for women ages 40-44, for example.

This delay in age of motherhood is associated with delay in age of marriage and with growing educational attainment. The more education a woman has, the later she tends to marry and have children. Birth rates also have risen for the most educated women, those with at least some college education, while being relatively stable for women with less education. These dual factors have worked together to increase the education levels of mothers of newborns.

Aradhana Parmar, Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, supported this premise in an article. She believes passionately that women can benefit considerably from the ability to have later pregnancies, and emphasized that there are far more women professionals in the workplace than at any time in history; by the time they have built their careers and furthered their education, many are in their 30s before they are able to ‘settle down’ to family life.

That was me. By the time I met my future husband, I was ready for marriage, and for motherhood. During my twenties and thirties, I attended graduate school, did research projects, started a magazine, and eventually became a top executive at a major publishing company, where I was responsible for managing many people, with many different kinds of personalities. Along the way, I learned invaluable skills and tools that are important for success in business, and absolute essential in motherhood.

These “business skills” helped me develop my mothering skills in surprising ways. For example:

  • Fostering creativity and problem solving
  • Building confidence in others
  • Encouraging positive and respectful negotiation
  • Promoting cooperation, especially between siblings
  • Managing schedules
  • Understanding finances

One of the most important benefits to my family, however, was the fact that since I had already spent two decades building a career, by the time I became a mother, I was able to spend more time on building my family life, and less on my work. Work was, and still is, very important to me. But after having my children, my priorities were able to shift without a lot of things falling out of place. And, I truly felt that I no longer needed to prove myself, which is one of the many benefits of getting older.

You might think, rightly so, that there are many women who are, and have been, building careers and starting families in their twenties and thirties, and can bring the same set of management skills to their mothering, as I did to mine. Of course they can, and they do.

The key is this: It was my choice. Society did not impose its will on me, as it had on my mother’s and grandmother’s generations. I was able to pursue a career and wait to start my family because that’s what I chose to do. And, except for the occasional musing of how I’m going to keep up with two extremely energetic teenagers who are growing into two strong, beautiful young women, I know that, for me, I have chosen wisely.

Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the author of The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More” a resource book which addresses many of the concerns of women over 50 with the help of top experts in different fields.

11 comments so far.

  1. avatar D C says:

    My husband brother and his wife got married with #1 on the way when they were 20 years old.  They had #2 18 months after the first.  They are now almost 60 and their boys have been out on their own, married, kids of their own, and completely set.  Brother in law and wife are really enjoying their semi-retirement while they are young enough and healthy enough to do so. 

    I didn’t have child #1 til I was 28, and finished up with #3 at 36.  I admit a little twinge of jealousy when I think about how much older we’ll be when we get to start enjoying the life of BIL, but it doesn’t make me wish I could change anything.  I had my first child BEFORE I was really planning to, so would have been an even older first time mom.  When our kids were babies, were in a church class of much younger parents — we could have moved into our own age group, but all those people had teenagers when we had toddlers.  So we joined the younger group (by about 10 years).  It was great that all those families had kids that played well together at least a couple of times a week, so when we got together socially, all went smoothly. 

    Because my kids came along before my plan, and for lots of other reasons there’s no need to go into here, I didn’t finish school.  And when my kids got old enough to fend for themselves, I thought about going back part time while I worked, but I had decided by then that I really didn’t want to be a school teacher after all, and without a clear direction for what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just continued on my lesser career path and enjoyed the ability to focus more on doing the mom stuff. 

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      At one time, there was a scheme of life.  You DID graduate from college first, but on graduation day you married,  I had actually graduated at 19 and had to wait for my finace to graduate to marry.  But once we did — well, it was two children in a year.  I was just a kid myself, had to learn lots of things quickly, and – as my mother had raised me so well – I followed her lead in how we raised the children — with much success. 

      The long and short of it was that I was under 40 when both kids were actually gone for good, for after they finished college they never came home to roost, having found partners in college.  So at 38 a new life began for me.  The advantage was that I had much more “smarts” than I had at 19 and was able to move higher and much faster than I ever could have earlier.

      The most wonderful part is that we no longer had the money drain.  We had been waiting to travel the world – and had been told to do the most strenuous things we ever planned to do first as ” we could see London in wheelchairs when we were 80″ but we couldn’t climb mountains.  We believed — and we climbed mountains all over the world in our 40s and our 50s, and still confident enough to go the route less travelled.  Babies first allowed us to have the freedom and the money early enough for years of the most wonderful life that – year by year – drew us closer as we did so much together. 

      To each her own — and I suppose there are advantages to a later start with children, but the children turned out GREAT and had their own children early enough to follow in our travelling paths — which makes me smile.

      It is all in the choices we make, of course — but as Sinatra said “I’m glad I did it MY WAY”!

  2. avatar calgal says:

    Because my husband was lying when I made sure before we married that he wanted children like I did – turned out he really didn’t – it wasn’t until I was 35 that my ticking biological clock forced him to get real about the question. And surprised both of us by wanting a child after all. But by then, my body had given up on the idea and it took 5 years for it to happen. So first and only child at 41. Fortunately the delay meant we were financially able for me to stay home to raise him.

    The pluses: I had way more patience than when younger, and more knowledge to impart. Minuses: I had a lot less energy, and was a generation out of sync with the mothers of his playmates.

    I just got my Medicare card in the mail, as my son turns 23 in college. His college experience is way different from mine back in California in the 60s. We communicate pretty well across that vast gulf of time, and try not to be impatient with each other over the gap issues. Having older parents has given him an early maturity; having a younger son has kept me in touch with younger ideas and viewpoints. Still, I worry that with my medical problems, I won’t be around to play with grandchildren.

    I had always planned on having two or three kids before I turned 30. It wasn’t to be. I’m grateful that I was able to have the experience of motherhood, however late. There’s nothing that educates you better, or touches the heart more deeply.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Just FYI, my Dad was 41 when I came along. Yes, I sometimes got weird comments from my peers: “Your Dad is OLD.” He could remember the Depression very well, served in WWII, then helped establish the Bundesnachrichtendienst in Germany post-WWII. A walking history lesson, which of course I did not appreciate as a young child, but did as an adult. And the comments then shifted to: “Wow… your Dad was in WWII? Where was he? What did he do?”

      He made it to age 89 and was always pretty active and able to take care of himself, so you should have every expectation of getting to know your grandkids, right? Crossing my fingers for you.

  3. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Agree to disagree, from the perspective of having been a young mother and also being born last in a group of children – at a later point in life.

  4. avatar TheTexasMom says:

    I have three children 33, 31 and 15 and I’m now 56.  I cannot say that older is better nor is being a young mom better.  Since I have expereinced it on both ends there are good and bad points for both.  I had more paitence with my olderchildren to but somehow I have learned to pick my battles and what I once thought was so important really isn’t. Also, no matter what age you have your children at some point you become an embarrasment to them.

    So at Girl Scout (yes she is still one at 15) and school meetings I am always the oldest but I swear I have a magic mirror because I don’t look much older the the other moms.  yeah, right sure….

  5. avatar Lila says:

    I’m not sure it’s always a great idea to put off motherhood. With each passing year in a woman’s 30s, she becomes more likely to need fertility treatments to conceive, and into one’s 40s, fertility really starts to drop and the risk of birth defects rises.

    I know. There are many older mothers who don’t have these issues, but they are a statistical consideration. At age 40, a third of women will have fertility problems. At age 45, more than two-thirds. And the risk of miscarriages goes up, too.

    Yet another angle on the choices women must make in managing family vs. career.

    I was a bit appalled, at age 44, when a co-worker – a male, no less – discovered my childless status and spent several days egging me on to have kids. First off – none of his business at any age, but in my 40s? Really???

  6. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    You can have love and successfully a child at any age if you want to be a good parent – but it helps to be established. I used to reach remedial reading to high school students about half of them had children before they were seventeen. They were competent enough to have children but not read the instructions on a package of formula for read the dosage on a medicine bottle. Some had parents not yet in their mid- thirties mostly living in poverty. The children they had were the chains that would keep many of them tied there.

    Parenting after an education and work experience means that child will have a decent chance to grow up able to contribute to society. I don’t think age is the only key but it can ensure that the money is there for the children to experience life. I had my first child at 27 and I was ready for him. He was an active curious child that we guided into adulthood. His life would have been vastly different had I been a single mother juggling jobs to feed him and keep a roof over our heads. It was my fortune to have parents who believed in education and want the best for their children.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Chris! Amen, amen, amen! These are the truths that so many do not want to take a hard look at, or to admit at all. And the result is exactly what you describe.

  7. avatar crosscreations says:

    Giving birth for the first time at age 38 had its pros and cons. The biggest challenge for me was exhaustion, and then another birth at age 39 delivered this tired mama into a blurry LaLa land of sleep deprivation that lasted for years. Surely those women who gave birth in their twenties have much more stamina to handle this 24-7 obsession over baby needs gig! I survived and it was my choice.
    When other gals were having babies in their twenties, it was out of the question for me. I was teaching school and saw SO many screwed up kids and immature parents, didn’t want to add to that gene pool. Older parents like me aren’t perfect, but I think the maturity of age does put one in a much better position to handle the endless job and massive lifestyle change toward parenting children in positive ways.

  8. avatar crosscreations says:

    The advantage of building career first is a biggie, agreed! I also had spent a decade or two in full-time professional work before beginning a family, and believe that allowed me to adjust priorities toward raising my sons in a way I could never have done at a younger age.