Parents Again: On the Parent Path

When the story broke last spring that a 63-year-old California woman, Arceli Keh, had given birth to a baby, a lot of people were shocked. In a national NBC TV survey, 57 per cent of respondents said they felt it was “not right” for her to have a baby at that age.

But why should we be surprised? Parenting past 50 is becoming increasingly common. By choice or by circumstance, more and more Canadians in their 50s, 60s and even 70s find themselves caring full time for children or grandchildren.

Astonishing changes are unfolding that have been barely noted by social scientists and demographers:

  • The number of babies born to Canadian women over 40 has tripled since 1980 — to nearly 6,000 a year. As female baby boomers who have postponed having children in favor of careers push into their 40s and 50s, that number is sure to explode.

  • Although few would go to the lengths Keh did — she was implanted with another woman’s egg fertilized by her 60-year-old husband’s sperm — in vitro fertilization is making conception possible for more and more older parents.

  • International adoption has also become an option for would-be parents past 50 — especiallyrom China which, with a traditional respect for age and experience, favors older applicants.

  • And, as drugs, AIDS and family disintegration make a mess of young parents’ lives, more and more it’s the grandparents who step in to care for the little ones.
  • Almost universally these older people caring for small children describe this as the sweetest season of their lives — although, by golly, they were never so tired by the time bedtime rolls around.

    There’s an irresistible logic, for instance, to Arceli Keh’s response to those who criticize her: “I plan on devoting every minute of my life to this little bundle of joy… Because I’m retired, I am able to do that — which young working mothers cannot.”

    How old is too old? Experts are just about unanimous in saying 63 is too old to have a baby. “It’s just my opinion,” says psychiatric social worker Judy Deutsch, “but a child needs a mother who is emotionally available, especially through adolescence.”

    The fact is, however, older parents — because they aren’t under as much stress and because they pay more attention to fitness and most don’t smoke — are often healthier than young parents, according to Dr. Arthur Leader, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Ottawa. At 50, the father of a two-year-old, Dr. Leader says: “I may have had more energy when I was younger; now I have more patience.” On being an older parent? “It’s wonderful.”

    “People in their 40s and 50s today are not like people of that age 20 or 30 years ago,” says Dr. Perry Phillips, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the IVF Canada fertility clinic in Toronto.

    “Our (older) parents feel full of love and energy. They feel young and fully able to cope.”

    Says one of Dr. Phillips’ patients, Don Burton, 65: “I feel like a 35 or 36-year-old.” Don, a retired house-builder from St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and his 46-year-old wife, Gladys, were awaiting word when we spoke to them on whether they had been successful in conceiving their second child by in vitro fertilization.

    Older people are parenting because of a new flexibility in family structures, says McMaster University gerontologist Dr. Carolyn Rosenthal. When most of us were growing up, the generational stages were clear cut: You had your kids in your 20s or early 30s, and you became grandparents in your 50s and 60s.

    Now, says Dr. Rosenthal, with family breakups, later marriages and social disruptions, there are fewer rules about when you “should” have children. In a sense, she says, we’re going back to earlier times when wives commonly died in childbirth and men remarried and started second families. The main difference now is that women are getting their turn at later-life parenthood, too.

    Often it’s a sense of mortality knocking at the door that prompts people to become September parents. Gail Willson, for instance, was 48 and single and her father had just died of a stroke when she came home to an empty house one Christmas and realized, “Life is all about kids.” Today Willson, 50 and self-employed in computer work, shares her life with Quinn, her four-year-old daughter she adopted from China. Willson says that, with plans for Quinn to attend private school and university, she can probably never retire. It’s a factor many older parents must reconcile themselves to. There’s no rocking chair down the road for them.

    “I am a parent until my toes curl up,” says Joan Brooks, 63, a Toronto grandmother who, in addition to caring for her grandsons, Russell, 10 and Michael, 14, for the last 10 years, has founded two grandparent support groups.

    Grandparents like Brooks make up the biggest group of older people caring for children. There are no figures available for Canada, but in the U.S. some four million children are being brought up by grandparents, many of them black children in urban centre ghettos. (A tip appropriate at this point: In talking to grandparent/caregivers, don’t ask where the parents are — they’d usually rather not get into all the details.)

    Perhaps the greatest fear these special families have is the death of a beloved grandfather. Brooks, who is native Indian, says she and the boys spent the last nine months of her husband Len’s life going back and forth to the hospital where he would eventually die of kidney failure.

    “It was quite hard on Michael losing his grandfather,” she says. “They were very close. For Len, his grandchildren were everything to him.” Some people ask if it’s fair to children to saddle them with parents who may become infirm or even die before they reach maturity. One woman, the daughter of older parents, told us of her resentment that in her teenage years she had to deal with a mother who was chronically ill and a father who was in a nursing home.

    But grandparents say, if it’s a matter of stepping in or seeing their grandchildren go into foster care, there’s absolutely no choice. Brooks has no regrets at all: “Nothing is given to us. Some kids never see their fathers.”

    And infirmity is the last thing on the minds of many older parents. Don Duprey, a 57-year-old Toronto television executive, says he and his wife, Andria Spindel, 48, are providing “a rich and wonderful childhood” for the three children, aged 10, seven, and three, who they adopted from Korea, Peru and China. “It’s transcendent!” he says.

    Like many later-life parents, Duprey, who has two grown children from his previous marriage, and who admits it was Andria who put him on the parent path again, sees this as a chance to finally get it right. Not as absolutely absorbed any more about his career path, he says he’s a more patient and involved father than he was the first time around.

    Don’t imagine, however, that all September parents embrace parenthood with enthusiasm. “We love her dearly,” says Jean Simpson, 55, of Kirsten, five, the granddaughter she and her husband, Douglas, have cared for since she was six-months-old, “but it gets a little frustrating.” With Douglas no longer working full time, they’d like to think about winters in Florida with their Oakville friends, “But it’s a little tough with a five-year-old tagging along. We sometimes feel a bit tied.”

    But tied down is what a lot of older parents want to be — especially if they never experienced the joys of parenthood before.

    “Both of us have travelled enormously with our careers,” says Don Duprey, echoing the experience of many professionals. “Now the children fill a joyful part of our lives.”

    Frank Jones is a columnist with The Toronto Star and experienced the joys — and fatigue — of late-blooming parenthood when he and his wife, Ayesha, cared for a three-month-old grandson for nine months.