There's a new kerfuffle in the seemingly never-ending discussion of who should or shouldn't be a parent. The current fire-starter was a story by science editor Judith Shulevitz on the December cover of The New Republic that says older-women pregnancies have led to more kids with learning and health challenges. Actually, what the headline says is that the practice of older men and woman having kids is "upending" American society. Chicken Little, move over.
In cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- where professional women often delay pregnancy until their careers gain traction -- it isn't uncommon to see a gray-haired momma pushing a baby carriage and being mistaken for her child's grandmother. And Shulevitz makes the case that these same women are meeting up in the offices of doctors, occupational therapists and in special ed classrooms.
She goes on to cite studies that say aging bodies produce more children with more health issues and then frets about how we will face the challenge of caring for them, especially if their special needs outlive us.
A little disclosure here: I turn 63 in January and am mother to two children ages 15 and 12. I built my family through adoption and brought my children home when they were 5.5 years old and 4.5 years old respectively. Both have learning challenges and medical issues that I consider minor but Shulevitz might not. I took no fertility drugs and my children didn't come from my apparently decrepit-by-40 womb, yet they still have special needs.
Here's what Shulevitz's article failed to mention: Kids don't come with a warranty and every parent better be prepared for some breakage along the way. Kids are born every day with what I suspect she regards as imperfections -- some large, some small -- and being a mother means you love them anyway. I've found that the human spirit has a remarkable ability to find ways to cope and nowhere is that more evident than in a room filled with special ed kids and their mothers. In my own case, I developed a vat of patience I didn't know I was capable of, and I now have greater appreciation for those who see life's possibilities, not its limitations.
But more to the point (counterpoint?) of what Shulevitz wrote, I find it offensive to suggest that my children and children like them bring any less joy to a parent's life than a child who wasn't born with their challenges.
To start, nobody is ever really ready for what parenting throws at them. It doesn't matter if it's a biological birth, a birth made possible with infertility help, or an adoption, nothing changes about the complete uncertainty of your child's future. Your born-perfectly-healthy child can fall off his bike and never be the same again. I have a friend whose college athlete son was in a freak surfing accident and is now a quadriplegic. Was she prepared for it? Hell no. Does she love him any less? Of course not.
Parenting, like everything else in life, is a gamble. I've seen biological offspring of the same parents turn out as polar opposities. I've seen babies born with great challenges overcome them with the help of medical interventions. And I've seen women left devastated when they can't conceive or carry a baby to full term. Nobody, but nobody, should be telling them what to do or trying to scare the bejesus out of them. Trust me, a kid born with a cleft palate is not the end of the world; I have one. Finding the right school for an autistic child may at moments feel impossible, but it is not. Watching your daughter with Down's Syndrome dance in "The Nutcracker" is no less amazing because she has Down's.
Every time that you step off a curb, you take a risk. Whether it's worth it to you depends on how much you want to get to the other side of the street. In my case, I very much wanted children and I got them. We researched all our options, weighed the risks, figured out what we were capable of handling, and made a decision based on the best information we had. Personally, I've made some of my best friends in the offices of doctors, occupational therapists and special ed classrooms. And my kids? Two of the smartest, kindest, beautiful and big-hearted young people you'll ever meet -- and my reason for getting out of bed each morning.
But yes, their challenges are my challenges now. Older parents, as is often pointed out, generally come better-educated, with better-paying jobs and with an undeniable desire to parent -- we generally jump through hoops to get to do it unlike the 20-year-old fertile Myrtles.
I am blessed with good health and a high-energy level. I have never missed a soccer game, fallen asleep before the Pharaoh doll was completed for 6th grade Egyptian history or minded having a houseful of giggling girls sleep over even when they overflowed the toilet. Yes, I am the oldest mom in the class -- which is far preferable to me than not having had a chance to be a mother at all.
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