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Bringing Up Baby: Motherhood as the Dream Deferred

a nude older white woman on the cover of ny mag appearing pregnant. the headline reads, is she just too old for this?

Last month, New York Magazine published a cover story entitled "Parents of a Certain Age: Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?" The title invites the reader to answer the question with a "yes" or a "no." The author, veteran journalist Lisa Miller, says "no," yet the antagonistic framing invites controversy against the older moms she seeks to defend, as does the sensationalist cover image (shown here) of a decidedly naked, decidedly older pregnant woman.

Miller opens with the story of Ann Maloney, a wealthy psychiatrist. As Miller explains it, Maloney had "deferred motherhood" for the "typical reasons," which include "establishing her practice and building a national reputation." Maloney became pregnant at 48 using a donor egg, and she gave birth to her second child via donor egg at 52.

Miller spends several pages delineating the arguments against donor-enabled pregnancy—health risks to mom and baby, bioethical arguments, vague beliefs that these pregnancies are downright creepy—and then, halfway through, she does an about-face and reveals that none of these arguments are valid because biology is not destiny. According to Miller, "Nature is a historically terrible arbiter of personal choice. American states used to legislate against interracial couples on the basis that miscegenation was "unnatural." Some conservatives continue to fight gay marriage and gay parenthood on the grounds that homosexuality is "unnatural."

It sounds like a good point, but it's a deceptive and faulty analogy. Miscegenation and homosexuality do not require medical procedures in order to exist. Claims about the relative "naturalness" of homosexuality are explicitly cultural value judgments. Not so with in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and gamete donation. Surrogacy costs up to $110,000 and is often not covered by insurance. Surrogacy is made possible by technology. Menopause is real. And yet Miller paraphrases one of her sources as saying that "menopause, the definitive end of a woman's natural fertility, can be regarded as an evolutionary relic." This is a startling mistruth. She then makes confusing claims about why the evolutionary "survival benefit" of menopause is no longer relevant because life expectancies are now longer. (She was grappling with an evolutionary theory sometimes called the "grandmother hypothesis," but either didn't understand it or wasn't given the space to explain what she meant.)

In point of fact, our extended life spans have no bearing on menopause, and just because older moms might live to see their children grow up doesn't affect the difficulty of becoming pregnant in the first place. And Miller's belief that long life expectancies legitimize older motherhood directly contradicts her other belief that nature is a terrible arbiter of personal choice.

The ultimate problem with the article is that it implicitly supports a class system here in the United States that renders older motherhood a class privilege. By glossing over the constraints of menopause, she also glosses over the women who can't afford to overcome its restrictions. Miller writes that "the woman who devotes her first decades of adulthood to her career is expected to then waive her maternal impulses." She goes on to explain that older moms tend to be wealthy and have stable careers, which is good for their children. She concludes that the "decision to put work before childbearing for some period of time is not "a lifestyle choice" but a necessity," and that in opposition to younger moms, older moms "can chaperone the field trip without job anxiety; financially secure, they can take an extended parental leave when the baby comes."

Wait... what? Let's be clear. Women who desire kids and successful careers must put childbearing on hold. Yes, this is often true. Kudos for pointing that out. But the solution is financially and emotionally draining biotechnology? I know this is radical, but mightn't the solution be economic and reproductive justice?

The financial burden of motherhood is not an inevitability. It results from unfair policy and trenchant sexism. Take a moment to ponder these numbers from the MomsRising.org website:

  • In a Harvard study of over 170 countries, the U.S. was one of only four nations without any form of paid leave for new mothers. The others were Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.
  • Women without children make 90 cents to a man's dollar, but mothers make just 73 cents, and single mothers make even less, about 60 cents to a man's dollar.

That women in the US must trade childbearing for economic independence is a tragedy. It speaks to profoundly anti-women and anti-mother work, economic, and legal policy. The myriad Mommy Wars are framed as the product of female cattiness when they're actually the product of unjust policies that pit "working" moms against "stay-at-home" moms against women who don't have and/or don't want children. That such a pronounced financial rift exists between women with children and women without children is indefensible.

In Miller's article, there is a background assumption of acceptance. Indeed, I've found that media coverage of in vitro fertilization, gamete donation, and even adoption panders to the sensationalist element, while thoughtful analyses of the economic trappings of motherhood neared extinction sometime in the mid '90s. Miller's article raised public awareness about the small but growing numbers of menopausal women who become pregnant with donor eggs, and that's great, but presenting this as a romanticized "dream deferred" scenario for the wealthy while also implying there are no longer time limits on this particular dream seems negligent. It's also unfortunate that this article elected the sophomoric tactic of debating whether older pregnant women merit acceptance. I fear this type of coverage rakes the fire for the new mommy wars: Older working moms versus younger working moms.

I am not making an argument against surrogacy and donor pregnancy. For women who delayed childbearing in order to pursue other dreams, these ever-improving techniques can be a salvation. Yet failing to consider the context does a great disservice to women who delay motherhood when they prefer not to. Miller doesn't mention women who can't afford these procedures, or women who spend years trying in vitro fertilization or other techniques with no result. She also ignores women who delay motherhood for reasons that have nothing to do with the desire to accumulate wealth.

Portrayals of older moms in other media likewise fail to portray the financial and personal woes that can result from the necessity to delay motherhood. On television, adoption is the quick-fix for infertility problems, and the recent slew of rich mom reality shows on Bravo creates the façade of smooth sailing for older moms. The apparent ease and hipness of older motherhood stands in juxtaposition to media treatment of young moms, who, as diseased burdens to society, must be shamed, or at the very least chastised. When it comes to value judgments about motherhood, it all depends on who's having the children, and if there's one group of moms that our culture wholeheartedly embraces, it's moms who can afford it.

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Mostly, I'm just slightly

Mostly, I'm just slightly disturbed by the idea of my mother collecting social security by the time I graduate high school, and the very real fact that she probably won't be around to meet her own grandchildren. Also the fact that I think that I'd probably feel less like a daughter at all, and more like a granddaughter.

This also brings up concerns about my hypothetical ability, as a millenial, to take care of my parents in their old age. If that "old age" is while I'm in my twenties? I can only imagine how much harder it would be than if I were in my 30's or 40's, and more likely to be in a position of security with my own life and finances.

"This also brings up concerns

"This also brings up concerns about my hypothetical ability, as a millenial, to take care of my parents in their old age. If that "old age" is while I'm in my twenties? I can only imagine how much harder it would be than if I were in my 30's or 40's, and more likely to be in a position of security with my own life and finances."

Which wouldn't be much of a problem if we made sure our older citizens had a solid social safety net that wouldn't disintegrate, or a better system of checks on assisted living facilities that didn't openly invite abusive ones to thrive in certain areas. Or a system in place that actually made it much easier to both pay for education, and to stagger classes over a longer time during pursuit of a degree, in case things like work and caring for parents get in the way of being a full-time student; for instance, a tax system and/or scholarship system that made it just as easy to be a part-time student or a full-time student, or made it just as easy to pay for later portions of education as early portions (note: I've noticed that scholarships for non-freshmen or part-time students are much harder to find or attain than those for first-time students and full-time students). Let's not even get into how much easier it would be to care for older parents, if preventative health care was actually easy to afford and provide, including for older Americans.

Also, being older doesn't mean being more financially capable. It just means older. Plenty of people that age - the "30s and 40s" you mention - are completely sinking under debt (student loans, mortages, credit cards, etc.), and right now, a lot of older, college-educated workers are being laid off or are out of work.

Additionally, the burden of care is on average harder to financially bear for minorities, who have much higher rates of unemployment; whites are disproportionately less unlucky in this sense.

Which is not to say that it's easy for a middle-class white kid to do, either, but you're not the only ones who would have trouble with it, and age of the child isn't necessarily the arbiter of successful elder care.

Brining up baby

This framing older money-centric woman as good moms, as opposed to woman having babies when their bodies are healthiest (even though their career and bank accounts may not be) seems reminiscent of the 60's baby grab mentality. When wealthy white families created a demand for babies and society obliged them by shaming young, single moms into putting their babies up for adoption instead of supporting these young moms in keeping their babies.

Making children easier to come by, easier to birth, easier to raise – for the wealthy – has been a pre-occupation of society for some time.

Supporting the lower and middle-class families has never been that important - well, except for its potential to produce consumers, soldiers and cheap labour.

too old

I am only in my 40's and our teenage children exhaust me. I can't imagine what it would be like trying to deal with teenage children if I was in my 60's or even 70's. Children are for the young and foolish. Have them young so you can actually enjoy life when you are older.

Figuring out how to help women within an oppressive system helps

I agree with your point the article "implicitly supports a class system here in the United States that renders older motherhood a class privilege." The choice to wait until after menopause to have children is only available to women of a certain economic class.

Regarding her points "older moms tend to be wealthy and have stable careers, which is good for their children" and "the 'decision to put work before childbearing for some period of time is not 'a lifestyle choice' but a necessity'"

I disagree these points preclude the need for societal change. They are ideas for ways women can "adapt" to "how things are."

I think, anytime we suffer because of societal injustice, we can fight the injustice, figure out how to adapt to it in our lives so we can live as best we can within the constraints the injustice imposes..... or both.

Helping women adapt helps women. It doesn't mean society shouldn't also change.

It is actually very similar to argue, better parental leave policies will help further gender equality. Favoring this argument accepts the fact, women tend to be the partners who spend more time taking care of children than men (in cases where there is a heterosexual couple who are parenting the child). This argument WORKS WITH the fact, women spent more time childrearing than men.

I think the BETTER solution would be to push for men and women to play equal roles in childrearing, so parental leave is just as common and necessary as maternal leave. In this case, better parental leave policies benefit men and women equally; it probably benefits the child most.

I think this is the ideal.

But because we can't achieve the idea immediately, we also need ways to help people "adapt" to the current state of things, so they are able to have better lives, now, even when we haven't achieved the ideal.

Giving women the choice to have children later is A way which helps women be more equal. It creates opportunities for women which they currently lack, as things currently are. Just because it isn't available to all women, doesn't mean it doesn't help the women who are able to use. The solution to this method's class problem, is to push to extend the opportunity to ALL women. (The main reason I could think of for being against it would be if there are serious health issues which outweigh the benefits.)

Figuring out how to help oppressed people within an oppressive system, helps as well, and it doesn't preclude the need for societal change.

I agree we need to keep pushing for the ideal. Just realize, the ideal isn't just about creating to help women in a world where women and men aren't equal. It's ultimately about creating a world where women and men ARE equal, where they spend equal time doing equal things, and there aren't forces pressuring people to conform to historical stereotypes of how they should be

I think, it's worse to become

I think, it's worse to become mother if you are too young.
But, honestly, there's no way it can be healthy to lean against nature and become pregnant with 53. In case you adopt children I think it's no problem..but, difficult subject of course..always dipens on the person behind.

L

Deferred motherhood and LACK of wealth?

It's interesting to juxtapose deferred motherhood and wealth.

What about the would-be moms that are deferring motherhood not to grow wealth, but to SURVIVE current times? What if a mother isn't having children in her twenties, thirties or even forties, because she can't financially afford to have, support and raise a child?

All the more reason to focus on women's issues-- paid maternal leave, paid parental leave, job guarantees, free or subsidized daycare in the workforce, equal pay-- all as a starting point, at the very least.

I am a former tenured college professor who waited to have kids.

I can relate to a lot of the points made in this excellent post. I was tenured and promoted by the time I "risked' attempting to have a child. What, with the lack of maternity leave in this country? What would I/my family live off of?

I grew up in a country (Norway) where parents receive one year of (fully paid at 9 months) parental leave to share. But when I had my child in June 2008, I received none from the Lutheran college at which I was serving in the US Midwest.

I was 35 by that time, and doctors were already warning me, "it's too late."

I was so lucky to have my daughter. But I would love another child, too. It's been almost three years of trying.

This in the above post stood out to me:

"That women in the US must trade childbearing for economic independence is a tragedy. It speaks to profoundly anti-women and anti-mother work, economic, and legal policy. The myriad Mommy Wars are framed as the product of female cattiness when they’re actually the product of unjust policies that pit "working" moms against "stay-at-home" moms against women who don’t have and/or don’t want children. That such a pronounced financial rift exists between women with children and women without children is indefensible."

I read the New York article

I read the New York article with amazement. Thank you for bringing up what the author couldn't or didn't. I agree with what you and others are saying about reproductive justice and economic realities. There is another point not mentioned much yet - and that is the partners, if you desire one...which I did. I didn't marry until I was 39. Up to that point, there was nobody I wanted to parent with. We became parents through adoption 2.5 years ago, after 3 miscarriages. What stands out for me about adoption is the economic reality of it. Many, though not all, birth mothers might reconsider adoption if they had the economic support needed to parent successfully. I would take exception to some of the comments that adoption is something for the rich. We saved for our adoption process and now, laid off for 2 years but also happily at home with my "3 foot boss who is learning English but has a very clear agenda" - we're making the economic sacrifices that all parents must make, willingly.

I am of the camp that there

I am of the camp that there is never a "right time" to have a baby. You'll either be too young, too financially unstable, too old etc. etc. It's a shame that women's careers still suffer because they want to be moms and (eek!) may even choose to stay at home for awhile with young children. (props ladies, being a stay-at-home mom is no walk in the park) It would be nice if a woman's choice to have a child (or not) was celebrated, regardless of age and supported across social and economic roles. Having said that, I am also of the "I can have/do it all" and am a working mother of two - over 35 and happily pregnant with my third...

Strongly opposed.

This bothers me. I unexpectedly buried my mother when I was 28, (she was 54) and then tragically, my father one year later (when he was 59). It was a highly traumatic experience that has shaped who I am today. I am feminist and strongly believe in equality and choice across the board, but I think that women who bear children beyond the age of 45 aren't making an intelligent choice. I don't think they are really considering the potential life of their unborn child. When their daughter or son turns 18, they will be in their early 70's and may possibly be facing health issues. It will become a very real challenge for that child to start thinking about his/her parents declining health and death. They are barely adults themselves, and they are now thinking about a parentless adulthood? Trust me, losing your parents by age 30 is horrific and it made my 30's very lonely and extremely difficult.
It just seems so selfish to procreate this late in life in a time where there are already 7 billion people on this tragically overpopulated and degrading planet. I think if a woman or couple in their 50's wants to experience parenthood, then great, but they should strongly consider adopting a young child from an under served country or fostering a child who is homeless or otherwise at risk in our own country. These options make a significant difference in the world and are highly honorable and admirable. Come on people, please think this through.