This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
Janet Jackson (50) did it in January, US Senator Tammy Duckworth (50) did it in April (while in office, no biggie), and Brigitte Nielsen (54) did it in June. The number of women having babies after they hit 45 and into their 50s has risen dramatically in the last 20 years, according to official figures. Between 2001 and 2016, the number of births to women over 45 more than trebled from 761 to 2,286, while the number of births to women over 50 more than quadrupled – from just 53 in 2001 to 218 two years ago.
The figures highlight the very real constraints women face in the 21st century, emotionally (not everyone finds The One in their most fertile years), financially (we can barely afford rent, let alone to raise a child), and socially (having children still has a disproportionately damaging impact on women's careers and long-term earning potential). But it also speaks to the greater freedom women have to become mothers at a time of their choosing; partly because we're all living longer (and in better health) than ever before, and largely also because science has never been better.
Women wanting to become mothers in their 40s and 50s have a world of options to consider: IVF, surrogacy, egg donation (or a mix of all three), as well as adoption and natural conception (if her fertility has already been confirmed by a professional). Conceiving naturally may take longer for a woman in her early 40s than one in her early 20s, and the risks are greater – particularly of miscarriage and pre-eclampsia – but it happens. (Yes, doctors generally advise childbearing in a woman’s 20s or early 30s, but the ubiquitous theory that female fertility dramatically drops off a cliff at 35 has long been overstated.)
Cari Rosen, an editor and writer in her early 50s, based in north London, should know. Rosen became a mother through natural conception for the first time aged 43 and has written a book about the experience. After a prior miscarriage, her GP told her "it was a miracle I’d got pregnant in the first place and it was unlikely to ever happen again. I was devastated – so I was delighted to prove her wrong. I was very lucky."
I'm far more focussed on my daughter growing up than on myself growing older.
Cari Rosen, 53
Contrary to the popular narrative that most women delay motherhood for career reasons, for Rosen "it was a matter of meeting someone I wanted to have a child with," she explains. "There had been earlier opportunities, but they weren't right for whatever reason. When I met my husband I had no doubts that he was the one, but of course it takes time to make the decision that you want to start a family together. Would I have done it earlier? Yes, if the circumstances had been right. But they weren't."
Parenting a daughter, who is now 10, at an age when many of her peers are enjoying the freedom of an empty nest and travelling the world, has been a life-altering change that's kept her eyes firmly on the positives to come. "I'm far more focussed on my daughter growing up than on myself growing older. But I'm certainly more active than I was before I had a child. I did a power-walking marathon a couple of years ago, go to the gym a lot, and walk everywhere." It helps that her daughter is sporty, too: "I also spend a lot of time running up and down fields shouting encouragement – all good unless it's raining or snowing. It’s not quite as much fun then."
While Rosen has nothing to compare her motherhood experience against, she believes there have been advantages to being slightly older than most. "I was absolutely ready to be a mother, and was also more settled financially and in my career. Had the opportunity to have children earlier presented itself I would have taken it, but it didn’t. I’m delighted it happened at all."
Like Rosen, Bettina Gordon-Wayne, 48, a journalist in Washington, DC who has written about the joy of later motherhood on her website and in a bestselling book, credits having a four-year-old son for her good health and energy levels, which she says are better than they were a decade ago. "I'm in much better shape now because my small child keeps me busy and active. I used to spend my weekend with my computer on the couch working, now we're out and about with Hunter," she says. "Doctors now say sitting down is the new smoking, and while many of our peers with big kids have become sedentary by now and have started talking about their ailments, we're super active and healthy."
Gordon-Wayne conceived naturally after the first time trying with her husband, and believes later motherhood is beneficial for children themselves as well as parents. It wasn't until she married her husband in her early 40s that the thought of having her own children crossed her mind, and even then, she wanted to ensure she was doing it for the right reasons and spent a year working out her doubts and questions about motherhood. "I'm so grateful that I did because I am a much better mother now that I addressed these issues and worked them out before having my child."
There is no urgency for my child to grow up so that my own life can start again.
Bettina Gordon-Wayne, 48
"Mature motherhood," as Gordon-Wayne describes it, is beneficial "because with age comes wisdom – usually, even if not for everybody – and life experience that we can bring to motherhood and offer our children. We've all overcome obstacles and challenges, and have grown and matured into who we are today in both our professional and private lives. We have a lot to offer our children."
She believes older parents don't "sweat the small stuff" and are usually more relaxed because they're less likely to care what people think. "We're more able to listen to our gut instincts and parent in a way that's right for us and our children and less dependent on books or influence from outside the family."
Mothers in their 40s and 50s are also less likely to feel like they're making sacrifices by having a child, Gordon-Wayne argues, based on her own experience. "We're not afraid of missing out on things, because we’ve done them already. We travelled, we had careers, sometimes first marriages, and are now in a super solid relationship. There is no urgency for my child to grow up so that my own life can start again. It’s very beneficial for the parents to have lived a rich life before becoming parents, but it’s truly valuable for the kids as well."
Older parents often have greater courage to challenge authority, Gordon-Wayne asserts, whether it be medical, political, religious, spiritual "or anyone in a position of power who tells us what we should do — something that’s not so easily done when you're younger and have less life experience."
I am forever grateful – if at times a bit tired – and I wouldn't change it for the world.
Anna*, 52, became the mother of two baby daughters in her late 40s with help from the adoption agency Coram in 2013. Like Gordon-Wayne, she believes "perspective and confidence come with age, in knowing who you are and what your strengths and limitations are." Anna adopted with her husband of a similar age, and admits she was initially self-conscious about her age. "But when you have kids you rarely have the time or headspace to indulge in such hang-ups, and because so many women are now having children later, there are plenty of other parents who are close in age to me."
The prevalence of later motherhood in 2018 means she's never felt hostility towards her decision. "I really don't care what other people think – maybe that comes with age. I am forever grateful – if at times a bit tired – and I wouldn't change it for the world."
She concedes that there have, however, been challenges along the way. "My experience of the perimenopause was challenging and I was too busy with my daughters, who were very young at the time, to take the time to understand what was going on with me. Fortunately I wasn't back working at that stage, but if I had been the juggle would have been difficult."
In Rosen’s experience, the differences between earlier and later motherhood are minimal but there are a few other downsides to becoming a mother later than most. Many of her friends are 10 years younger and have gone on to have other children, while she hasn't. "That’s pretty much the only downside. I would have loved more, but am nonetheless grateful to have the one I have. The bottom line is that if your baby sleeps it’s all much easier, however old you are." And it goes without saying that the older you are, the less likely you are to see your child grow up and to become a grandparent, and the more likely you are to develop an age-related condition that affects your ability to parent.
However, it's difficult to deny the empowering effects of this cultural shift for women and their decision whether or not to become a mother. Rosen interviewed about 100 women for her book about later motherhood, she recalls, and while one woman waited to have children because she wanted to establish her career, the rest largely contradicted the established narrative. "There were a variety of reasons. Some had been in established relationships for many years but struggled to get pregnant. Some hadn't met a partner until later on. Others were single and had made the decision to have a baby anyway, before it was too late. Several already had families but decided to add to them – or welcomed a late surprise. There were so many different stories." Until society makes it easier for women to combine parenting with work in their 20s and 30s, the trend towards later motherhood is only a liberating one.
*Name has been changed