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Ruminations on being an older parent

Physically and emotionally, what does it do to women who become mothers late in life? Are there choppy waters to be navigated — or is that just a social bias?

By Simran Sodhi

Published: Sat 19 Feb 2022, 9:58 PM

Motherhood and all the attendant wonderful emotions it begets had, traditionally, been regarded as the single greatest “achievement” of a woman’s existence: the life she gives birth to sustains our world. But like many other thoughts that the passage of time has tossed and turned around, motherhood too has undergone a change.

Many women today have made a conscious decision to not have kids. Then, there are many who have decided to have kids late, in their late 30s or early 40s. Career choices, partner choices or just life choices, the decision to have a child late is also changing human society in many ways. It is also a challenge to a woman’s body physically as the body takes longer to recover.

But does having kids late in life make one better parents or does it make life harder for a kid who has older parents compared to his/ her peers? Is it selfish to have kids late as that gives women time to first explore life as individuals or is it better for the child since the parent has ticked off their bucket list and now motherhood is the top priority?

Joanne Sandilands is today 51 and a mother to three daughters. She worked as an HR business partner for 23 years but gave it up when she had her youngest child — at 41. “I wasn’t planning on working again but decided I needed something else to do so now I work as a learning support assistant at a girls school which I absolutely love,” she says. Joanne has been living in the UAE for 18 months now and before that lived with her family in Jordan for three and a half years.

Talking about her motherhood experience, she says, “I don’t feel that I have had any more or different challenges having children later in life. I did worry that it would be harder and more medically complicated but it wasn’t really. I had my first daughter at 28, then my second at 38, and my third at 41. If anything, it was maybe easier as I was more settled, better off financially etc… I think it’s far more ‘normal’ now to have children later in life than say 50 years ago. Women have better careers now and more opportunities than they used to. I feel far more women today are waiting to have a family till they are financially/family-wise secure.”

Joanne does find herself saying sometimes that she’s too old to have a 9-year-old at 51! “But on the flip side, they keep me young. People often assume I’m younger because I have younger children too. I have to have the energy to do things with them and keep up with them.”

Her husband, she maintains, while being “very hands on and brilliant with them” still works long hours. “The default [setting] seems to be mum even when he’s there but maybe that’s because I’m the one that is normally at home and do the things that they need. Even though we both work, he is the main breadwinner and I work only because I want to, not because I have to do it… maybe that’s why,” she adds.

Joanne feels having children late makes one more aware of what it involves to raise a child, mentally and financially. “I was much more aware and worldly wise having children later than when I was in my [early] 20s. I was far more aware of what was needed and how expensive raising children were!”

She candidly admits to worrying sometimes about her kids going to university at a time she would be heading to her 60s. “I sometimes think of all the things I could be doing if I didn’t have young children — without having to worry — and the fact that I’ll be 60 when they go to university and still costing us money… But… they have made our lives far more interesting and given us so much joy.”

And despite the challenges, Joanne is clear that she wouldn’t change a thing — or the age at which she has had her kids. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. My eldest, who is now 23, loves her sisters and she was a great help when they came along. So that was good!”

‘We think we are better placed to bring up a child in our 40s’

In a study conducted in the US in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that while the birth rates for women under 40 had been declining for years, those for women in their early 40s were increasing — by 3 per cent every year since 1982. The average age of first-time mothers in the United States is now 26 — up from 23 in 1994. A pointer that women are now waiting longer to have kids and not rushing in to start a family.

Narendra Kamath and his wife, who decided to have a child when they were both 42, changed much of their life’s priorities and outlook. A former media professional, Narendra, who lives in Mumbai, also took the decision to quit his job while his wife could continue hers to be a full-time dad.

Today, at 45, he feels it was the best decision that he and his wife took, despite the challenges. “After innumerable IVFs and all sorts of treatments to get a baby, I had my daughter (Keyana) in 2018, when I was 42. I resigned from my job in 2020 to take care of her full time. My wife holds a very senior post in a multinational bank and continued to work. We both came to a consensual decision for the arrangement and I have absolutely no regrets,” Narendra says.

He adds that after all the “life experiences, handling interpersonal relations, globe-trotting, seeing others’ kids grow up and financial stability, we think we are better placed to bring up a child now in our 40s than we would have been in our 20s.”

He talks of one being in good physical shape versus being unfit as the single-biggest challenge for anyone wanting to have a child late. “Another big challenge is also the most obvious one — age. But we’ve realised it all depends on your approach. If you think your age is going to be a challenge, then it surely will be — but if you think nothing of it, then it is just a number. The most unique challenge, though, is physical more than anything else. After having reached where you have in your career, the one thing you’d ignored along the journey was health. Now, that we have an infant running about in the house, it is tough to keep up. So, once again we’ve started paying attention to our health, and I think it’s a fantastic thing that happened to me and my wife — a complete blessing on all fronts.”

And, then, there are always people, and a society with a conservative outlook, where being a parent at an age when traditionally people used to become grandparents is another challenge. “For sure, society is more accepting now, but there will always be some who may accuse you of paying more attention to your career. You have to keep them at bay. Only you know your truth,” Narendra points out.

There are always those who are quick to point out that having a 10-year-old when you are in your 50s is hard. “No one said it was going to be easy… So, yes, it is tough, but you must be determined to get yourself back into ship shape… and then, it’s a cakewalk. To reiterate, physical fitness is something that will be your focus,” he says, once again emphasising how important physical fitness is in life.

The one thing Narendra is absolutely clear about is that having a child in one’s 40s is much better in a sense than when one was a 20-something. “In your 20s, you need advice from your parents, other seniors, elders who know more and have seen more of life. But in your 40s, you’ve already seen most of it, if not all. So, you basically know how to handle people and situations. That does not mean you don’t need advice from your elders and friends on raising a child, but you are in a much better position to absorb and implement,” he notes, with the satisfaction of having made a good decision — and not going by the set patterns of society.

‘The weight was harder to lose. The delivery was harder. The recovery was harder’

One just has to look a little closely at the world of celebrities, and it comes as no surprise that many have chosen to have kids late. From Meryl Streep to Eva Mendes, the list of women who chose to have kids in their 40s is quite a long one actually. Halle Berry was almost 50 when she had a child. And most have publicly spoken at times how they have been super comfortable with this decision.

In 2007, when Salma Hayek was 41 years old, she and her then-fiancé (and now husband) François-Henri Pinault welcomed their daughter, Valentina. The actress spoke to Oprah Winfrey about having a child late in life. “It’s a little nerve-racking to wait that long, but it’s the best time to have it because you’ve done so many other things in your life,” Hayek said. “You just get it out of your system, and you can really relax into being a mother... If you’re 23, you don’t know this because you think you have to do so many more things. But if you already did them, then you can really focus and enjoy every minute of it.”

Sarah GG was born in France and lived there for 24 years before she moved to the United States where she had her two children. After spending 20 years in the US, she moved to Abu Dhabi where she has been living for four years now.

A former housewife who, for the last three years, has been a teacher, Sarah shares her experiences of starting a family late and the ups and downs of her journey.

For her, the biggest challenge was that her body took way longer to recover when she became a mother at 41 compared to when she had her first child at the age of 27. “The weight was harder to lose, I did not ‘bounce back’ like at 27. The delivery was also harder. The recovery was harder,” she admits.

Sarah feels that society today accepts that people want to be financially secure before they start a family. “Society has changed and it is now well accepted for a couple to start a family late. I think that most people now want to be secure before having a child. They want financial security, established careers… they have now learnt how to make time for themselves: enjoying couple life longer without time restraints… you have way more time if you do not have a kid, that is a fact,” she points out.

Sarah confesses that she does think about her daughter being so young while she and her husband step into their 50s. “We will be 50 this year and my daughter will be eight years old. I realise this aspect can be hard! I often wonder if we’ll be able to see her at her wedding [if she decides to get married]. I am torn when I think about the fact that we will be 82 when she turns 40, and that she might lose her parents when she is still young. This is, and it is a huge one, the fact that bothers me the most. The older I get, the harder it gets. However, when this thought comes to my mind, I try to shake it off.” It’s too late anyway now, so Sarah and her husband try and enjoy every minute they have with their kids. Interestingly, she adds that she has the “same energy” with her daughter at 50 as she had for her son when he was eight.

Sarah feels that parenthood is very different for a father as compared to a mother when you decide to have children late and that boils down to a woman’s body taking much longer at 40 to recover than, say, when a woman is 20. However, if a couple decides to opt for adoption then she feels there is no difference between a father and a mother starting a family late.

“There is no right age to start a family. If a woman delivers a baby in her 20s, it’s easier for the body to recover. When a child gets older, the parents are still young. In your 40s, you are likely to be financially more stable, you know what you want actually and you also know what you don’t want. Also, parents in their 40s are a bit calmer, maybe?” she adds.

Sarah has absolutely no regrets having a child at 40 and says if she had to do it again, she would. “I loved having a child at 27 and I loved having one in my 40s. Now my 21-year-old can babysit my 7-year-old!”

For most women, the hard choice seems to be more physical than mental. A delayed motherhood would mean being more patient with ourselves as the body takes longer to heal and recover. But then at the end of the day, happy parents raise happy children, so if that happiness comes a little late, why not?

Simran Sodhi is an author and journalist based in New Delhi, India

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