Monday, October 10, 2011

53 and pregnant

Because of that whole wedding + tenure thing I'm behind in my reading, but I just got around to Lisa Miller's "Parents of a Certain Age" from New York magazine a couple of weeks back. It's a troubling article, and one I haven't seen discussed around my usual haunts on the internet.

Miller's article examines the apparently growing phenomenon of older parents: women (and men, too, but it's the women who come in for most of the scrutiny) who are starting families in their late 40s and even 50s. The article's major flaw is that it talks about all older-parents-with-young-children as if they're in the same category, and they're decidedly not; one couple she profiles adopted children from Guatemala and Vietnam when they were in their mid-fifties--after raising biological children of their own. But most of the parents she's looking at are first-time parents who seem determined to have children semi-naturally, i.e., with the woman going through labor, even if the eggs are not her own and even if she has had to be medically brought out of menopause in order to get pregnant in the first place.

Now, first-time parents whose ages hover around 40 are commonplace in academia, and if Cosimo and I have kids we'll surely join their number (given that he's already in his early 40s and I'll be 37 in February and the child-having discussion is definitively tabled until we're in the same place full-time). Contrary to the seven billion articles that get written about declining fertility and how if you wait too long, you'll be sorry!, I don't think that pushing parenthood back is a sad state of affairs, either for individual women or for Women As a Whole. People who put off pregnancy are, I assume, making a conscious decision and understand the trade-offs, and those who want kids can always have children in their lives even if they can't conceive: they can adopt, they can be foster parents, they can serve as doting aunts or uncles or second parents to kids in their neighborhood or whatever. There will always be children desperate for adult love and support.

But although I absolutely do not think that it is selfish or narcissistic to decide in one's 40s or even 50s that one wants to be a parent (or at any rate, it's no more likely to be a sign of narcissicism than wanting children in one's 20s or 30s is), I confess that I don't get the desire to have one's own biological children at all costs (I understand it as a strong preference, sure, but not as a need)--and I definitely do not understand the desire to go through pregnancy for its own sake. So I see a real difference between people in their late forties/fifties who either are lucky to get pregnant naturally, or who adopt, and those people who, because it makes them feel young and bogusly fertile and more like "real" mothers, go to great expense and incur quite extreme health risks in order to carry a child--a child not necessarily sharing any of their genetic material--to term.

Maybe I'm just lazy and risk averse? But if I were to decide, around age 45, that I had the energy to chase small children around for the next decade or two, you'd better believe I wouldn't be putting myself through an exhausting and dangerous nine months of pregnancy first.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. I don't understand the need for a biological child. Adoption still gives you a child. And without unnecessary medical procedures that might not even work, and probably cost as much as the adoption fees too.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I don't think that pushing parenthood back is a sad state of affairs, either for individual women or for Women As a Whole."

The "sad state of affairs," I think, is more that various professions (academia!) are set up to make it virtually impossible for women to have kids before 30. This is a problem if only for the simple reason that this poses more of a burden on women than men. Men can either wait longer without needing to go a more complicated route (adoption, IVF, foster kids, making plans to see nieces and nephews - all of these are undeniably more complicated) or have kids while still in school, with a woman who's willing to be a (frugal, or independently wealthy) stay-at-home mom. (A man could, in theory, stay at home with kids he has with a female grad student. She'd still be the one pregnant, and there seem neither to be men signing up for this nor female grad students - I can think of maybe one exception - interested in being with men who don't earn any money at all.) It's not that any alternatives to "natural" should be stigmatized, but that they're more complicated.

Flavia said...


Oh, sure: agreed. The article actually does a nice job of noting the ways professional women are all but forced into delaying childbearing--and then stigmatized as "selfish" for bringing them into the world when they're over 40.

I'm not complacent about how difficult most professions--or, let's face it, governmental policy--make childbearing/raising while also building a career. But because it's so difficult, I resist the idea, presented by so much of the popular press, that women who put off having a family are selfish fools: drinking and screwing their way through their 20s and 30s only to wake up remorseful at age 40, having "forgotten" they had biological clocks and wanted babies.

Both parts of that--that it's wrong to enjoy being child-free while you are, and that it's natural and inevitable to want children and that you'll regret it forever if you don't--are pernicious anti-feminist libels. It's hard to start a career. It's hard to find an appropriate partner. "Putting off" having a family is both a choice (most women, I think, understand the consequences of doing so) and not a choice (if the structures aren't in place to have a family and build a career simultaneously, then option to do so might as well not exist).

hd said...

hey folks--did you see this blog post on scientific american? (it circulated on twitter a few days ago). Her line "someone cries... It's usually me" resonated loudly with this pre-tenure mama of 1 (and about to be 2) kids. Her point, though, that it is a radical act to bring your whole life to the job--kids or not--is one worth making. so props to flavia for starting this discussion and for being such a rad academic.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I resist the idea, presented by so much of the popular press, that women who put off having a family are selfish fools: drinking and screwing their way through their 20s and 30s only to wake up remorseful at age 40, having 'forgotten' they had biological clocks and wanted babies."

On this, full agreement. The problem as it seems we agree, is that this notion exists parallel to the one that says that a woman who really cares about her career won't go and get a husband, let alone have a child, while of course men with visible family lives just come across as seeming that much more mature and responsible. Women for whom having kids only becomes feasible at 40 shouldn't be penalized; women who at 25 are good and ready but fear they'll have to stop their careers, perhaps never to be welcomed back again, if they do so should be able to do so as well.


The ending of that article especially is so spot-on.

Flavia said...


Aw, shucks. Not sure about your last assertion, but thanks!

And thanks especially for the link, to an article I'd missed (our Twitter circles seem to overlap, but I confess to not following my tweet peeps as diligently as my blog peeps). I've got nothing but admiration for you pre-tenure mamas.

ntbw said...

Interesting post! Here's what I'd like to add: I actually don't think academia is necessarily an environment that _forces_ women to delay childbearing. There are certainly cases where the realities of academic careers do make delaying childbearing more practical (and I get the desirability of both parents being in one place that the post mentions--that's certainly not something necessarily easy to achieve in a dual career academic couple). And I am sure it is the case that there are institutions in which having children is treated in ways that make motherhood detrimental to career success.

That said, though, my point is that there are many, many success stories out there of female academics who have kids, even have kids pre-tenure, and also have successful academic careers. Their stories don't get told nearly so often as the horror stories, though. Or, when they do get told, the women are frequently framed as extraordinary "superwomen" (or sometimes as bad moms, but that's a different issue). I

The degree to which such successes are either, on the one hand, omitted from the conversation or, on the other hand, made to seem extraordinary perpetuates the sense that in order to be a successful female professor, one ought not have children, or one ought to at least wait to have kids until tenure is successfully negotiated. I don't think Flavia is suggesting either of these things, by the way--her post just prompted these thoughts.

I try to have some version of this discussion with my female grad students, and I make it a point to note to them all the cases around them, at my university and at others, of successful female professors who also have kids. I don't assume all of these grad students will want, or should want, to have kids. I just want to work to diminish the perception that they can't or shouldn't, if that's a life choice they want to make.

Flavia said...


I definitely don't think that academia is a career that makes it impossible to have children, and in various ways it can be more family-friendly than, say, trying to make partner at a top law firm. But it is, broadly speaking, more unfriendly to parents who don't have stay-at-home spouses (or spouses with part-time jobs) than those who do, and most of the time that means it's more unfriendly to women than to men. I was really struck by the statistic in the article that 75% of executive women are partnered with men who work full-time, while 75% of executive men are partnered with women who don't work outside the home at all. This rings true to my experience in academia.

All that being said, I agree that it's really important to NOT reinforce the belief that a woman can either have a career, or have children (or that she has to pursue them sequentially, rather than in parallel); this seems the thrust of the article HD linked to, too. We should pursue the lives we want, determined to make them happen--but prepared with satisfying fall-back alternatives if some part of the plan doesn't work out. If having kids is a real priority, don't wait. Figure out how to make it happen and make it happen.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I don't understand the need to move heaven and earth to carry a child (biologically yours or not) either, particularly not when great expense and medical procedures are involved.

I've been on the receiving end of questions about this very topic quite a bit lately -- everyone wanting to know when/if we'll have a second child since I'm 40 now and who knows what type of intervention that will require, etc. When I explain that either we will or we won't, it's up to mother nature, and I'm not going to spend any money or expend any special effort to get pregnant a second time even though we want a #2, people are shocked. Of course, i felt the same way about #1 (or a theoretical #1, since the actual one just sort of surprised us). When I told people I couldn't imagine even trying to conceive #2 until #1 is 2.5 (and remember -- I'm OLD!) then they would get really worried. #1 is 2.5 now, so the topic doesn't come up any more. And as for #2, well, ask me in May about that ;-)

But what's so wrong about being an older parent? And maybe it isn't just the job the puts off parenthood. I wasn't in a position (as a person) to even consider being a parent until I was 30-something. And then I didn't have a partner. So it goes. People often assume I was waiting for tenure to have a child, and yet the truth is that I was just living my life and trying to forge a relationship with someone with a 350 mile distance between us when i ended up pregnant. The tenure part happening at the same time, along with our desire to get married then anyway, that was all just fortuitous.

And on another note -- can't imagine why anyone would want to go to such great lengths to experience pregnancy themselves. OMG, it's just miserable. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

heh, profgrrrl--I had my first when I was 31. I lived in Utah then, and in the local culture, that was unbelievably old to have a first child! I got so many remarks. And I kept getting told I should "hurry up" to have #2, that I should try to get pregnant again immediately (even a doctor told me this!) when we weren't even sure we wanted #2, and in any case not especially soon after #1.

Flash forward 6 years to a surprise, totally unplanned, and medically VERY unlikely indeed pregnancy when I was 37! We had been told that I couldn't conceive again, and we didn't especially mind, since we were happy with the one kid, and figured we would adopt if eventually we decided we wanted a second child. Pregnancy at 37 was not really worse than pregnancy at 31--both times kinda sucked, to be honest, though in oddly different ways which involve details that would be seriously TMI for here!

Flavia said...

Profgrrrrl: seriously. I'm sure there are lovely things about pregnancy, The Miracle of Birth, etc., but I've never heard that it's one of the selling points of motherhood. (And if it WERE, what would that say about the subsequent 20-30-40 years?)

Tenured Radical said...

I'm glad you don't want to have a bio-baby at any cost, not because I don't understand people's desire to do so, but because I think women pay a terrible physical cost if it doesn't work and they end up on the IVT wagon train. I have known so many women who did terrible things to their bodies that sometimes resulted in pregnancy and sometimes didn't, but more often than not produced some kind of health crisis down the line.

Of course adopting isn't *like* having a bio-baby with someone you love. And perhaps one the reasons people become so committed to it is it seems like the one thing that one ought to be able to choose. But there are so many children who need homes and loving parents I do think it is a shame that putting one's health at risk for a pregnancy in one's forties seems like such a better option to many people.

i said...

Tenured Radical: I generally come at this from the same perspective as you do, but I would like to voice a small note of difference.

On the one hand, the expensive and painful treatments do seem like a lot to me, and I haven't known too many women who have gone through them. It seems extreme, and I say this as a woman who (mostly) came to terms years ago with the idea that I might not ever be able to bear a child to term. Now, I'm almost five months into a pregnancy now, and am happy about it, but I know it's high risk and that I need to be ok with my life if everything doesn't turn out the way I wish. (I always thought Julia Child had the loveliest way of putting her reaction to not having children in _My Life in France_...)

That said, I also see the other side. Adoption is not a walk in the park either. It can be enormously expensive, and it's also invasive -- not into your body, but certainly into your life. If I have a healthy baby, I won't have to explain to anyone why my partner and I think it's appropriate to continue living in an apartment for the foreseeable future, that I'm ok with the baby living in a room with lots of books for a while (hey, our bedroom has five bookcases too), that we're going to be speaking about three different languages at home and so it might start speaking later, that we're going to be traveling with it out of the country, and, frankly, that we're often messy people and that I don't think it's going to harm the child. And that's assuming the availability of a child I'd be willing and able to care for (and frankly, that might *not* be an adolescent, or a child with serious health issues arising from the mother's actions, etc.).

If I desperately needed to have a child, and had a spare 20-30K to throw at the undertaking, I would seriously consider a few rounds of IVF too before turning to adoption. There are indeed "so many children," but adoption itself is not an easy solution for every family or person.

Flavia said...

Irina: congrats on your pregnancy!

And seriously: come back to Fb. We miss you there.

Momof3 said...

A couple of points:

1) The best solution for academia + motherhood I've seen is to take a year off while still in school (not ABD: in classes) and have your husband/partner take the second year (possible to be part time at that point) and even to do that again (miss a year of classes, get back in but with a new graduation year in mind) to have a second child. DO NOT make the mistake of thinking that a baby isn't mobile so that means you can write your dissertation or the work necessary to claw your way up the tenure ladder. Better to have the children sooner and start your career at the same time as everyone else you graduate with, with your children old enough to go to preschool.

2) People who have never had children seriously underestimate the time and work involved. It is beyond exhausting. I say that as someone with many years of manual labor in my past. Piece of cake, in comparison. People who decide to have children (biologically or adoptively) in their 40s or 50s are putting those children at an extreme disadvantage, not the least of which is that the children will have medically compromised or even dead parents while still growing up.

People need to stop thinking of children as something they want to HAVE and start realizing that children require everything YOU have. Becoming a parent is not about your needs and wants. (general "you")