Jackie Cubero remembers the day she learned she was pregnant. She remembers it very well.
“The doctor told me I was ‘with child,’ ” Ms. Cubero says. “I looked at her and said, ‘They obviously gave you the wrong chart. Go back down the hall and get the right one.’ ”
Her son, Max, is 3.
Ms. Cubero is 47, and Max’s father, Frank Fritts, is 60. The Arlington family is part of what author Lois Nachamie calls the fastest-growing groupin the nation: older parents of young children.
“There are a heck of a lot more women our age wearing Snuglis [baby carriers], pushing strollers and scrunching down on child-size chairs meeting preschool and kindergarten teachers than there used to be,” Ms. Nachamie wrote in her new book, “So Glad We Waited: A Hand-Holding Guide for Over-35 Parents.”
Statistics bear this out. Nearly 4 million babies were born in the United States last year, says Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman for the National Center for Health Statistics. Of these, 87,205 were born to women older than 40. A year earlier, total births to women 40 and older were 84,809.
A number of factors underscore this phenomenon. People are delaying marriage and childbearing to reach loftier education goals and gain more than a toehold on their careers, Ms. Nachamie says from her Manhattan home.
Once they decide to give the green light to parenthood, many couples struggle with infertility, sometimes adding years of “trying” time. Average pregnancy rates decline gradually with age and do so more sharply after age 37, according to the Web site of the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax. In fact, relative fertility rates for women age 40 to 44 are just 5 percent to 7 percent.
Getting pregnant is only half the battle. Older women who beat the odds by conceiving then must worry about sustaining their pregnancies. A Danish study of 600,000 pregnant women published in the June 24 issue of the British Medical Journal shows a sharp age-related rise in miscarriage. The miscarriage rate is 9 percent among women in their early to mid-20s but 75 percent among women age 45 and older.
However, prospective parents who unwittingly find themselves bolstering these sobering fertility statistics have benefited from recent family-building policy changes. Most countries have raised the maximum age limit for adoptive parents, Ms. Nachamie explains.
In addition, she says, fertility clinics are willing to work with older single moms.
Parenting specialists seem to agree on the general pros and cons of older parenthood. Lack of energy and sometimes of interest on the part of one partner are two disadvantages, says Dr. Kevin Kalikow, assistant clinical professor of child psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla. “But the advantages are more time, money and maturity,” he adds.
The maturity element speaks to Ms. Cubero. “I think it’s great being an older parent,” she says. “I have all my running around out of my system. I was a latchkey kid, and I always knew that if I had a kid, I’d be a stay-at-home mom.”
To Mr. Fritts, time is of the essence. “My father was absentee, and with my own daughter, I was a weekend and night dad,” says Mr. Fritts, a semiretired employment investigator and the father of a 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. “Now I have time.”
More time, less energy?
“The difficulty I see most often is that older parents just don’t have the stamina it takes to chase a toddler,” Dr. Kalikow says. “Child rearing is an energy-intensive experience.”
Max and his parents read four or five books together every night. They go to the library twice a week “everybody knows Max there,” Mr. Fritts says. They are active in their church. They are regulars at the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum. They romp at the playground; they splash at the swimming pool.
“Max is very active,” Mr. Fritts says. “Keeping up with him is the biggest challenge. My get-up-and-go has got up and left.”
Ms. Nachamie says she has observed this state of diminishing energy in many of the older parents she encounters as a staff member at the Parenting Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
“Most 20-year-olds can put in a full day at work, go out at night, carry on, get a couple of hours’ sleep, get up and do it again,” she says. “By 40, most people without children physically cannot keep up that kind of schedule.”
However, Ms. Nachamie says, that is essentially what it is like to have a young child in the house.
“Certainly the energy level is a concern,” says Dennis Green of Ijamsville, Md. Mr. Green, 56, and his wife, Carrie, 48, adopted their 22-month-old daughter, Beth, from China earlier this year.
“I don’t have the level I had as a 25- or 30-year-old,” says Mr. Green, a computer-specialist supervisor at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “There are things I can’t do as well, but I don’t consider any of that to be major. I still have the strength and stamina to deal with a younger child. I can’t predict whether I will be able to keep up with a teen-ager, but I think I will.”
“My sense is that they really help keep you young,” says Jane Lipscomb, 47, of Silver Spring. Ms. Lipscomb and her husband, Bill Borwegen, 44, are the parents of Luke, 5, and Will, 4. “You have to be active. You have interjected this whole other level of play and interaction, which can be very welcome and therapeutic.
“I think you appreciate them so much more. The more you have seen of the world under the right circumstances, the greater the privilege of having children can be.”
What the future holds
“These children were meant to be born to me and my husband,” says Judy Sledge, a budget analyst turned Alexandria stay-at-home mom. Mrs. Sledge, 45, and her husband Rick, 42, are the parents of 4-year-old Jack and his 6-month-old twin siblings, Julianne and Jeffrey.
“I don’t look back and regret not doing other things,” Mrs. Sledge says. “I am not still searching for myself. I am content with what I have done.”
“We love being parents,” says Arlingtonian Robert Moss, 47. “We are thrilled.” Mr. Moss, a video and TV producer for the World Wide Web, says he and his wife Barbara, 48, didn’t get married until ages 39 and 40. After failing to conceive naturally, they found themselves becoming very familiar with the four walls of a fertility clinic. Several rounds of fertility treatments didn’t work.
“It was really disappointing, and we decided we weren’t going to go any further,” Mr. Moss says. Yet half a year later, a positive pregnancy test previewed son Julian, now 4.
“He’s an easygoing kid,” Mr. Moss says. “I always joke that he knows that he has older parents, so he goes easy on us.”
Still, Mr. Moss and Mrs. Sledge readily acknowledge the cloud that can hover over older parenthood: mortality. “We worry about not being there for our son,” he says.
“I hope I live long enough to see my grandchildren,” Mrs. Sledge says. “My father died three days before Jack was born. My mother is 86 now.”
Mr. Fritts says that he, too, is concerned about living long enough to help Max grow up. “I’ve got to be around longer. I’ve got to maintain a healthy lifestyle because I don’t want to leave this boy alone,” he says. “But I don’t dwell on the past as much I dwell on the future.”
For many older parents, that future includes the dual specters of retirement and college. But Ms. Nachamie says over-35 parents won’t be worrying themselves into early graves.
“Most older parents aren’t concerned with retirement the way some younger people are,” she says. “Anecdotally, the children of older parents tend to do very well in school. Therefore, it’s a prediction that many of the children of older parents will be scholarship material, which will ease the burden of college costs.”
Ms. Lipscomb concurs: “We kind of assume our kids won’t run up all kinds of college-loan costs. We save for the future when we can and we figure we will have to parcel it out between retirement and college when the time comes.”
What is an older parent?
Just as these couples have adjusted to life as older parents, society is becoming more receptive to Americans who choose to have children later in life.
“Our expectations have stretched,” says Nancy Marshall, a senior scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “The baby boomers are aging, so society is upping its definition of what’s an older parent. Over 30 used to be considered an elderly first-time pregnancy. This got moved to 35, and now it’s more like 40.”
Parents who look a little too much like a grandma or grandpa frequently must field comments from the outside world, however.
“If someone mistakes me for Max’s grandfather, I will usually correct them especially if he is with me,” Mr. Fritts says.
“If somebody is asked at the playground if their child is their grandson or granddaughter, they should just be honest,” Dr. Kalikow says. “The person saying that usually isn’t being intrusive they are just making an assumption.”
Children’s point of view
Does having older parents have a negative impact on children in adolescence?
“I really don’t see that as an issue with my patients,” Dr. Kalikow says. “What I see is that having an older parent falls in with all the other ways that parents embarrass kids your dad wears high socks or wears low socks, can throw a ball or can’t throw a ball.”
“My mother was 40 when she had me,” Mrs. Sledge says. “She said everybody came over to visit me when I was born she thought everybody wanted to see if I was deformed or something.”
Mrs. Sledge says she didn’t realize her mother was older until she learned to add and subtract and realized “29” could not be quite right.
“But honestly, I never really noticed, and I didn’t really care. When you have a certain way of life, it’s your way and you don’t know any different,” she says.
Dr. Kalikow agrees. “Having older parents is part of the texture that a particular family takes on. It’s not good or bad. It’s just what the child’s life is.