Longing For Life

10/04/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

A striking and provocative article in New York Magazine discusses having a child at a later age. By "parents of a certain age," the author, Lisa Miller, is not referring to women in their late 30s or even early 40s who have children with or without the help of reproductive technology. Miller's primary focus is women and couples who have children in their late 40s, early 50s and beyond.

There is nothing meek or mild about Miller's discussion of the typical criticisms that are often hurled at older women (as heterosexual men are frequently immune from derision) who decide to have children later. After a few pages, however, inflammatory critiques settle into a more balanced discussion about the pros and cons of having young children in the fifth decade of life.

Advanced reproductive technology, as this is how many older women get pregnant, appears to be increasingly controversial. Miracles of in-vitro fertilization, sperm, egg and embryo donors, as well as surrogates, allow people to become parents when they have never had this chance before. This technology has not been around that long and perhaps the New York Magazine piece illustrates the tensions we all have about co-conceiving with doctors.

The idea of babies (having them, when to have them, how to raise them, how to feel about raising them, how long to breast feed, what to teach them, where to send them to daycare and preschool!) stirs up anxiety among many. And if the comments in Miller's article are any indication ("When a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, the choice prompts something like a moral gag reflex."), the idea of certain people having babies can provoke a lot of hostility.

Babies make us nervous because a lot of us have ideals about how young humans are supposed to be raised. We all have images in our mind about what normal parenting is. But I am not quite sure that the tension this article provokes is just related to babies and parents.

Miller touches, though I think too briefly, on our youth-obsessed culture and the denial of limits imposed on us through our aging bodies. She says and quotes, "Nothing -- not a sports car, not a genius dye job -- says 'I'm young' like a baby on your hip. 'He's given the house a renewed spirit and purpose,' John Travolta told People magazine earlier this year about his new son, Benjamin. Travolta is 57. His wife, Kelly Preston, is 48."

Babies and children are indeed cool, fun and as Miller eventually argues, may be able to keep us young. What about the limits of aging? What about people (and I do not mean parents) whom just feel their biological age? What if 60 is not the new 40?

In current times, we are aging quite diversely. While some people can enjoy the benefits of medical technology when it comes to conceiving a child, assisted reproductive technology does not work for everyone.

What if more people were able to talk about and tolerate the idea of physical limits? Our narcissistic culture pulls us all to believe that if we just do everything right, we can cheat aging and live forever. The last time I looked at the data, however, it is still Death and Taxes that we cannot avoid, though there might be more success with the latter.

If people want to have babies at 50, that is just fine with me. But I wish there would be more realistic discussions in the media that reflects reality; not everyone's bodies age well. When I see young and middle-aged men and women hit by random illnesses, I feel sad that we do not live in a culture that genuinely offers support. Instead, many patients tell me directly or indirectly that they get the ominous feeling that some people think that if they had done something different, they would not be sick. Of course, we know some of the reasons why people become ill and the things that can be done to prevent illness, but it is often just genetic luck -- or bad luck, depending on the cards you are dealt.

Medical technology is great, and at time miraculous. It does not, however, eliminate reality.