How Research Is Destigmatizing Older Motherhood
"It just hit me that I'll be 44 years old in the kindergarten pick-up line," my friend says as we sip our coffees.
Her words remind me of another conversation with a different friend, who is only 43. She told me she'd been mistaken for her school-aged daughters' grandmother more than once.
Then there's me, a mom in my late 30s with four young kids, who once mistook a young nanny for a mother.
"No, I’m the nanny," she corrected me.
"Oh, sorry. I thought you were just a really young mom," I laughed. "Anyway, I am the mom of these four, not the nanny," I explained while pointing toward my kids.
Without missing a beat, she looked me up and down and said, "I never doubted it."
Ah, to be young!
I tell my friend who is worried about the kindergarten pick-up line that there will be plenty of other mothers her age there. The decision to wait to have kids wasn't a misguided one.
What I told her is true. Maternal age is rising in many places, with the U.S. seeing women waiting later to conceive, and countries like Sweden and Denmark noticing increasing percentages
of women waiting until their late 30s or early 40s to have children.
What I would have told her if I'd known it at the time is that older moms and their children may experience some benefits that only come with age. In fact, for all the older moms out there, researchers say the kids are all right, the moms are all right, and youth does not particularly have the market cornered when it comes to raising children well.
Why being an older mom is under fire
Being an older mom comes with a stigma for many reasons. There's no denying that certain risks
increase the longer a woman waits to have a baby. That's why doctors classify women over the age of 35 as "advanced maternal age" and treat them like high-risk patients regardless of their health.
The ability to conceive is never guaranteed, but as woman age, the quality of their eggs decreases, and they are more likely to experience miscarriages or the inability to become pregnant at all.
Those who do conceive have a higher risk of having a child with Down's syndrome, and they face other risks to the pregnancy, such as preterm labor and stillbirth. That's the bad news. But fertility treatments and high-risk monitoring aid women who conceive later in life.
Many older moms also deal with the concern about whether they'll have the energy or desire to parent in their 40s and 50s. The question changes from "Can I conceive?" to "Will I be a good parent?"
Science says yes.
With age comes wisdom – or at least patience
A recent research study printed in "The European Journal of Developmental Psychology"
showed promising outcomes for young children born to older moms. Older women tended to punish their children less by verbal or physical means. The patience these women cultivate throughout their lives comes into play, which they then offer to their children.
As a result, their children don't suffer from behavioral issues at as high of a rate as other children. These kids are more socially and emotionally capable, avoiding the pitfalls children who are yelled at or spanked may suffer.
Why are older moms more patient and less likely to lash out? There's no way to know for sure, but several factors come into play. Older moms are usually more financially stable and finished with their education. Their career path is set, or they're in a position to stay home full-time. Because of the previous advantages, older moms may have better access to prenatal care and healthcare in general.
All of these factors lessen the stress that outside forces, like money or healthcare, often create. This means older moms may be less likely to snap or overreact to their kids because they've learned to manage or have less of those stressors. Their personal relationships, both with partners and friends, tend to be more stable as well, allowing them to bring a child into a calm, steady environment.
But researchers conducting the study in "The European Journal of Developmental Psychology" chose to control for those factors in order to focus specifically on the role of age. They discovered that, even with the previous conditions removed, age itself plays a huge role in how moms parent.
We know that as women grow older they tend to be more tolerant of others and more flexible. They mellow out, you could say, and this is a huge benefit for a child. A mom with a few years under her belt also understands the importance of taking care of her own emotional wellbeing. This, in turn, helps her support the emotional wellbeing of her child.
There's a limit to the good news in this study. The child's age that seems to be the factor. Researchers checked in with children of older parents on their emotional, social, and behavioral development when they were ages 7, 11, and 15. The positive results were present at the earliest two ages, but by the teenage check-in, the benefits were no longer apparent.
This could be a reflection of the way the parent/child relationship changes for everyone during the teen years as opposed to any real information about parental age.
Taller, smarter, and physically fit
Children of older moms also excel when it comes to school and fitness. A different study
completed in 2016 shows that children of older moms are slightly taller, in better shape, and score better grades. The reasons are still unknown, so researchers are cautious with the data, but their research was thorough. With a sample group of over one million people, the results aren't likely to be a fluke.
One theory has to do with genetics. When a woman is able to conceive later in life, this could be an indicator of stellar genes. These are then passed on to the children they conceive. There's also the chance that older moms pass down good health habits to their children, teaching them to exercise and eat well.
Waiting may keep mom around longer
Older moms worry that having children so late will mean not being around when they're older. Pressure to start young is sometimes traced to the idea that popping out babies early will ensure we'll stay alive long enough to watch our children age and get to meet our grandchildren. New research
says this shouldn't be a motive because older moms are more likely to live longer than younger ones.
A 2016 study
first introduced researchers to this idea when it showed that having the first child after the age of 25 (which, to be fair, is not old by any means) increases a woman's chance of living to 90 by more than 10 percent. A study from two years earlier already offered good news to older moms. It concluded that moms who have children after the age of 33 double their chances of living to 95. So why rush?
Though researchers can't explain why older moms live longer, the data is there: Having a child late doesn't necessarily mean missing out on them as adults.
What about older dads?
Stories abound about men in their 60s and 70s easily impregnating women who are much younger. However, all bodies age and the effects are obvious, even in older dads.
Babies born to older dads offering aged sperm are at an increased risk of dealing with autism and certain cancers. They are also more likely to be born small, creating problems related to low birth weight.
While we tend to focus on problems for older moms without discussing the advantages of them waiting, older dads receive the opposite treatment. We just assume men can happily procreate without any negative consequences until they die, despite the data. That could be why being an older mom is stigmatized, but no one blinks when an older man has a child.
This information isn't meant to discourage older fathers, but it should help us view older parenting as a choice to be made by both partners with benefits and disadvantages. Yes, the risks for a pregnancy go up due to the age of both sexes, but the experience can still be rewarding and produce children who experience advantages in important areas.
Knowing this helps us stop looking at older mothers with sympathy as if the path ahead is automatically paved with age-related struggles. It's not. In fact, it may be paved with fit, intelligent kids who turn into adults that their 90-year-old moms are around to enjoy.