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Aleta St. James' journey to motherhood

On November 9, 2004, Aleta St. James became one of the oldest new mothers in history. Her babies finally arrived shortly before her 57 birthday—a testament to their mother’s incredible focus and determination.

For seven years, Aleta St. James imagined the day her children would be born. She says she actually felt their spirits long before they were conceived.

She barely had a prayer of getting pregnant in her 50s. But Aleta, who is not an ordinary soul, says she “held the vision.”

On November 9th, 2004, Aleta St. James became one of the oldest new mothers in history. Her babies finally arrived shortly before her 57th birthday—a testament to their mother’s incredible focus and determination.

Katie Couric, NBC News: Is it true that you never doubted for once that you would get pregnant? Aleta St. James: Yeah.  Couric: So was it “The Power of Positive Thinking,” as Norman Vincent Peale might say? Did that help you?St. James: It did. And I knew that it wasn’t going to be if, it was going to be when. And if I stayed the course, I was gonna be able to do it.

For Aleta, the road to motherhood was miles off the map—a physical and spiritual quest that stretched from medical clinics in the West—to fertility temples in the East.

If the path to having a baby can be expensive, painful, and risky for those in their 40s, for a woman in her 50s, it promised to be a much steeper climb.

Along the way, people warned her that she could not get pregnant, she should not get pregnant. And, if she did, it would be a selfish act.

Instead, Aleta— who literally built a career on her intuition— trusted her gut.

St. James: There were some people that thought I was crazy and I could never do this, having children at my age, and I wouldn’t listen to them. They’d say, “Well, what are the statistics? You’re like a one percentile. And I’d say, “I don’t live in statistics, I don’t live in a box.” You know, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m gonna figure out ways that I can if that’s in my heart.

A life out of the box
She didn’t exactly aspire to be one of the oldest mothers in the world. In fact, in her younger days, she imagined having a traditional family. But, as often happens, life unfolded in unexpected ways. 

Couric: What made you want to have kids at such a mature age?  St. James: Well, I always wanted to have children. It just wasn’t the right time. I felt like I needed to develop myself learning all these different things. And find out who I was. And then I got into teaching and helping other people. 

The daughter of a merchant seaman and a devout Catholic, Aleta was born in 1947, the oldest of three children who were taught to make the world a better place.

Her sister Maria Sliwa became a journalist who reports on human rights violations in Sudan and Uganda.

Brother, Curtis Sliwa, created The Guardian Angels— volunteer crime fighters, distinguished by red berets and the fact that they carry no weapons.

Couric: Obviously, your parents instilled in all of you the importance of being socially-conscious...St. James: All the time. All the time. It was always about what can you do for others? What can you give back? How can we help this one?

It took some time for Aleta to be enlightened about her own mission— a career so offbeat, it inspires either devotion or disbelief.

St. James:  It’s not a matter of success. It’s not a matter of having money. It’s a matter of how you feel about things and how you see things in an every day life.

Growing up, she thought she was destined to be an entertainer—and even when chasing that dream, she bravely broke new ground. She was 21, in 1968, when she went to Amsterdam to star in the risqué musical, “Hair.”

Couric: How did you explain this nude musical production to your parents back in Brooklyn?St. James: My mother was totally shocked and I had that moment—to think, “Oh my god, what am I doing?  My mother’s never gonna be able to handle this.” But then I thought, “No this is what I believe in. I believe in freedom, flowers, happiness.”

It was the ‘60s after all. But when Aleta returned to New York, expecting to make it big on Broadway, her carefree spirit hit the skids. Shocked she couldn’t land a part in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” she went searching for ways to deal with the rejection.

St. James: I had to start healing my own insecurities that started to come up from that. I studied how thoughts have a lot to do with how you project yourself out in the world. And if you think negatively that’s what’s going to happen in your life.

She started studying how other cultures nurture physical, mental and spiritual well-being.  Soon, the aspiring actress found herself cast in an unexpected role—that of life coach.

St. James: My friends that were all actors and performers started to come to me because they saw a big shift in my life and I actually got to a place where I was able to help other people release their emotions and get connected to their positive thinking.

In keeping with her family tradition, she shifted the spotlight off herself. By the time she was 28, she had evolved into a therapist of sorts, one that offers much more than talk.

In the New Age world, Aleta St. James would be known as an “emotional healer.” She says she uses psychic power to identify a person’s problems and then through aromatherapy, breath, and meditation, teaches them how to release negative energy with positive thoughts.

Couric: When people hear that, some might think “Twilight Zone.”St. James: Right.Couric: What qualifies one to be an emotional healer?St. James: I’m very intuitive. I can tell where— what’s going on— and how people are feeling. If something happened to them, I’ll actually feel it in my body.

Like many women who came of age during the feminist movement, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Aleta channeled much of her energy into her career.

For a time, nurturing her clients satisfied her maternal instincts. She wasn’t aching to have a baby, though she says she treated women who were.

Inspired by ancient practices, she used color and light therapy to help women struggling with infertility.   

St. James:  I use orange, which is revitalization.  It deals with the second energy center and the uterus. I use silver which is cosmic mother, which brings in the mother energy, and I use pink for unconditional love.

By the ‘90s, she had made a name for herself as a healer, but her personal life was still a work in progress. Despite her untraditional profession, Aleta had hoped for a marriage like her parents—who just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. But the perfect match had yet to materialize.

St. James: The men in my life were wonderful, but they were very artistic and very creative and they were adventurers like myself. So it wasn’t right to settle down with them.

While holding out for the right guy, she also kept an eye on her biological clock. Determined to prolong her childbearing years, she worked hard to keep herself youthful with alternative therapies like acupuncture.

While other 49-year-olds may have been concerned with menopause, Aleta had faith she  would be able to conceive. After all, her grandmother was 54 when she gave birth to her 13th child—Aleta’s mom.  So when her desire for a baby started to intensify, she didn’t second-guess it.

St. James:  When I started to get older and I thought, “Well, you know now I’m kinda ready to settle down. And I really want to give to children now.” Because I feel like I’ve done everything that I wanted to do in my entire life. And so I was ready. I was really ready.

Ready, yet even she could not predict the sacrifice, soul searching, and sheer grit that getting pregnant in her 50s would require: Getting pregnant at that age isn't only difficult, it could also be dangerous.

An elaborate production
Just before her 50th birthday, Aleta sensed, in her mystical way, that the time had come to bring children into the world. It was an outlandish idea to many, including her  brother.

Now a talk radio host, Curtis Sliwa is no stranger to controversy. 26 years ago, critics scoffed at his bold dream of fighting crime with unarmed volunteers.

Today, the Guardian Angels, which Curtis started small in New York, is a worldwide organization. Still, even the guy who bucked convention, was skeptical about his sister’s vision.

In the neighborhood we grew up in, we say, “People like that have all the furniture up stairs and rearranged in the wrong rooms.”  Next you’ll be chasing leprechauns thinking it’ll lead you to a pot of gold so, I really didn’t think there was a possibility.Katie Couric: Did his reaction make you even more determined? You must have had a lot of naysayers saying, “Sister, you’re crazy... it’s ridiculous, what are you doing?”St. James: But you know what... I surrounded myself with people that were very supportive.

Her circle of support would balloon during the extreme highs and lows of the next seven years—although, at the start, Aleta had no inkling that having children in her 50s would turn into such an elaborate production.

Even so, she approached having a baby in November of 1997, as if training for the Olympics—from incredibly disciplined thinking to intense physical conditioning with her friend Yamuna, a body therapist.

Instead of a simple one-a-day prenatal vitamin, Aleta’s regimen, under the guidance of Sally Kravich, a holistic nutritionist, involved frequently changing doses and combinations of herbal supplements, protein powders, fatty acids, essential oils, and vitamins A to Z—much like the routine she continues to this day.

To be sure she didn’t miss a thing, Aleta, then 50, also had her blood routinely checked by a former heart surgeon, Dr. Frederick Vagnini, who now specializes in anti-aging, wellness, and clinical nutrition. 

Dr. Frederick Vagnini: She had to do a lot of detoxification and vitamin therapy to get her body in shape.

Still single, Aleta held on to the hope that she would conceive the old-fashioned way. At a nearby Catholic church, she reached out to God, just as her mother and father had, when they were ready to start a family.

St. James: Before they actually created me, she had him say a rosary.

Heaven-sent or not, she soon met someone special who also wanted a baby. With no time to waste, they started trying.  Surprisingly, Aleta, proved she could get pregnant in her 50s. Trouble was, she couldn’t stay pregnant. She miscarried time and again.

Couric: The miscarriages must have been devastating.St. James: Totally devastating. Totally.

At 53 years old, she continued to firmly believe that she was destined to get pregnant. Still, the miscarriages weren’t the only major setbacks. By December of 2000, the man with whom she had hoped to raise a family was fading out of her life. Now Aleta, who never imagined herself as a single parent, had to face her biggest fear.

St. James: You could say, “What is the one thing that you don’t want to do?”I would say, “Financially be responsible and emotionally and physically be totally responsible for bringing up children.”

Pushing forward on her own
Even so, not only did she decide to push forward alone, she conceded she needed a boost from science. She sought advice from a well-respected obstetrician, who specializes in high risk pregnancies.   

Dr. Jonathan Scher: She walked into the office and she did say she was on a quest. And she said she wanted to get pregnant and I thought, “Well, that’s not a problem,” except when I heard her age and that was obviously off-putting because we don’t encourage women in their 50s to become pregnant.

Despite his reservations, Dr. Jonathan Scher put Aleta, 53 in March of 2001, through a battery of tests. The results surprised him.

Dr. Scher: Aleta is in better shape, and healthier than many many women much younger than herself.

She may have been healthy enough to carry a baby, but there were serious medical and ethical issues to consider.

Dr. Scher: She was at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, gestational or pregnancy diabetes and there was an increase of birth complications, neonatal death, unfortunately.  But she was made aware of these facts.

But from her perspective, the benefits of nurturing a baby in her body eclipsed all other options.

Couric: Why not adopt?St. James: Well, I believe everybody has a mission and my mission was to bring children in—that wanted to be in a body that was nutritionally balanced, meditative, emotionally stable, because I believe it has a lot to do with how the child develops.Couric: You wanted to create the best situation in utero for your kids?St. James: Totally.Couric: At the same time your age put them at certain risks?St. James: But not really, Katie. Because they say high risk pregnancies they could start at 35. 

At Dr. Scher’s suggestion, in September of 2001, Aleta asked a reproductive endocrinologist to consider her case.

Dr. Jane Miller: If things would not have been medically safe, I would have said, “I’m sorry, I cannot help you.”

Dr. Jane Miller did, however, give Aleta, now almost 54 years old, a reality check. Despite her excellent health and regular periods, the number and quality of her eggs were precipitously declining as they inevitably do in women over the age of 35.

Dr. Miller: The biggest obstacle that she had to surmount was understanding that she could not get pregnant with her own eggs or rather it would be unlikely that she would get pregnant with her own eggs.

Quite a bombshell after all her disciplined efforts to preserve her youth. After four years of trying to get pregnant naturally, she had to make peace with the idea of conceiving with cutting edge technology.

St. James: I knew if I didn’t make that decision, let go of how I thought things were gonna be, I would never be able to have my dream.

Using donor eggs
For spiritual strength, in August of 2002, she traveled to fertility temples in India with a Hindu guru.

He performed ancient rituals like this fire ceremony conducted for us in a New York temple.

Infused with new energy, Aleta agreed to try invitro fertilization with donor eggs. As for the male half of the equation, an old friend volunteered, provided there were no strings attached.

St. James: I knew emotionally, I was ready to do it. Because it’s hard going through invitro—it’s not an easy process, you really have to want to have a child.

In September of 2002, a few months before her 55th birthday, Aleta had two embryos transferred. With donor eggs, she had a 50 to 60 percent chance of getting pregnant.

The first round failed. But, to the amazement of her anti-aging doctor, Aleta refused to give up.

Dr. Vagnini: She went through the process unsuccessfully and it just  took a tremendous toll on her body— she gained weight, she developed joint problems, she had fatigue and she kept going.

Not only did she keep going, she underwent major surgery to remove fibroids that were distorting her uterus, an operation that she had hoped to avoid. Fertility specialist Dr. Miller marveled at how Aleta, now 56, bounced back.

Dr. Miller: Usually, first post-operative day the patient is sitting there, actually lying there, looking awful: “I can’t move, I can’t lift, I can’t go to the bathroom.” I come into the room and she’s sitting up in the bed putting on lipstick and she said, “Hi. When I can go home?” So, I said, “Let’s keep you until tomorrow and then tomorrow second post-operative day you can go home.”She said, “Ok when are you putting the embryos in?’

Three months later, in March of 2004, Aleta gave invitro another shot. Pumped up on hormones and more positive than ever, she had a strong feeling this time was the charm. But she was also braced to be disappointed again. Two weeks later, on April Fool’s Day, no less, Dr. Miller called.

St. James:  And she said “Hi.” I said, “Hi, what’s cooking?” So she said, “You are very, very pregnant.”  And I just—I couldn’t believe it, but I was so happy, so happy.

Six years after Aleta had set her focus on having children, her dream was within reach. She imagined strolls in Central Park, her first Mother’s Day, a baptism in the church where she had prayed. But the healer would still need to summon tremendous energy for the challenges ahead.

Nothing seemed to faze Aleta St. James— not the waiting, or the disappointments, or the expense. And this process is expensive: Aleta spent almost $40,000 in her efforts to get pregnant. 

After six years of hope and hard luck, pain and perseverance, Aleta St. James was expecting not just one baby— but twins— at 56 years old.

When he heard the news that Aleta was about to become a single mom, her brother, who doubted she would actually get pregnant was stunned.  A first-time parent himself at 50, Curtis Sliwa gave her the same grief he had gotten for having a child late in life.

Curtis Sliwa, brother: I said, “My god, you’re going to be swigging Geritol and taking Ben-gay baths in just a few years when these kids are putting you through the mill in the playground.”

Aleta, who may be living proof that 50 is the new 30, had no intention of slowing down. But by the time the press caught wind of her remarkable story—just a few days before she delivered in November of 2004 —  she was suffering from such intense hip pain, it was difficult to walk.

And while her age created a public hullabaloo, it was not the cause of her intense discomfort, according to her high-risk obstetrician, Dr. Jonathan Scher.

Dr. Jonathan Scher: Her complications were really complications of a multiple pregnancy. Not so much a complication of her age.

On top of the excruciating hip pain, she also developed gestational diabetes, common among older mothers. However, her twins were not at increased risk for chromosomal disorders because of a critical fact: remember Aleta had used donor eggs.

Dr. Scher: No matter what the woman’s age the babies are not really at risk on an age basis because they come from a young woman.

On Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, Francesca, named after Aleta’s mother, arrived at 9:19 a.m. Her brother, Gian, which means “miracle from God,” emerged a minute later: two healthy babies.

Finally, after seven years of holding on to her vision, Aleta held her children for the first time.  Just three days shy of her 57th birthday, she was one of the oldest new mothers in the world.

Within 24 hours, she was back on her feet giving a press conference. 

Aleta St. James holds her twin babies in New York
Aleta St. James, 56, holds her twin babies Francesca (L) and Gian during a news conference, November 10, 2004 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. St. James who will be 57 on November 12, became pregnant by in-vitro fertilization. REUTERS/Jeff ChristensenJeff Christensen / X00054

(At the hospital, press footage) St. James: This is something that I really wanted—just to look at these children, and they’re so beautiful.

But not everyone felt this was reason to celebrate.

Katie Couric: Some people have questioned your decision. For example, a prominent bioethicist wrote “If you talk to children of older parents, most will tell you that they worried quite a bit about whether their parents would live to see them graduate from high school. Is it really the case that it’s never too late and that you are never too old to parent?”St. James: I don’t intend to kind of like wind down and get decrepit. I have a challenge to keep myself going. To eat right. To exercise. And children that have a fear that their parents are gonna die, I’ve heard that from my clients that are 30 years old.

First year of motherhood, and a big baptism
If getting pregnant in her 50s was a test of perseverance, the first year of motherhood was a test of endurance.

She had spent decades living alone with two dogs in a small New York City apartment.  Now, at 57, she was adjusting to the ever-changing rhythms of babies— a full-time nanny, and learning what it means to be a single, working mom. Within three months, the emotional healer was back to coaching her clients.

Couric: Did you ever say, what have I gotten myself into?St. James: I think there were two days where I was just being financially challenged. And I thought, “God, can I do this? Can I give them the best life that I want to give them? I realized, yes you can. You’ve brought them into the world. There was a reason you got them here. They’re supposed to be here. And you can create it.”

Two weeks after giving birth, Aleta started writing “Life Shift: Let Go and Live Your Dream,” a guide on how to transform your life by using the techniques she practices as an emotional healer.

St. James: If you let go of how you think things are supposed to happen and you just focus on the essence of what you want—even if it’s losing 10 pounds. And you get the support group and find spiritualities. Find something higher than yourself that you can use as an energy to help you realize your dreams, they will happen.

But is any dream attainable at any age?  Should women in their 50s, who yearn to be mothers, expect to be as successful as Aleta?

Her fertility specialist, Dr. Jane Miller, says no.

Dr. Jane Miller: The moral is not “If you have a dream pursue it you can do it. Because that’s unrealistic and it can hurt many people.”Couric: Your doctors say they helped you have children because you are “an exceptional woman” and they stress that you are the exception. So how can you encourage women, for example who are having trouble conceiving without giving them false hope? St. James: You give them everything that they can possibly do to conceive through the energy work, through meditation, through western technology. And then, if at the end of that road they find that this is impossible that they can’t do it, then you say ‘okay what are my options?” You can adopt. You can have a surrogate hold the pregnancy. There’s other ways you can have children.  Some people might say, “Listen Aleta, you got pregnant because of technology. All this woo-woo metaphysical stuff, but the technology is what enabled a women of your age to give birth to twins.”St. James: Absolutely, and God bless the technology, and every single time I gave myself a progesterone shot with a needle this big, I blessed it because I knew if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t gonna happen. But I became pregnant on the second invitro at my age and a lot of women don’t do that.Couric: So you got lucky.St. James: I used those energy tools. That’s what I believed happened.

On April 17th of this year, Francesca and Gian were christened in the Catholic church where Aleta had prayed to get pregnant.

She had invited family and friends, clients and caregivers, to a baptism with one of her signature twists: Aleta had chosen 26 godparents, 13 for each baby, and asked them to bestow a special wish. 

St. James: It was a beautiful ceremony and the priest, Thank God, he just went along with it. It was very moving.

If it takes a village to raise a child, Aleta certainly had created one. Among her supporters, her parents, both in their 80s. They were proud they say of how Aleta had “manifested her vision.”

St. James: I just wanted to have these children. I wanted to give them their dreams. And I’m so glad I did. I’m glad I did it when I was 57 and not 67, cause I have more time to be with them. And when I look at them every single day and I see them growing and developing, it’s like a miracle for me. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.