When Older Parents Are Haunted By Their Age

I was 38 when I had my first child and 41 when the second was born. Sometimes I feel good about being an older parent: wiser, with more perspective and pretty much over my wild, carousing younger days. But then I read something like Judith Shulevitz’ well-researched report in The New Republic on older parents, not-so-subtly titled “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society: The scary consequences of the grayest generation” and I wish, wish wish someone urged me to have kids at a younger age.

(jordanfischer/flickr)

Shulevitz recounts her own ordeal with IVF at an ‘Advanced Maternal Age,” ticks off the gloomy stats about age-related genetic mutations and the problems with aging sperm and also details the potential health risks that children of older parents may face. But the bit that made me tear up came near the end of the very long piece:

What haunts me about my children, though, is not the embarrassment they feel when their friends study my wrinkles or my husband’s salt-and-pepper temples. It’s the actuarial risk I run of dying before they’re ready to face the world. At an American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting last year, two psychologists and a gynecologist antagonized a room full of fertility experts by making the unpopular but fairly obvious point that older parents die earlier in their children’s lives. (“We got a lot of blowback in terms of reproductive rights and all that,” the gynecologist told me.) A mother who is 35 when her child is born is more likely than not to have died by the time that child is 46. The one who is 45 may have bowed out of her child’s life when he’s 37. The odds are slightly worse for fathers: The 35-year-old new father can hope to live to see his child turn 42. The 45-year-old one has until the child is 33.

Readers, do you experience 2 am anxiety about whether you’ll live to kiss your grandchildren? Or even attend your child’s wedding (or high school graduation) for that matter. What haunts you as an older parent? Any upside would also be welcome.

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  • realitycheckgirl

    We adopted our youngest when he was 2 and I had just turned 38. By the time i am 76 and his step-father 70, he will be 40 and his brother(Our biological son) will be 50. I chose to not bring another child into the world, especially at 38 since we felt it wouldn’t be fair to the child. Instead we chose to give a home to one of the hundreds of thousand of orphans already in the world today. His options were a loving home with parents, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles OR an orphanage till the age of 16 and then booted out into the streets since very few eastern europeans ever adopt and theres a stigma on orphans in many parts of eastern europe. So given that circumstance none of us feel bad being older parents and our sweet baby knows how blessed he is to have a family.

  • Michael Laughlin

    I am a 58-year-old father with a 7-year-old son as well as two adult children. Of course, my older children thought it was “weird” when my little guy was born, and I am still trying to come up with a pithy reply when people tell me what a handsome grandson I have. That said, I am a much better father now because I cherish every moment I have with my son. We are extremely close, and because I grasp my mortality more fully at this age, I make a conscious effort to ensure each moment counts. I have some professional accomplishments that I am proud of, but I now know that nothing I have done or will do on the job will ever compare with the joy and satisfaction of being a father…and I live my life accordingly. The down side for me, at least at this point, is that I know from previous experience that childhood is so very brief, and although I want my son to grow and mature, I sometimes wish I could slow him down a bit. It often feels like he is a clock ticking faster and faster…and I am painfully aware that his entry into adulthood will coincide with my entry into the ranks of the truly elderly (if I am fortunate). I also recognize that I may not be around to share my wisdom and emotional support with him when he really needs it. With that in mind, I am doing my best to prepare him for life each and every day…and to teach him how to love and be loved. I firmly believe as a parent, if you’re doing it right, when your children are grown they will want you but not need you. Now, more than ever, that is my goal.

  • luckymommy

    My mother was 27 when she had me and 40 when she died. If someone had told her that her children would be 10, 13, and 15 when she passed away, I don‘t think she would have chosen not to have us. I’m 44 and my husband is 47, and we just adopted our first child (and we plan to adopt another). It‘s possible we could live to see our daughter turn 50, but who knows? We cannot predict the future, so why should we try to live as though we can? There are no guarantees, even for young parents, that you will live to see your children into adulthood.

  • Robyn

    Being a child with older parents.. well my mother is an okay age. I’m turning 20 and she’s 56 but my dad is 83. I highly recommend having parents at a young age. To me its soo painful having older parents. I have constant anxiety and depression because I’m afraid to lose them. Especially now my father has a couple of major medical conditions and it has me freaked out. I also must help take care of him as he is not independent anymore, its not a burden but I have less of a social life and It has affected work and school. I honestly envy some friends I have that have parents still in their 30s!! It has been really painful and emotional for me throughout my life. Again I highly recommend people to have kids young. 20s or 30s. Don’t do that to your kids. And yes I know, we could all go at any time BUT honestly I BET most kids my age aren’t freaking out if their parents will be there to see their kids grow up.

    • a friend

      Robyn, I feel for you and yet I bet your friends also have things about their own parents that bother them – every kid does at your age. Yes, it’s hard on you but what about a parent how doesn’t have any time for you and they are healthy? How does that kid feel? Other kids parents are divorced. How do they feel about that. Most kids won’t tell the truth about it. You are sharing on here but do you really tell your friends all the time how hard it is on you? At your age all kids have some anxiety. And at your age, kids usually tend to look outside of themselves for the answer to why they are having it. Here’s the truth that no one tells anyone until much later in life. You have the power to stop anxiety by redirecting your thoughts from negative fears to positive an grateful awareness of all that you have rather than what you do not have. No one can see the future. Pain and suffering come mainly from not accepting the gift of our own reality. Accept and appreciate your parents the way they are. I hope they will do you the same favor. That’s what we all need. Unconditional love, no matter what age we are. And we have to have the courage to face the pain of losing those we love as it can happen at any age. I wish you well in this. Keep your head up high and be proud of your parents. They’re a gift to you as you are to them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1441595026 Leslie Alexander

    The great thing about waiting until you are a little older before having kids is that they won’t be too old (and physically unable) to care for you. The burden of trying to care for an elderly parent when the “child” is already at retirement age can be quite a strain. If a parent has a child at, say 35, that child will only be 50 when that parent is 85. Just a thought.

  • David C. Holzman

    When I was 7, my parents asked my older brother and me if we wanted another sibling. They were 37 and almost 42 at that point, and I told them that they were too old to have another kid. My rationale was exactly what you are writing about. My baby sister was finally born when I was 9 and a half, and I was very happy to get her. But when she was 18, she complained to me about her fears about our parents’ mortality. Our mother died when she was 37, and our father when she was 39, and it was a lot harder on her than on her older brothers. (I know I’d been bracing myself for their deaths since I was maybe four or five.) Still, a decade after the second of those deaths, she’s fine. And as for her experience of growing up with older parents, they were more laid back, and she was probably closer to both of them than were either of her older brothers, and got more attention from our father, who was too much of a workaholic when my brother and I were growing up. So in some ways, the older parents were advantageous for her.

    As for you, Rachel, the fact that you had a kid at 41 means your life expectancy is longer than average (women who have babies in their 40s)… And this sort of thing is really hard to predict. I know a guy who is 86, with a 20 year old son. His wife would be maybe in her late 40s now, but she died a decade ago of cancer.

  • Pat

    I am not a parent, but my father was 50 when I was born and he died when I was 25. I miss him very much, but would not have traded what I had. Just as being older doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a calmer parent, being young doesn’t ensure you’ll be around forever. Even young parents cannot control everything–people die in accidents or from illness, etc. Still, I don’t think people should wait too long, mainly because of the health implications that we all pay for.

  • PD

    I was 41 when my daughter was born and 43 when her brother
    arrived. Yeah, I may not be here to see my grandkids but that would sure beat
    the alternative of not having had kids at all. As the youngest of seven kids,
    three of my four grandparents were gone by the time I was born. I treasured my
    grandmother, who lived to 95, but I don’t think it scarred me not knowing the
    other three. As with all things in life, concern yourself with the things you can
    control and deal with them as best you can. But don’t worry about things you can’t
    control.

  • Marie

    One of my father’s best friends was like a grandfather to me, and he had four daughters older than me. Then he had a fifth daughter, in his early fifties, and I remember that he worried about whether he would live to see her graduate from high school. He lived to see, not only that, but also graduate from college, strike out on her own, get married (in her late 20′s) and to not only hold and play with but converse with her children. He was incredibly active and mentally alert until the last month of his life.

    I loved that my parents were young, but I am stunned when I realize that my mother was 40 when I graduated from high school. I didn’t even have my first child until I was 41!

    However, there are so many benefits to being an older parent – I am calmer and less on edge about everything (though sometimes still my insane old self). I am better able to provide opportunities for them. I have more time to spend with them because I am not crazily pursuing my career and trying to make more and more money like I was in my 20′s and early 30′s.

    I used to worry about seeing my kids through adulthood. At some point, I decided that there are so many uncontrolled circumstances in life that I could let this one go. But, to combine a couple of your topics….yet another reason to exercise today.

  • Nycmom

    At 47 I am different mother to my three year old than I was to my 16year old when he was three. I work hard on my health because I want to be around for my little guy as long as possible.

  • MH

    My mother was 34 when she had my brother and 37 when she had me. Now (at 33), I worry about whether my (unborn) kids will have grandparents (something I missed out on, however, not because of maternal age) because of my parents’ age. The pressure to have children earlier may also influence generations to come (like it sometimes haunts me). On the other hand, perhaps having a little extra life experience before marriage and children was the key to my parents’ success…and hopefully mine. When I start to worry about the future the most, I try to remember that worrying prevents me from enjoying the moments I do have with my parents – which will hopefully help me when I do get around to having those children I worry about.

  • Tickbunny

    I have two children, one at 37 and an adopted daughter when I was I am now 41. I hope my children meet that special someone earlier rather than later…If I die when my daughter is 37 I feel okay about it because she will be surrounded by loving family and friends. Plus of young parent die young….

  • anonymous

    my father was 45 & my mother 35 when i was born 67 years ago. they lived to see me married and their grandchildren. I think at 38 you’re a little young to be worrying about this.

    • Rachel Zimmerman

      I’m glad all of that worked out for your family and I appreciate the comment. I was 38 when I had my first kid, but now I’m 48. So, while I probably shouldn’t worry, sometimes I do. RZ

      • idle advice

        I think this is the kind of worry that’s just looking for somewhere to go. All things being equal, older parents are better parents, as Marie says above. My much younger sister lost our father at 44 (he was 41 when she was born) and took it with equanimity, though they were very close. She had benefited from his maturity as a parent, and it served her very well at his death. Meanwhile, I lost my mother at 21, though she was young when she had me. You can’t control the future much better than you can the past, a very good argument for relaxing now.