Then and Now
Later Life Parenting
Starting a family later in life has been on the rise since the 1970s when the Baby Boom generation came of age. In the ensuing years, we’ve seen a plethora of books on the subject, including my own (Midlife Parenting: A Guide To Having and Raising Kids in your 30s, 40s and Beyond).
While authors warn of medical complications with advancing age, they also note the advantages of waiting. In my book, too, I touted the advantages of starting a family later, claiming that new parents over 35 were more financially and emotionally stable than couples in their twenties, and were thus better parents. They were more educated, had higher incomes, and were more established in their chosen careers, so there were fewer stresses to confront. They were also more mature, emotionally and psychologically, having grappled with some of life’s challenges. I thought it followed that this would make them less likely to divorce. Was I right?
Being an older parent myself, and having a child who is now grown, I can reflect on the expectations and assumptions I made when I wrote my book. Since then, I’ve also followed up on couples I initially interviewed and have talked with additional couples who gave birth in their 30s and 40s. I’ve asked them to describe their experience and what advice they have for young people today. From them, I gleaned the following:
- Having kids later in life was not necessarily a choice.
- Being more financially stable enabled them to give their kids more opportunities.
- They had time to work on themselves before having kids and were more mature than in their 20s; they also felt more prepared as new parents than their own parents.
- Despite having higher levels of education, many did not finish their schooling; some went on to get additional degrees or change careers.
- Being older did not protect them from marital problems or divorce.
My Own Experience
In many ways, I fit the profile I described in my book. I met my husband in my thirties, following an early marriage and divorce. I’d completed my Masters Degree and worked as a special education teacher and writer. I was self supporting, but my husband became the primary wage earner after our son was born. I was 37 when I became pregnant and 38 when I gave birth. I was able to stay home with my child for the first few years. I attended mommy-and-me classes and enrolled my son in a private part-time nursery school, as well as other enrichment experiences, something I could not have done in my 20s or early 30s. Many of my friends were giving birth too, so I did not feel isolated, although the parents at his preschool were considerably younger than me. My friends were my age, and our children played together. We exchanged babysitting services, stories and advice on child rearing. I had the luxury of spending quality time with my son and providing the kind of mental and physical stimulation important for cognitive development. Being home, I could also breastfeed without worrying about pumping milk at work. Research shows that breastfeeding makes for healthier babies. So, in many ways, the first few years of motherhood were idyllic. I was glad I waited, although, like many women, it was not a conscious choice. It’s just how life unfolded.
I knew there were medical risks to having a child at that age. According to the March of Dimes, women having babies after 35 do risk fertility problems, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia. Another fear, which was prevalent among women I interviewed who were nearing 40, was that of delivering a “Downs Syndrome” child. According to the CDC, the chances of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome is one in 350 at age 35 — and it becomes one in 100 by age 40. The National Down Syndrome Society thus suggests getting genetic counseling if couples are considering having a baby past age 35.
Despite these warnings, research shows that the vast majority of women in their 30s give birth to perfectly healthy babies. The women I initially interviewed experienced few problems during pregnancy or delivery. Some had difficulty getting pregnant, and one couple finally adopted a child, also normal and healthy.
My own pregnancy, however, was not without complications. During my second trimester, I developed gestational diabetes, something that was blamed on my gaining 40 pounds. In their book Birthing From Within, authors Pam England and Rob Horowitz dispute the importance of weight, suggesting instead an emphasis on nutrition. They note that about 5 percent of women do develop diabetes during pregnancy, but it is usually mild, is managed by diet, and clears up after delivery. It is not necessarily age related. That was the case for me. However, I also suffered a broken coccyx during delivery, again unrelated to age. I spent several months undergoing physical therapy, but my child was fine. Today, women as old as 40 can have home births with a midwife if they are healthy.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
What about my prediction that economic and emotional stability would decrease the risk of divorce? This was one aspect of stability I was wrong about. I anticipated a lower divorce rate among older parents. While research shows that marrying too young is a factor contributing to divorce, with 48 percent of marriages before age 18 ending in divorce, and 24 percent of those over 25 ending in divorce, other factors are at play as well. For example, an estimated 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. Even though they had children later, some of the couples I’d interviewed divorced afterward, and the majority of them had been married previously, including myself. Other factors affecting divorce rates include religion, ethnicity, occupation and even country of origin (the U.S. having the 6th highest divorce rate).
My own marriage ended when my son was in high school. And like many women who had kids later, I did not work full-time for much of his life. While I consider that a luxury, it meant falling behind in my career at an age when it was hard to catch up. I found this to be true for several of the women I followed up on; they found themselves putting on the accelerator to their careers in their 50s. In the interim, they did struggle financially and psychologically.
Assuming couples stay together, one benefit of having kids at a younger age is that you have more time at the other end to enjoy life once the kids are gone. Couples who wait to have kids, on the other hand, can enjoy the opportunity to travel, experiment and complete their education before they have kids, but they have less time after their children leave home. Due to recent economic and cultural changes, however, both older and younger parents may be extending their time caring for their children. Studies show that children are living with parents longer. In fact, the number of kids living at home in their late 20s has been steadily increasing since 1970. The situation has become even more pronounced under Covid.
Not only are kids living with parents well into their 20s, but they are returning home in record numbers. The lack of jobs and the recession accounts for most of it. An increasing percentage of these kids are coming home from college without jobs to go to. While 2017 saw the culmination of 10 years of unprecedentedly high post-college employment, (following a turndown during the recession), we are now encountering what could be the worst outlook for college grads since the Great Depression. According to some researchers, the fallout may last another 10 years. That means kids may be flopped on the sofa at home, waiting to hear from recruiters rather than leaving home after graduation. This translates into later empty nests for both older and younger parents. As it is, older parents are nearing retirement when their kids leave for college. They may be ready to hit the road, but those retirement vacations may have to wait.
The Kid’s Perspective
I was curious how the grown kids felt about growing up with older parents. Did they feel they benefited from it or did they wish they had younger parents? Would they, themselves, wait to have to have children later? Since couples who give birth later in life generally have fewer children, many of their offspring lack siblings, unless one or more of the parents brought kids from previous marriages. Several children, including my own, admitted that they’d prefer to have had a brother or sister, and they plan to have a larger family themselves, which means starting earlier. One child said he wanted to have kids before he was 30. Others expressed concerns about their parents’ health, or having to take care of them at a younger age, or not having them around for as long as their friend’s parents, or them being elderly by the time they have children of their own. They also report having elderly grandparents (or none) growing up and feel they missed out. With regard to their parents maturity, they say they have no basis for comparison. They don’t know what their parents were like at a younger age, or it it would matter. They did point out that there are more older parents now, so it’s not an oddity.
So, what have we learned? For one thing, having kids at older ages is not a trend. We are living longer, taking more time to prepare for life on our own, to get educated, to start careers and to put a higher value on knowing ourselves. Meanwhile, medical and technological advances have reduced some of the risk of later life pregnancies and offered alternate birthing options. We’ve learned that we can wait.
Nevertheless, today’s generation faces greater financial and educational hurdles than the generation before them. Even if they go to college, they may move home for periods of time before finding employment, or they may stay home longer to save money. The choice may not be as much of a choice as it seems.
On the other hand, it may come as a relief to not feel pressured into an early marriage and family. Even though older parents might be more invested in having grandchildren earlier, they understand the advantages of waiting. They want the same for their kids that they gave to themselves: an opportunity to take their time, experiment, get to know themselves and establish a meaningful career, not just a job.
Young people today also have resources available to them via the internet to expand their knowledge and opportunities. There are countless self growth groups, and more people in their 20s are entering therapy to work through emotional and relational problems before they have kids. As a therapist, I’m aware that young people want to be both physically and mentally healthy before having a family, regardless of age.
Postponing parenthood was an experiment for my generation, one that shifted attitudes about when and why to marry and have kids. Our attempt, however flawed, gave permission to a new generation to take their time, discover who they are, and take parenthood seriously, rather than assume they must make decisions before they’re ready. And for those who simply take longer to find the right person, to establish a career, and to mentally prepare for parenthood, the one thing we older parents can offer is permission to wait. We did, and most of us feel it was well worth the wait. After all, having kids or not having them is the biggest decision one makes, even if it’s not when and how they wanted it to be.