How does the age at which you become a mother affect the shape of your life? Lisa Heffernan had her first son in her early thirties and Estelle Erasmus had her daughter in her mid-forties. Though the women are roughly the same age now, one of them has a Kindergartener in the house and one of them has an empty nest. Here they discuss the pros and cons of their respective situations.
I Became a Mother in My Early Thirties
By Lisa Heffernan
There is no ideal time to start a family, no perfect moment when all the pieces come together. In my immediate family, for example, we have seen new parenthood as young as 17 and as old as 47. My brother and my husband’s sister are exactly the same age and yet this year one became a parent and the other a grandparent. Welcoming a baby is something that is almost always accompanied by great joy, but that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t altered by the age at which you do it.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I was on the younger side, by today’s standards at least. Many of my closest friends were single and most of the ones who were married did not have kids yet. Suddenly I felt quite alone and utterly lacking in confidence. For nine months I wished I had friends with whom to share the experience and feared I would be truly lost once my baby arrived.
Within days of my son’s arrival I was invited to join a local baby group with other mothers who had given birth in recent weeks. A few of the women were my age but most were older. If there was one thing that put me at ease in that first year we spent meeting together, it was the realization that even those first-time mothers, who were a decade older than I was and had long successful careers, were feeling equally insecure about their new role. Confidence in motherhood, I have learned, comes with being a mother. And, in that group, we were all starting at square one.
That being said, it is an undeniable fact that fertility wanes with age, particularly for women. While becoming a mother younger doesn’t guarantee anything, it does shift the odds in your favor. And with more time, there is perhaps the option of more children, siblings spaced further apart, and the probability of fewer health risks to both mother and child.
As a woman who started her family earlier rather than later, I didn’t have my thirties to myself, but I feel that I had something better. I don’t wish I had done more before my kids were born, because after they emerged from toddlerhood, we had our adventures as a family. Whether it was something as simple as trying a new food or as thrilling as watching the look of astonishment on their faces as we disembarked at the Venice train station and beheld the Grand Canal, sharing the novelty made it better. My awe and wonder at the world has only been enhanced by experiencing so much for the very first time with my children in tow.
Having kids younger turned out to be a positive for my career as well, despite the prevailing wisdom that it is important to establish yourself, to build up some credibility and seniority before incurring the disruption of becoming a parent. I was a Wall Street trader before I had my kids. After they were in school, still in my 30s, I was able to completely start over and become an author.
In her seminal piece on women and work, Ann Marie Slaughter notes that, “Many of the top women leaders of the generation just ahead of me—Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Patricia Wald, Nannerl Keohane—had their children in their 20s and early 30s, as was the norm in the 1950s through the 1970s. A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement.” In her own life, having had her children at 38 and 40, Slaughter discovered that the most demanding years of her career coincided with her children’s adolescence, a situation which became untenable.
While the case for being a young mom almost always includes the argument that you will have more energy while your kids are small, I think this misses an equally important point. Do we really have more energy at 26 as opposed to say, 36 or 43? If so, it is marginal. But having kids younger does increase the chances of being a much younger grandparent. My father-in-law was in his mid 50s when my children were born. This means he has been able to enjoy everything from soccer to whitewater rafting to college visits with my sons and he has had the incomparable joy of watching them grow up as a vital presence in their lives. His relative youth has been a blessing to him, and them.
Life takes a major turn when our kids leave home. Having kids young means that, when your nest empties, you are not facing retirement but perhaps the best years of your career and the chance to take on new and even greater challenges. All around me I am watching friends who have become empty nesters in their 40s immersing themselves in a second career with decades of time in front of them in which to develop. Some parents find that after the day-to-day demand of having kids at home is over, there is a sense of liberation and excitement. The kids are launched, the career established or just beginning for the second time around and life feels full of possibility all over again.
Suddenly there is a release from the tyranny of the school schedule. Dinner out with friends on a Sunday night? Sure. A weekend away that starts on Thursday? Why not? What is less exciting is being among the last of your friends with kids still at home, watching all of this newfound freedom from the carpool line.
Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books, including New York Times Business Bestseller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success. She co-writes a blog Grown and Flown and her work has appeared in Forbes, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and other publications. Lisa is married and has three sons.
I Became a Mother in My Mid-Forties
By Estelle Erasmus
“You must be so happy. You must have wanted a baby forever,” the labor nurse said, smiling, as my husband and I left the hospital with our baby girl. After seeing me give birth in my forties, she must have imagined that motherhood had always been my dream. She was wrong.
I told my husband when we were dating that I didn’t want to have kids, that I didn’t think I was the maternal type. After a year of marriage, I saw what a great dad he’d make and convinced myself that I could also be a caring and capable parent. We faced my age-related infertility together and, with a little assistance from modern medicine, in midlife I became someone I never thought I would be: a mother.
Becoming a mother has been the most transformative event of my life. Doing it in my forties, I join a growing portion of the population. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in 2012, the birthrate decreased for women below 30, but increased for women ages 30-44, with the greatest surge for women ages 40-44.
Since opting to stay home to raise my now five-year-old daughter, I am thankful that I first prepared my career as a journalist, author and magazine editor. The work of early motherhood is hard, and I don’t think I could have split my focus between building a career and being a mom to a small child. I can enjoy my daughter now without resenting her for holding me back, because I’ve already accomplished so much.
Adventure travel was also a big part of my life: I’ve tracked lions on foot on Safari in South Africa, flown to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and white water rafted a Class 5 river in the Western Canadian Rockies. I would not have been able to have those experiences with a baby or toddler in tow.
When I check Facebook I am constantly reminded of the dichotomy that while I am celebrating milestones such as my daughter losing her first tooth and attending Kindergarten, my contemporaries are celebrating college acceptances, weddings, or the birth of their first grandchild. I am sincerely hoping that, unlike me, my daughter finds the love of her life earlier on, so that I have the opportunity to be a grandmother. I also see some of my age-mates clearly showing signs of midlife crisis: affairs, divorces, radical career changes. My husband jokes that I don’t need to worry about having a midlife crisis. Mine was having a baby.
I am very lucky I had a child later in life because I would have made a terrible mother in my twenties and thirties. It took me a long time to develop emotional maturity, and even longer to find the right partner. Now I can call on my own past experience—the bitter and the sweet—to help me navigate parenting my daughter.
There have been challenges. I had to tap into my hard-earned emotional resources when my daughter was born, because I felt isolated, lonely and clueless, and had no local friends with babies—most of them were well past that stage. I literally grabbed my first mom friend, by accosting her husband in my building’s elevator. He was with his four-month old daughter, and I insisted that he give me his wife’s number. Gradually, I built up a support structure through a local community of moms.
Community is also important to us for our daughter’s sake. Because of how old I was when I had her, she is an only child, and the cousins who are closest in age to her live in Australia. We enrolled her in a school that goes from Kindergarten until 12th grade, so that hopefully she can find long-lasting friendships that will become as close to her as family.
I’m also confronting the issues faced by my increasingly fearful septuagenarian parents, who have been losing their friends at an alarming rate, and depend on having me around. They need more help on a daily basis than they will admit. My dad broke his hip three years ago, and although he has recovered, his physical and cognitive capabilities have diminished; my mom suffers from high blood pressure, which must constantly be monitored. I worry (and feel emotionally torn and guilty) that I can’t be there for them the way they need, as my time is increasingly taken up by the demands of raising a young daughter. Because of this realization, my parents are looking at independent living facilities near my sister, who has more availability, since she is now an empty nester.
I am in good health and in good shape, I have a wide network of friends, a solid marriage, fulfilling work, and longevity runs in my family, so I plan to be standing firmly by my daughter’s side as she graduates from college and later walks down the aisle. Plus I feel young at heart—that’s the magic of seeing the world anew through the eyes of a child—and a study in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that having such a positive attitude will help me to live longer.
I was not interested in being a mother for most of my life. It was never my dream. But becoming a mother in midlife has allowed me to pave the road for my daughter’s emotional resilience with the wisdom borne out of my many, many mistakes. And that is a gift that will last her into a future that I hope to share with her for as long as possible.
Estelle Erasmus has been published in numerous publications including Marie Claire, The Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. She blogs at Musings on Motherhood & Midlife and tweets at @EstelleSErasmus.