When Stacey Bartlett-Knettler decided to get pregnant at 38, she didn’t worry much about her age. She felt young and healthy, and ready to start a family. But by the time she was 42 and had given birth to her second baby, the Columbus, Ohio, executive was starting to worry about her own mortality.
She wondered if she and her husband would be there for the babies’ important milestones. “We would talk about where we would be when they were 20 or 30 or 40,” Bartlett-Knettler, now 45, says. “Will we see them get married? Will we see our grandbabies? Will we be there to see what kind of contribution they make in the world?”
Bartlett-Knettler figured the only way she could extend her life span and be there for her kids’ landmark moments was to focus on her health. She got more regular about her exercise program and soon was in the best shape she’d ever been in. She pestered her husband, Chris, to get yearly physicals and to take better care of himself, too. “We’ve got children now,” she told him. “Don’t leave me with the children to raise all by myself.”
Like Bartlett-Knettler, more American women are starting families at an older age. Some are giving birth in their late 30s, 40s — even into their 50s — while others are building their families through adoption.
The number of older moms has steadily increased over the past 30 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Between 1976 and 2006, the birth rate among women ages 35 to 44 more than doubled. In 1976, for instance, there were 190 births per 10,000 women 35 to 39. By 2006 that number had climbed to 473 births per 10,000 women.
Adoptive mothers tend to be older than those who give birth, according to the NCHS. Eighty-one percent of adoptive mothers are 35-44 years of age compared with 52 percent of non-adoptive mothers.
Some women say they delayed becoming moms until their careers were established. Others are starting a second family after remarrying. And some say they simply didn’t feel ready when they were younger.
“The good news is that these days you don’t have to worry about being the only older mom at the high school graduation,” says Dr. Neill Epperson, director of the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Seemingly innocuous incidents can kick off musings about mortality in older moms. For 56-year-old Deborah Africa, the scary moment came last year at the high school graduation of her oldest adopted son, Bret. She looked over at her youngest child, 7-year-old David, and started to worry about the future.
“I thought, I’m going to be 66 when he graduates and I want to be around for that. But for me to be around, I’m going have to get back to exercising.” At that moment, Africa made a resolution to set aside time every day to work out.
That’s exactly the advice Dr. Janet Pregler gives the older moms who show up at her office. Pregler has experience both as a physician taking care of women who’ve given birth later in life and as an older mom herself. “I had my last child at 41,” says Pregler, director of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women’s Health Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “So I’m looking at going to high school games at nearly 60.”
Some studies have shown that kids can hurt your long term health, Pregler says. But that may simply be because kids take up so much time, leaving fewer hours to devote to exercise and other healthy behaviors, she suggests.
Women have to realize they will need to make tradeoffs if they want to stay healthy, Pregler says. “That may mean going to the doctor instead of a PTA meeting,” she explains. “Or maybe your child can be on only one sports team so the family will have time to ride bikes together.”
Forty-nine-year-old Debbie Nunes quickly realized that her workout program would have to adapt to include her twins, who were born seven years ago.
“I incorporated their activities with mine,” says Nunes, an accountant from Morgan Hill, Calif. “I continued to walk and swim, but now also play kickball in the back yard and take lots of long bike rides with the kids. I feel like the most important gift I can give them is to keep myself healthy. I’ve always been healthy, but it’s my priority now more than ever.”
Nunes also stopped participating in two sports she loved — volleyball and basketball — because she was worried she might throw out her knees.
She also planned ahead for the future by buying insurance to cover residential nursing care toward the end of her life so her kids wouldn’t have to take care of her.
The upsides of being an older mom
There are benefits to being older when you start your family, says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, chief of geriatric medicine and aging at Columbia University/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “You give up some things and get others in return,” Granieri says. “Maybe you give up a little agility, but you’ve got much more knowledge and insight into how to deal with things. You have to celebrate those kinds of returns on life’s investments.”
Ultimately, many older moms feel that the benefits balance out any negatives that come with age. “All those life experiences I had as I was growing older taught me patience,” says Africa. “I look at the world in a different way than I did when I was younger.”
The big advantage for Bartlett-Knettler is the years she had to watch her friends raise their kids. “I talked to a lot of them about how they did it,” she says.
One other thing older moms like to point out: there are no guarantees that you’ll be around to watch your kid grow up, no matter how old you are when they’re born.
“My experience as a critical care nurse put that in perspective for me,” Africa says. “I recognized that death and disease can come at any age.”
Epperson says that the most important thing parents of any age can do is to provide solid emotional support to their children as they are growing up. That will help them deal with whatever comes down the road, she adds.
“They will do well after your death because of what you’re giving them now,” Epperson says. “Help them grow into healthy adults and they’ll be fine.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.