That mature lady sitting on the playground bench beaming at her toddler may have some gray hair, but don’t call her “grandma.” She may well be a member of America’s fastest-growing fertility group: mothers 40 and older.
And if she is one of these “midlife moms,” she would appreciate a little more respect.
No observer, for instance, can know what Kelli Suchy and her husband went through to become parents.
“It wasn’t a choice on my part” to marry at 39, endure six in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, lose two pregnancies, and then finally adopt at age 45, said Mrs. Suchy, founder of parentingbyadoption.com.
Angel La Liberte, who entered “babyland” when she was 41 and again at age 44, created FlowerPowerMom.com to “tell the truth about motherhood after 40.”
This Mother’s Day, Mrs. La Liberte and others are launching an online campaign to build support for older mothers and jettison phrases such as “advanced maternal age” and “geriatric pregnancy.”
“We need to change the way we talk to older mothers,” said Mary Govaars, who suffered three pregnancy losses on her way to motherhood at age 36 and 41, and who designed a “Mother’s Wish” pendant for the campaign.
“We are the ‘mommy boom’ group, but we are getting such a raw deal from our culture,” Mrs. La Liberte said. Older mothers are often “made to feel ashamed of the journeys that they are on.” They have to hide the fact that they had IVF, or used an egg or sperm donor, or that they turned to adoption after pregnancy attempts failed.
These women are not selfish or absent-minded. “No woman forgets to have a baby,” Ms. La Liberte said.
Instead, she said, women born in the 1960s, like herself, became part of an American social experiment that told them to pursue education and careers first.
“When I was in my 20s,” everyone thought “the idea of getting married and settling down right away was basically foolish,” said Mrs. La Liberte, who married in her late 30s.
There was a new social script for us, and “I think we are the ‘test generation’ for that,” she said.
Female fertility, alas, has not always cooperated, and no one knows this more than midlife moms.
“I met my husband at age 39 and married at 40,” and immediately began trying to have a baby, said Sharon Simons, founder of momatlast.com.
The couple rejoiced when she became pregnant with twins, but agonized when she lost them both at 19 weeks of gestation — and nearly died herself.
Mrs. Simons went through IVF before turning to adoption. When they brought home their two sons from Russia, she was 42.
There were so many dark days on the way to parenthood, said Mrs. Simons, who is writing a memoir about her experiences. After losing the twins, “you can go either way — get depressed or you can be more determined” to have a child, she said. “And I think it made me more determined, to know that that was what I wanted — to be a mom. I was going to figure it out one way or another.”
Deborah Lynn, founder of over35newmoms.com, also faced an unexpected crossroads in life.
A professional with an enjoyable but stressful job, she was happily married for more than a decade. When the couple began trying to have a child and it didn’t happen, cracks appeared in their marriage and they ended up divorcing.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Lynn turned 44 and realized that her lifelong dream of “being married to my best friend and having two kids” was just not happening.
“So I basically walked away from that career to focus on having a baby,” she said.
The path to motherhood included visits to a sperm bank and a miscarriage, but she gave birth to her daughter when she was 45.
She said she “got nothing but support” from those around her, but “I know [my course] is not the norm.” She added that she is preparing for the day when she tells her daughter about her conception.
“Baby bumps” among mature women, are, of course, catnip to tabloids and celebrity magazines.
Among the famous women who had children long after their nubile years are Halle Berry (daughter at age 41), Mariah Carey (twins at age 41), Jane Seymour (twins at age 44), Marcia Cross (twins at age 44), Christie Brinkley (daughter at age 44), Susan Sarandon (son at age 45), Holly Hunter (twins at age 47) and Geena Davis (twins at age 48).
Other front-page births were Cheryl Tiegs’ twins at age 52 (via a surrogate), Joan Lunden’s two sets of twins (at ages 52 and 54, with a surrogate), and Elizabeth Edwards, who had unspecified fertility treatments to have a daughter at age 48 and a son at 50.
But hundreds of thousands of women have late-in-life childbirths that do not make the tabloids. In 2009, more than 105,000 babies were born to women ages 40 to 44, and almost 8,000 more were born to women ages 45 to 54. More than half of these children were first- or second-borns.
Many of these births, especially after age 45, involve egg donation, a scary subject for many women, said Marna Gatlin, who struggled with infertility for more than 15 years before having a child via egg donation.
When Ms. Gatlin and her husband went through the donation process 11 years ago, “it was so in the closet, it was deemed as something out of ‘Star Trek.’ Very science fiction.”
She later started a nonprofit group, Parents Via Egg Donation, to provide up-to-date information and support about the process. For instance, she said, the window for natural conception is still slightly open between ages 40 and 45. “But once you pass the age of 45 — it’s kind of like that’s the magic age. Not many women get pregnant with their own eggs after age 45.”
Warnings about biological clocks have been sounded, of course. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett told women in her 2002 book, “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children,” not to squander their fertility. In 2006, Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of “Unprotected,” told the sad story of “Amanda,” a 39-year-old doctorate student who couldn’t stop crying because of her unfulfilled longing for a baby.
Even if “Amanda” conceives, “the possibility of miscarriage has tripled, the rate of stillbirth has doubled and the risk of genetic abnormality is six times as great,” wrote Dr. Grossman, who also reviewed the high costs of fertility treatments ($15,000 for IVF, $15,000 to $20,000 for egg donation).
Alarm about late-in-life pregnancies is not new, said Janice Shaw Crouse, a scholar at the Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America.
She said a friend years ago became pregnant with her fourth child at 45. “The reaction of everyone was, ‘Well, surely, she’s not going to have a baby at that age.’ But she did,” and that child was a joy to his parents.
For all their ups and downs, midlife moms are a “unique hybrid,” said Mrs. La Liberte. They have “a mother’s heart, entwined with a grandmother’s wisdom. And it doesn’t get any better than that.”