In a recent Huffington Post column, I laid out a concise spreadsheet on the positives and negatives of (new) mid-life mothering. I was hoping to educate people and engender a little sympathy and understanding. However, it seems to me that the vast majority of American's still think that despite breakthroughs in medical technologies, a breakdown of the traditional family unit and the shattering of myths about women in middle age, there should remain a cut-off age to saying "no" to birthing/adopting/having more children. All of this caused me to wonder: When is being done, done? Is "done" the exact same for someone as capable of conceiving as someone who must, or who chooses, to adopt or foster? Should age, in and of itself, determine this?
I decided to go to some sources for answers.
For some people, saying, "I've had enough" helps save the relationships in their lives, according to sex and relationship therapist Wendy Haggerty, 41. "I spoke those words 'enough is enough' after about six months of infertility treatments that were not successful," she said. "I believe that the final time, which was a success in terms of the conception of my twins, was the last time I would have tried. It was the impact on my relationship more than anything that made me feel this way. There is no way my marriage could have survived another failed attempt."
For others, the chance to "do it again" seems alluring. "I'm not entirely sure I am done," said 43-year-old one-time mother, Michelle Fitzpatrick. "I would foster or adopt if my daughter (age 9) was older and more able to cope with that. And I'd have another if the right person came along and my health held up. On one hand, I think I should give up on the idea, but on the other... I've got this friend who has shown me some wonderful stories about "older" mothers. My mom was my age when she had her last... and he was the best one!"
Then there are those individuals who just "know." "For the longest time I thought I would never be done," said writer and therapist Valerie Gillies, 54. "It snuck up on me, and I sure am solidly planted there now."
According to Elizabeth Gregory, Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Houston, and author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, although the issue is complex, a family can come to both a compromise and agreement. "I'd say an important part of whether or not a person feels she has enough kids is the amount of attention she feels able to devote to the ones in the house already. No use in endlessly adding to the family if the additions mean less of the necessaries for all," said Gregory. "This has never struck me as particularly sad -- you want to be able to provide the energy, money, as well as the time your kids need. In addition, if you're partnered, you take into consideration the desires of both members of the couple, which will sometimes mean compromise -- which, of course, should come from both directions." She adds, "For my family, two is perfect!"
Seeking more responses, I found the following diverse comments on several parenting websites:
For some women, health is the determining factor:
"I waited until later in life to have children so when I was pregnant with my second I was 41 and sick as a dog. I was so miserable; there's no way I would ever do it again. Plus, I figured I was too old. So I just knew that was it."
"I thought we'd have three kids, but then I had a cancer scare that resulted in a hysterectomy. We are very happy with two healthy kids now."
"For us, the biggest factor in deciding to be done with two was my misery during pregnancy. I spent the entire nine months in a haze of nausea and gloom. It was nearly impossible to take care of my older daughter when I was pregnant with my second... For us, it came down to, quite simply, we need to take the best care we can of the children we have rather than try to have more and not give them all the care we have."
For others, it is an issue of finances:
"I think it is different for everyone. Some listen to their hearts, and some people look at their financial situation, and still others think of how they feel physically to have more children...to not just have them but to raise them as well."
"I am not done... I have three girls but I want just ONE more baby. But hubby was done two ago. I have been lucky to have my three. But just one more... It is tough to know who has the more valid reasons, the need to buy a new car, the ease of the kids getting older, the march of time, but there is always just one more..."
"My husband and I (45/48) wish we could adopt again, but it is finances, not our ages, holding us back. If the finances fell into place, we would definitely do it again!"
Sometimes, mental illness sets the bar:
"I am in the midst of making this decision myself. I suffer with a mental illness and although my heart thinks I want another baby, I'm not sure my head can handle it. It pains me to say that. But I might just have to choose my sanity instead of filling that strong desire."
Still others use biology as the litmus test:
"For me, I think I'll know when menopause hits."
"I have two and long for a third... my neighbour (now in her 60's), said that the feeling of wanting another doesn't go away until menopause!"
Some are called by God's plan:
"I am 52 years old and had thought my adoption days were done. My next to the last youngest started college in September. God had a different plan. We now have legal custody... of a beautiful 6-year-old girl... I don't argue with God."
Then there are those who just "know"
"I knew after the third one. After the second one, there was always that questioning lingering, but my family felt complete after the last one."
"I have one child and it just feels right. I have no desire for another one, even though when I first had my daughter I was certain we would start trying again when she was six months old... .So count me as one of the "I just know" crowd. It's nothing to do with money or pregnancy or babies, I just don't want another kid."
"I just seemed to know. We had four and the idea of adoption came up and I remember thinking: "I can do that. There's room for more." So we did. Then adoption was successful, and now I have five, and I AM DONE."
"I hate to tell you this, but I just "knew." I couldn't imagine adding any one else to our family and before we had our last child, the family felt just not quite complete. I really had only planned on having one child, but now I have three... LOL"
And, finally, there are those women who clearly see signs:
"When you look at pregnant women and think, 'Thank God that's not me!' "
"When I could look at someone else's baby and not think that I would like another one!"
"When the paralegal handed me the clipboard in front of the house, gave me a nasty smile, and said sign here for the divorce hearing."
"We just adopted our first child a year ago and I will be 42 in February. My mom had me when she was 45. I've always looked at that as my cut off!"
In the end, for many, the sadness of being done is often the hardest challenge to overcome:
"It is so hard letting go of a dream and I don't think the longing for children ever goes away. I think that as moms, in our hearts, we love the baby stage and the love and joy we have from children..."
"I suppose -- if and when we decide that these baby girls of ours will really be our last -- we'll need to reframe our sadness over those missing "firsts" with another baby into a focus on the firsts that happen every day with the ones we already have. I have trouble, though, getting my head and my heart out of the realm of the 'what if?'"
So, as the debate rages on about when is too old to have a baby, the concurrent debate about "when does a woman know she is done?" also continues. But, perhaps, the best answer is the one that is left up to each individual woman.
"To be "done" is "done" for whatever your reason," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Case of the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. "You may be done for physical reasons including health or age; financial reasons; adoption law reasons; to honor your partner's wishes. The reason a woman says she is finished having or raising children is individual and personal." She adds, "We don't know what goes on in other people's lives. While it is human nature to see things from our own perspective, to judge others or to criticize their family choices is simply WRONG and frankly, narrow-minded."
What are your thoughts on all of this? Are you through adding children to your family? Is your decision age-related? Lastly, how did you know when you had enough, and were "done?"