Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. A Catholic convert by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement, Rick has studied theology at Evangelical institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
Now they were both old, and far advanced in years,
and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women (Gn 11.18).
I plopped down in my “dad” chair with a cuppa and the weekend Wall Street Journal like I always do on a Saturday. Election news, of course, lots of book reviews, and a feature story on the Jordan’s ancient city of Petra – plenty to dig into. Then, as I turned a page, a headline really jumped out: “We ‘Geriatric’ Mothers Know Best.”
Geriatric motherhood? Geriatrics is a medical specialty focused on the care of the elderly. It seemed like an odd word to associate with maternity. Maybe it was an essay about retirees raising their grandkids, or perhaps the relationship between aging moms and their adult children. Nope, the title was spot on. It was an essay by speechwriter Holly Finn about the challenges and advantages of having babies later in life.
But, geriatric? “Hey, Nancy,” I called out to my wife. “How old were you when you had Katharine?”
“I guess I was 43, going on 44,” she replied after doing the math. “I was in the ‘advanced maternal age’ category for sure.” True enough, although she was practically there already when we married and started having kids in our early thirties.
Finn herself was 47 when she had her first child, but even that number hardly qualifies her AARP membership. It turns out medical terminology is relative when it comes to childbirth, and a mere 35 years bumps women into the “geriatric pregnancy” category.
And apparently it’s a growing trend – up by as much as 40% in parts of the country since 2000 according to the CDC. Finn argues (with a grin I suspect) that this is definitely “good news,” because a “bit of physical collapse has parenting advantages.” Among other things, she says, older moms have diminished vision and stamina, so they’ll overlook the inconsequential, slow down, and focus on their babes. Also, these women have already begun adjusting to the inevitable effects of gravity on their youthful figures, so no post-partum panic. Plus, if they’re experiencing perimenopausal insomnia, they’ll have good reason to be up in the middle of the night for a change.
Then there’s career: older moms are less likely to be fixated on proving their “I-can-have-it-all!” bona fides. Instead, Finn suggests, they’re concerned about putting in their 8 hours as a “great example for our little ones, and it keeps them in Fisher-Price.”
Up to this point, I was smiling along with Finn as she ticked off the pluses of delayed parenthood, especially as they pertained to our own experience. Of our 7 children, four were born when we were well into the codger class medically speaking, and Nancy and I both can attest to Finn’s amusing insights.
However, toward the end of her WSJ piece, Finn veers off in what I thought was a weird direction. She references the work of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who claims that older moms “are more likely to sacrifice themselves on behalf of a needy child,” and then Finn takes a leap: “Scientifically, age seems to make us better mothers,” she writes, because their progeny will be “totally wanted and well-loved – beneficiaries of years’ more hard-won wisdom.”
To begin with, offspring being “totally wanted” and “well-loved” has nothing to do with their mother’s age – or at least it shouldn’t. Such is the assumption that lies behind Isaiah’s use of a maternal metaphor when giving voice to the Lord and his faithfulness. “Can a woman forget her sucking child,” the prophet relates to a beleaguered Israel, “that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Almost by definition, “mothering” is equated with self-sacrifice and nurture, regardless of age, which is why we react with horror when we read of any mom abusing her own children. It’s also why we find abortion such a perplexing abomination, because the very persons we’d expect to be shielding their young from harm are often the ones who permit it or seek it out.
In fact, it may be that the rise in what the docs call geriatric pregnancy is in part due to a parallel rise in selective pregnancy termination based on improved prenatal testing. It has long been established that increased maternal age is associated with increased risk of various chromosomal and fetal anomalies – like Down syndrome for example. In the past, prenatal testing required risky invasive procedures, and the results weren’t always reliable. However, that’s no longer the case. “Prenatal diagnosis, today a routine part of obstetric care, has made great strides since the mid-1970s,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times, “and is now on the cusp of further revolutionary developments.” Those developments include maternal blood tests that are highly accurate and which pose no risk to the preborn child – at least up front.
With that in mind, consider this: CDC figures indicate that the rate of abortions among women aged 35-39 has gone up overall since 2000, and for women over 40, it’s gone up a full 8%. While it’s certainly true, as the CDC states, that “unintended pregnancy is the major contributor to abortion” overall, even they have to acknowledge that some of this rise could well be associated with prenatal identification of “fetal anomalies.”
Could it be that the rise in geriatric maternity is related to better “quality control,” grisly as it is? Maybe older women are more willing to consider pregnancy because they’ve more assurance with regards to the “outcomes.”
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell, for there is little statistical tracking in the U.S. of prenatal diagnostics and the actions based on their results. “Whatever the statistical realities may be, the number of those who choose abortion after a prenatal diagnosis is far too high,” writes Mark Bradford of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation. “It should be none.”
Which brings us back to motherhood, geriatric and otherwise. Human life begins at fertilization – any embryologist will back me up on that – which means that motherhood itself begins at fertilization. I know that seems pretty obvious, but in a world in which a majority of children with Down syndrome and other prenatally diagnosed abnormalities are routinely aborted, it bears repeating. If anyone deserves “totally wanted,” “well-loved,” and sacrifice, it’s those kids.
In any case, regardless of the age of mom and dad, there’s no question that every baby is the same age at birth: zero – a fresh start! What’s more, regardless of occasional developmental anomalies, each baby is born with a remarkably similar in utero past. Beginning with the union of ovum and sperm, every human person grew from one cell to two, from two to four, and then on and on into the wailing, wet, wonderful little imago Dei you meet after delivery – like our Katharine on her birthday, a wriggling point heading up a new timeline that will end who knows where, and yet another living sign of God’s perpetual shrug and smirk.
Of course, that also applies to her six siblings before her, as well as every other little boy and girl born around the globe. Yet I think of Kathy as bearing those noble attributes with a special measure of panache on account of her being God’s twilight gift to us in our fertility dotage.
Plus there’s this: Kath’s immediate predecessor in birth order, her brother Nicholas, has Down syndrome. After Nick was born, all the science, all the experts, all the bleachers full of public health hecklers were unanimous: our advanced age + a previous Down’s baby = precipitous risk of another Down’s child, and thus unconscionable selfishness if we chose to get pregnant again. In other words, if we’d left it up to popular opinion and mainstream values, Kath wouldn’t be here.
Ah, but the experts hadn’t met our Nicky boy; the bleachers knew him not. We loved him plenty and wouldn’t hesitate to welcome another like him. So, we thumbed our noses at the science, threw caution to the winds of heaven, cast our lots with the Lord of life – and two years after Nick’s arrival, Kath was loosed on the land. She dances and draws, she loves puppies and princesses, she’s Nicky’s best pal – and, as it turned out, she didn’t have Down’s.
Even if she did, we would’ve been ready, but not because of our accumulated years and seasoned outlook. Indeed, if there’s anything to be gained from continuing to have children later in life, it’s the assurance that we were so right in warmly welcoming the children God sent us, no matter who they turned out to be.