I was 37 when I had my daughter. I don’t think I ever really expected to be a “geriatric mother,” but I was busy living life and getting an education. At 33 I defended my PhD, and I got married a week later. Then the difficulties of the academic market and the dual career family really started creeping in, and it was a bit before we expanded our family. So here I am, an older mother.
There are a lot of very real concerns and challenges to trying to get pregnant and having children a little later in life. Health concerns (for mother and baby), fertility, work-family integration, energy levels, time with grandparents and the like. Academia can be a particularly difficult place for family planning – it is easy to think, I just need to get past this hurdle and then I’ll start a family. But the hurdles keep coming: get into graduate school, finish field/lab work, earn the PhD, find a job, get through third year review, publish-publish-publish, get tenure… and suddenly many women in academia find that they are in their mid-30s or older. The difficulty of this is one of the reasons why there continue to be fewer women in the higher academic ranks and high-level administrative positions, even though more and more women are in graduate programs.
There are a number of women who choose to have or adopt children earlier in their academic careers, and dang, am I impressed by them. Motherhood is challenging no matter when one takes on the mantle. And the truth, of course, is that society and career pressure really shouldn’t dictate when a woman decides to become a mother – that is a decision she (and in some measure her partner, her doctor and possibly the adoption courts) should determine. Of course, there are things to consider as one gets older, and to be clear, I am not advocating for waiting. But being an older mother does have some “perks.” In thinking about this, I asked a group of academic women who became mothers after 35, what they saw as some of the positives. Here are some of their wonderful responses.
The term “geriatric mother.”
I honestly just love the term, though it also makes me cringe a bit. I love it because of the complete contradiction. At 35 one is nowhere near geriatric, and as medicine advances, it isn’t even all that old for first time mothers anymore. Others aren’t so fond of the term. Another classification is Advance Maternal Age (AMA). Although, doctors probably need to let their patients know what AMA means. I actually heard two similar stories where women were in delivery and saw AMA on their charts. They both asked, “Against Medical Advice? What medical advice have I gone against?”
I cannot express how wonderful it is to get so many hand-me-downs. Being one of the last in a friend group to have kids is great in this regard. I have spent so little money on clothes. It feels like holidays and birthdays come every few months as we are given glorious bags of hand-me-downs from friends. This is especially wonderful with newborns: as babies grow so fast, often the hand-me-downs were never or rarely worn – like new!
Extra sonograms and ultrasounds.
So this one is a little controversial. Women over 35 get extra medical care because they are considered high-risk and they need closer monitoring. These tests are incredibly important. However, for me and some others I questioned, this was a perk. For some mothers, perhaps especially academic mothers that like to control, measure and manage things, pregnancy can be a time of uncertainty. Having extra tests – that insurance will cover because one is AMA – can be incredibly reassuring.
Sex (no, not what you are thinking).
For older mothers it is often suggested that they do various tests early in pregnancy to check for potential issues. In recent years a simple blood test has been developed to check genetic markers. In doing so, it can also detect the sex of the baby. One of the moms I asked noted that it was great fun to be able to tell folks the sex of the baby so early on.
While we may have less energy at 35, 40, 45 to run after our little ones, many older mothers commented that they had greater patience and felt that they were probably a bit more chill about things than they would have been if they had children in their 20s. A few who had children on both ends (in early 20s and then 30s) noted that this was absolutely true for them. I too notice this. I take things a bit more in stride, choose my battles, calmly (mostly) assess illnesses and take what comes. Not to say I am always chill or never worry, but a little life experience does seem to go a ways.
Another important advantage that some academic mothers I asked mentioned was their own self-confidence and willingness to challenge authority to advocate for their children. This self-confidence also hopefully models women’s strength for our children.
By our mid-30s or older, most of us are done with the nightlife and don’t care as much about appearances as we did previously. This means many of us are happy to stay home on a Friday night, and we don’t worry about the spit up in our hair or the boobs that sag from nursing. Okay, it’s a lie to say we don’t care (especially about the latter), but priorities have changed somewhat and we are pretty comfortable in our skin, saggy as it may be.
We’ve worked out our own crap!
Another common theme among the women I surveyed was the idea that older mothers have a sense of who they are and have come to terms with things – or have had years of therapy and coping mechanisms to draw from.
Studies show that we may live longer.
This is an odd one, but recent studies have shown that women who have their first biological child after 33 may live longer than those that have their children earlier. This certainly isn’t a reason to put off having children, but it is interesting nonetheless. Perhaps there is something to the idea that children keep us young.
Though this isn’t always the case in life – or in academia – we are often a bit more established in our careers and financial portfolios by the time we hit our mid-30s. This means that some older mothers may have a sense of financial security they didn’t have earlier in life. This is helpful as one considers the ridiculously high costs of childcare and college. Speaking of college, here’s an interesting fact I learned from one of the women I asked, for those of us that will be thinking about retirement as our kids head off to college: apparently retirement benefits are mostly not counted as assets in the FAFSA application – bonus!
A “Bad-Ass Group of Women!”
One woman I asked about this issue mentioned that being an older mother meant she was part of a “Bad-Ass Group of Women!” All women are amazing, but this sentiment made me smile. Yes, there is a sense of pride (that comes along with the fears) of geriatric motherhood: those who chose to have or end up having children later in life form a group of strong women. We may not look as good as our younger counterparts, and we may be confused for our children’s grandmothers on occasion. But we are confident, impressive women.
So, there are clearly some challenges to being a geriatric mother, but depending on how one looks at things, there can be some upsides too. In fact, it’s probably time I up my dues as part of this Bad Ass Group of Women… my husband and I just announced that we are expecting this summer…I will be 40.