People magazine confirmed what once would have been incredible news: a fifty-year-old singer (in this case, Janet Jackson) is pregnant with her first child. Not included in the glowing piece on the new mother, however, is any mention of what must have been the medical interventions undertaken to accomplish a nearly-impossible feat.
In a piece for New York magazine, Laura June details how egg freezing has made becoming a mother in one’s forties and even early fifties biologically possible. The biggest concern with older motherhood, that of birth defects, is lessened when younger eggs are used for in vitro fertilization. If you are a forty-eight-year-old woman undergoing IVF using the eggs you froze when you were thirty-four, then the chances of birth defects are those of a thirty-four-year-old mother, not a much older one—and it’s a significant statistical difference. With the cost of egg freezing decreasing, along with the chances of success increasing, June posits that the biggest roadblocks for women seeking motherhood past the traditional (and biologically set) age limits will eventually fall, making it possible for more women to become “mothers of advanced maternal age.” June writes, “Our bodies are still in great shape and perfectly capable of carrying a pregnancy to term at forty or forty-five or fifty.”
I’m a thirty-year-old mother of two toddlers, and I’ll admit it: I’m tired. Bone tired. When I picture my forties and fifties, I imagine my children being able to use the bathroom by themselves; I dream of them doing their own laundry and making their own snacks.
Motherhood is the best thing to ever happen to my life, but it doesn’t come without physical wear and tear. My husband and I have a friend in her fifties who is vivacious, full of life and has perfect skin. After a business trip with the woman, my husband came home wondering if we should adopt her exercise and dietary habits. For the next few weeks after that trip, when our children would wake us up at all hours of the night, when they would scratch our eyes or hit us in the face, I would gently remind my husband that his colleague’s youthfulness was anchored in the fact that she had no actual youths to take care of herself, not necessarily her daily evening constitutional.
My friend Karol Markowitcz wrote on Heat Street about being an “older” mother, though most people today would hardly consider a thirty-eight-year old three-time mother old. Nevertheless, Markowitcz wishes she had done it all earlier so that she could enjoy her forties without dealing with the messes that having several children in diapers brings. As well, being an older mother means that one’s own parents, the kids’ grandparents, might not be as physically able to help pitch in with childcare as they might have been a decade earlier.
Does Janet Jackson worry about most of these things? Probably not, and justifiably so. Janet doesn’t need her parents to pitch in with babysitting or hauling endless baskets of laundry up and down the basement stairs. With a supply of personal trainers, nutritionists and a few nannies and/or night nurses, the physical toll that motherhood exacts on the rest of us is unlikely to befall the super wealthy Jackson.
However, the one unavoidable reality for Jackson is the biological reality none of us can escape: death. It comes for all of us, and while the rich may be able to afford better personal and medical care, eventually, the Reaper arrives.
While Karol, at thirty-nine years old, may worry that her parents can’t babysit as much for her youngest child as they did for her oldest two, Jackson should have the legitimate concern that she might not even be around to see her grandchildren born, let alone babysit them. The average life expectancy for women of all races in the United States is eighty-one years old, which means the odds are that she will barely live to see her child grow to thirty years old. It’s a dark and morbid concern to raise, but a statistical probability.
One of the subjects our society is least open about is mortality. Who wants to be the Debbie Downer talking about death? And yet, as a young mother, my own mortality played a significant role in my decision to have my children in my twenties and early thirties. It’s not just because motherhood is exhausting that I have decided to close the baby-making kitchen in my mid-thirties, but also because I was a teenager when I buried my own parents. The financial and emotional toll that experience wrought was severe, and I know I want to be around for as much of my children’s lives as possible. In order to increase the chances of that happening, I wanted my children to be grown by the time I might start facing health problems, in my sixties and seventies.
In her piece for New York magazine, June quotes Dr. Jacques Moritz, an affiliate associate professor OB-GYN at Weill Cornell, who says: “Biology is what it is, and that hasn’t changed significantly in the last thousand years. But we’ve found some pretty effective ways to get around biology.” She was, of course, discussing fertility, not mortality. While many who cheerlead for these advances in fertility science may be able to declare victory over that aspect of human biology, few realize or even want to admit that this victory is short-lived. Just because a fifty-year old woman can give birth doesn’t mean she should, or that doing so is in her child’s best long-term interest.