Timeless Rewards for Late Parents

When Alice and Dave Paczkowski married in their late 30s, they joined the growing ranks of couples who are starting families later. The Minneapolis, Minn., couple had three sons, their third when Alice was 45. Now nearing 48 and 50, the couple say it was a miracle they were even able to have children.

“It was successful for my husband and me, but I know quite a few people in their 40s who were not successful,” Alice Paczkowski says.

At her age, Paczkowski's pregnancies were not easy. She had to deliver all three boys by Caesarean section.

But, she says, the risks are there at any age — and along with them come the rewards parents of any age discover.

In fact, if a woman is healthy, her ability to have a successful pregnancy in her 40s is just as good as at any other age, says Dr. Byron Calhoun, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine at Rockford Memorial Hospital in Rockford, Ill., and president of the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“We're seeing more people at advanced ages having children,” he says. “But the bottom line is basically to be in good health, exercise, take extra vitamins, and you should not be smoking or drinking.”

Women over 35 face an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and placental problems. As they age, they also face an increasing risk of chromosomal abnormalities in their children, primarily Down syndrome. At age 25, a woman has about a 1 in 1,250 chance of having a baby with Down syndrome; at age 35, a 1 in 400 chance; at age 40, a 1 in 100 chance; and at 45, a 1 in 30 chance. The rate of miscarriage is significantly higher in older women as well. Men over 50 can also contribute to chromosomal abnormalities in their children, including Down syndrome and schizophrenia.

The risk of fetal abnormalities never phased Cindy Wester, a 52-year-old mother of seven children in Chicago who had her last child at 43.

“When I was pregnant with Mary, I wasn't worried about it because I was raising a handicapped son and it can happen to anyone at any age,” she says.

Wester's adopted son, Bobby, was born perfectly normal but was severely abused by his biological parents and put in her foster care when she was 25 and single. Bobby is now 27 but is neurologically a 1-year-old and needs 24-hour care. When she met Jerry, he was 37 and mature enough to handle a handicapped child. They went on to have six more children, today ages 8 to 19. Jerry is now 60 and getting ready to retire, but the Westers don't worry about empty-nest syndrome or old age.

“I can't feel old because my friends are grandmothers and my husband's friends have grandkids and we still have an 8-year-old. It forces me to think young,” Wester says. “I try very hard to take care of myself physically and emotionally. And even though I'm older, I'm wiser.”

Some aren't so sure about that perspective.

“It would be fun to have a girl, but I would be physically unable to keep up with it,” Alice Paczkowski says. “I don't think it's fair to the child to keep on having kids because you can't give the energy or the patience when you're almost 50. We don't have any relatives to help us, and that makes it doubly exhausting. You don't get much of a break.”

The children don't seem to be complaining. Mary Beth Bonacci, for one, believes her parents' maturity played an important role in her formative years. Her dad was 40 and her mom 30 when she was born, their first, in 1962. It was unusual at that time for couples to just be starting their families at those ages, but Bonacci says their years weren't an issue for her or her siblings.

“My father was 48 when he had his last child, my sister,” says the high-achieving Denver-based writer and speaker. “We never felt remotely deprived. He was a great dad and he's a wonderful grandpa. And I think we must've kept him young, because he's 81 and still teaches school full time.”

“Your parents are just your parents,” Bonacci adds. “You don't think about whether they're older or younger. Looking back, I can see where there were benefits. There was a wisdom that came with some maturity because they were very grounded, very levelheaded. My mom had had a career, and I always wanted a career before I got married.”

While it was unusual in the Bonaccis' time to start a family in mid-life, the delay is becoming more common today. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the birth rates for women ages 35 to 39 and 40 to 44 more than doubled between 1978 and 2000. In 2002, more than 5,000 women between 45 and 49 gave birth, a rate double what it was 10 years ago. The number of children born to men ages 50 to 54 also jumped by 30%. What is not known is how many of these couples are using artificial methods to achieve pregnancy.

Willing to Sacrifice

Dr. Paul Spencer, who runs Aalfa Family Practice, a natural family planning medical clinic in White Bear Lake, Minn., says there is a temptation among older couples to want to take extraordinary methods to conceive.

“I encounter a lot of couples who are open to any method — everything from artificial insemination to donor eggs, donor sperm, to someone else carrying your donor sperm,” he says. “I would say that 50% or more, when they learn that they're abortive techniques or that they're against Church teaching, they immediately say ‘No.”

The other issue is medical. “With artificial techniques,” Spencer continues, “you don't know what the outcome will be. When you have test-tube babies, you also have test-tube diseases without the natural uterine filter. It's just another unknown that I throw into the mix.”

Spencer empathizes with couples who can't conceive. He and his wife, Judi, had their first child in their early 40s and were unable to conceive again. They began adopting children from Ukrainian and Romanian orphanages where Judi used to work.

The couple has five children now, the youngest of whom is 18 months, and they'd like to adopt a sixth child. Age is not an issue, 47-year-old Judi says, because she was always athletic and has a lot of energy.

“I was in those orphanages and lived with those kids, and there's always something calling out to me from them,” she says. “We've got room in our home and in our hearts, and there are a lot of things that I'm willing to sacrifice.”

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.