When Robin Gorman Newman had her first child at 42, she joined a local Long Island mom’s group, hoping to make friends with other new mothers. But the experience left her feeling lonely — and old.
“Up until my becoming a mom, I had never felt overly conscious of age — and suddenly I noted a difference at Mommy and Me,” she told me recently, noting that she had more life experience than the other mothers, who were in their late 20s and early 30s. When one mom in the group complained how her own mother kept giving her too many presents, Newman, who had just lost her mom, recalled chiming in, “Your mom can shop for me anytime.”
For me and most of my older mom friends, it was about taking time to find the right partner rather than succumbing to pressure to marry quickly.
Shortly after she left the group (“I’m not going to make any friends here,” she thought), she formed her own, MotherhoodLater.com, for moms over 35 and especially 40. Now, some 15 years later, it has about 5,000 members and 20 chapters around the world.
“I think there’s strength in numbers — nobody wants to feel alone,” she said. “You need to find your people.”
As it happens, the number of older mothers is growing more rapidly than younger mothers, helping to reduce any stigma around giving birth later in life. It’s become easier for those of us who have our first child later in life to feel less isolated and embrace why, for many of us, becoming a mother at an older age is a better choice.
I, for one, am glad to be an older mother. (I’m not glad I suffered three years of infertility, which is a problem older women trying to get pregnant often face — but even had I not, I would have given birth at 41, still considered old. Any first-time mother over 35 is called an “elderly primigravida.”)
I wasn’t ready to have children when I was my most fertile, in my late 20s and early 30s. I suspect if I had started a family with my boyfriend then, it wouldn’t have ended well. Now I’m more secure in my marriage (to a different guy), my career and myself, and I can devote more time to parenting without feeling like I’m resentful or missing out on life.
Happily, I also didn’t have to go far to “find my people” the way Newman had to nearly a generation earlier. Right before I had my daughter at 44, my 40-year-old sister had just given birth, and three of my closest 40-something friends, who also married late in life and had fertility problems, had daughters around the time I did; I had built-in playmates and new-mom old friends.
I was probably helped by living in New York City. "First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South," according to a 2018 New York Times analysis. Even so, across the country older pregnancies are a growing trend. According to a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Vital Statistics Report, fertility rates for women in all age groups declined between 2017 and 2018 except in the three oldest: 35-39, 40-44 and 45-54 (mostly 45-49, a footnote explains).
Increasingly women are getting more education and work experience before having children. According to the New York Times, "Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without — and often use the years in between to finish school and build their careers and incomes.”
But there are also more personal considerations at play. For me and most of my older mom friends, it was about taking time to find the right partner rather than succumbing to pressure to marry quickly for the sake of establishing a family — or deciding that going it alone would be the best route after years of not meeting a good partner.
Having a peer group has helped reduce one of the major disadvantages of being a mother later in life, though there are other downsides to being an older mom, of course. Particularly the worry that you might miss out on your child’s life.
Moms are constantly thinking “you’ll be a certain age when your child is such and such,” Newman said, referring to how older mothers calculate their probable age at events like their kid’s graduation and wedding, or gauge whether they could ever meet their grandchildren.
But it’s important to keep in mind that this arithmetic is not foolproof, given the unpredictability of life. A year after I had my daughter, one of my best friends died of brain cancer — she was only 43 and left behind two sons. No one knows how long they might have, so who's to say when is too old to be a parent?
And being a 40+ mother can bring special rewards in the experience of parenting itself. Though most women don’t know what kind of mom they would have been had they started earlier, Erin Khar does. In “Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me,” she chronicled her 15-year addiction that began at age 13 and ended at 28 when she became pregnant with her first son. She had her second at 43.
“I think the biggest difference is the confidence I have in myself,” said the New York mom who also writes the weekly “Ask Erin” advice column (the tagline: “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to ...”) for Ravishly.
I wasn’t ready to have children when I was my most fertile, in my late 20s and early 30s. I suspect if I had started a family with my boyfriend then, it wouldn’t have ended well.
“I have the confidence — I’ve done it before. I’m not as hung up on things as I was when I was younger,” she told me in an interview, noting she’s more mature and “emotionally equipped to handle the rigors of parenting.”
Is she more tired now?
“I’m equally as tired,” she laughed. “Age is just a number.”
Truthfully, I hardly think about my age, or how old I’ll be for my daughter’s milestones. I’m too busy balancing my career, my marriage and my — now full-time, thanks to COVID-19 — parenting duties to have much space for existential ennui. I’d rather be snuggling with my daughter, in her last few moments of babydom before she becomes a full-fledged kid.