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Older Mother, Better Mother?

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Full disclosure: I am an older mother. My first daughter was born when I was almost 38, and my youngest entered the world three days before my 41st birthday. Even though I'm 54 and going through the tumultuous teenage years, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Usually, I don't think about it, except when I attend a meeting at my 13-year-old daughter's school and look around to see the faces of the other parents who are easily 10 years younger. But after I read an article in New York Magazine, and the response to it on the fairly new website -- flowerpowermom.com -- which has become the meeting place for moms over 50, I felt inclined to throw my thoughts into the ring.

Most American women enter motherhood during their twenties and thirties, many even in their teens. However, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, teen births are on the decline, but women who have their first babies after age 35 is on the rise. Clearly, I'm not alone:

The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. In 1990, there were more births to teenagers than to women ages 35 and older. By 2008, that had reversed -- 14 percent of births were to older women and 10 percent were to teens. Births to women ages 35 and older grew 64 percent between 1990 and 2008, increasing in all major race and ethnic groups.

It's not all that simple, however. A recent study shows that ". . . women over 35 face higher risks of birth complications but good prenatal care can help manage the risks." While the responsibility is on all future parents to maintain good health before and during pregnancies, it is especially true of older mothers. And by keeping fit and healthy after giving birth, older mothers will find it easier to physically handle the demands of raising a child for many years without completely exhausting every ounce of energy, leaving nothing for your partner, friends, and most importantly, you. Anyone who has ever had a toddler knows exactly what I mean.

No matter what age one is when becoming a parent, the truth is, none of us are ever fully prepared. But, it's possible that, generally speaking, older mothers -- especially those who have spent time in the workplace (often the main reason why women delay having babies) -- are often better equipped to handle the trials and tribulations of motherhood, and everything that comes with it, than their younger counterparts.

After graduating college in 1978, I immediately became the quintessential working woman, and building my career was the sole focus of my universe. I was attending graduate school, and working full time, leaving little room for much else. Getting married and having children was always part of my "life plan," but not while I was working so hard to establish myself in the world, and gaining considerable knowledge and skills that I instinctively knew would come in handy when I finally became a mother. The Pew Research Center report suggests that this is one of the key reasons why women delayed starting families until later in life during the last twenty years:

Since 1990, birth rates have risen for all women ages 30 and older. The rate increases have been sharpest for women in the oldest age groups -- 47 percent for women ages 35-39 and 80 percent for women ages 40-44, for example.

This delay in age of motherhood is associated with delay in age of marriage and with growing educational attainment. The more education a woman has, the later she tends to marry and have children. Birth rates also have risen for the most educated women, those with at least some college education, while being relatively stable for women with less education. These dual factors have worked together to increase the education levels of mothers of newborns.

Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, Aradhana Parmar, brings out some other dimensions of the phenomenon. Parmar, who also teaches Women's Studies and Development Studies, believes passionately that women can benefit considerably from the ability to have later pregnancies. She emphasizes that the new technology has emerged at a time when there are far more women professionals in the workplace than at any time in history; by the time they have built their careers and furthered their education, many are in their 30s before they are able to 'settle down' to family life. Parmar believes that if a healthy woman of fifty, who can provide superb facilities and enormous love and affection to a child, chooses to have a baby, this should not be faulted, but rather supported. She has a point; large numbers of children are the result of unplanned and even worse, unwanted pregnancies; no matter how healthy and young their mothers may be, these children and their parents may face far more of a struggle than Parmar's enthusiastic fifty year old first time mother.

Parenthood should be, if at all possible, the result of a plan, allowing the future parent(s) time to be financially, psychologically, and physically prepared. By the time I met my future husband, I was ready for marriage, and for motherhood. During my twenties and thirties, I attended graduate school, did research projects, started a magazine, traveled for work and pleasure, and eventually became an executive at a major publishing company, where I was responsible for managing many people, with many different kinds of personalities. By my own admission, I was completely involved in the development of me.

Along the way, I learned invaluable skills and tools that are important for success in business, and absolutely essential in motherhood. For example:

  • fostering creativity and problem solving
  • building confidence in others
  • encouraging positive and respectful negotiation
  • promoting cooperation, especially between siblings
  • managing schedules
  • creating financial budgets

One of the most important benefits to my family, however, was the fact that since I had already spent two decades building a career, by the time I became a mother, I was able to spend more time on building my family life, and less on my work. Work was, and still is, very important to me, but after having my children, my priorities were able to shift without a lot of things falling out of place. And, I truly felt that I no longer needed to prove myself, which is one of the many benefits of getting older, in general.

You might think, rightly so, that there are many women who are, and have been, building careers and starting families in their twenties and thirties, and can bring the same set of management skills to their mothering, as I did to mine. Of course they can, and they do.

The key is this: It was my choice. Society did not impose its will on me, as it had on my mother (who had my sister at age 18 and me at 20) and grandmother's generations. I was able to pursue a career and wait to start my family because that's what I chose to do. Except for the occasional musing of how I'm going to keep up with two extremely energetic teenagers who are growing into two strong, beautiful young women, I know that, for me, I have chosen wisely.

Older mother, better mother? Compared to my younger self? The answer is a resounding "yes."

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For more information about living your best life after 50, visit www.bestofeverythingafter50.com. Staying connected is a powerful tool. "Friend" me on Facebook and "Tweet" me on Twitter (BGrufferman).
2011 New York City Marathon Weekly Training Countdown (3 weeks to go!)
I'm running in the NYC Marathon in November to celebrate my 55th birthday and raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Here's an update on my training schedule for this week:
Monday: 8 miles using a run/walk ratio of 3 minutes/30 seconds
Wednesday: 6 miles using a run/walk ratio of 3 minutes/30 seconds
Friday: 29 miles with using a run/walk ratio of 60 seconds/30 seconds (this is my last "long run" before the actual event on Sunday, Nov. 6th!)