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Home > Research Articles > A New Generation Gap


Monday, January 19, 2004

'Late life' parents face unique challenges as well as unexpected pleasures

By Peg Tyre

NewsweekHan. 19 issue - Janet Ross-Toushin, 46, of Buffalo Grove, Ill., can listen to friends discuss their fear of the empty nest for only so long. It's not that she's unsympathetic, but sooner or later, one of Ross-Toushin's 2-month-old twin girls breaks up the conversation. These days she finds she's out of sync with even her oldest friends. When they're waking up at 3 a.m., straining to hear their teenager's car in the driveway, Janet and her husband, Steven Toushin, are having their own sleepless nights—courtesy of little Abigail and Rachel. Ross-Toushin has more in common now with other new parents—many of whom are a decade or more younger. Which has thrown her into a quandary. "Do you develop younger friends you can relate to?" asks Ross-Toushin. And what happens to your old friends, whose interests no longer match your own?

Fifteen years ago, older adults at the playground were generally assumed to be grandparents. These days they're just as likely to answer to "Daddy." Life expectancy is rising; couples are postponing marriage and childbirth. Aggressive new fertility treatments are making it possible for those in midlife and even older to have children. The number of moms between the ages of 40 and 44 is the highest it's been since the 1960s, before the pill. In 2002, more than 5,000 women between 45 and 49 gave birth—a rate that has more than doubled in 10 years—and more than 200 babies were born to women 50 to 54. Although the statistics are sketchy, numbers of midlife and late-life fathers are also rising. In 2002, more than 20,000 children were born to men between the ages of 50 and 54—up from 14,000 in 1992. More than 8,000 men 50 and older became fathers in 2002. Dr. Marc Goldstein, chief of male reproductive medicine at New York Presbyterian-Weill Medical College, says the cutoff age for people seeking fertility treatment is dissolving. "Treating people who five years ago would have been considered too old, " says Goldstein, "is becoming routine."

Every stop on the road—from conception to college graduation—brings both unexpected pleasures and unique challenges to late-life parents. Biologically speaking, humans are designed to procreate in their mid- to late teens. Those who postpone it three or four decades and beyond are part of a vast new social experiment. Sometimes, older parents say, it's even harder than it looks. "I wouldn't put frosting on it," says Ken Wright, 54, a book retailer from Richardson, Texas, who finds he's often too achy to play with his 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. "If you're 30 and make a conscious decision to wait until you're 50, you're wrong."

Strained backs aside, late-life parenthood is not without serious medical risk. As women age, their pregnancies can be more complicated for both mother and child. Rates of pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and miscarriage all rise. The frequency of Down syndrome jumps exponentially, too. And despite tabloid headlines about late-life celebrity dads—Anthony Quinn was 81; Tony Randall, 78; Saul Bellow, 84—doctors have uncovered strong links between advanced paternal age and Down syndrome and schizophrenia in their children.

Psychiatrists who work with older parents say that maturity can be an asset in child rearing—older parents are more thoughtful, use less physical discipline and spend more time with their children. But raising kids takes money and, and most of all, energy. Many older parents find themselves calibrating their limited financial resources, waning energy and failing health against the growing demands of an active child. Dying and leaving young children is probably the older parent's biggest, and often unspoken, fear. Jack Metcalf, 78, has no illusions about how much time he has left with his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah. For Metcalf, every day is a gift. "I would like the pleasure," he says, "of seeing her graduate from high school."

With all the focus on conceiving their late-life children, older parents, with comparatively fewer productive work years left, often find themselves abruptly restructuring their lives in order to meet the financial demands of even healthy children. Though he has grown children from his two previous marriages, Larry Hutchison, 54, a carpenter from Dallas, was surprised to find himself paying $600 a month to send 5-year-old Katie to private pre-school. Now he's moving to the suburbs and has enrolled in night school to become a physician's assistant. In two years, four years shy of his 60th birthday, Hutchison will embark on a new career, one that he hopes will generate a heftier and steadier paycheck. "I have to provide for the necessities she needs now," he says. Having late-life children, says Stanford University economics professor Martin Carnoy, author of "Fathers of a Certain Age: The Joys and Problems of Middle-Aged Fatherhood," often means parents, particularly fathers, "end up retiring much later." For many, retirement becomes an unobtainable dream.

Metcalf knows it takes money to raise kids. After years of running his own marketing business, he's taken a job as a substitute teacher to help support Hannah. Money is a concern, of course, but he's also worried that his stamina will give out first. Sure, he can still ride bikes with his athletic fifth grader, and sometimes they dance up a storm, but he's learned that young at heart doesn't mean young. Lately he's been sneaking in afternoon naps to keep up his energy. "My body is aging," says Metcalf. "You can't get away from that."

Often, older parents hear the ticking of another kind of biological clock. Announcing his son Harry's impending birth, comedian David Letterman, 56, quipped, "Not only will I be the child's father, I'll be his grandfather." He continued, "Besides, by the time the kid is out stealing cars, I'll be dead." Funny, yes. But therapists who work with midlife and older parents say fears about mortality are nothing to laugh at. "They worry they'll be mistaken for grandparents, or that they'll need help getting up out of those little chairs in nursery school," says Joann Paley Galst, a New York psychologist. But at the bottom of those little fears there is often a much bigger one: "that they won't be alive long enough to support and protect their child," she says. Kids often share those fears. "They make very private, very painful calculations," says William Pollack, director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Boston. "How old will he be when I start high school? How old will he be when I graduate?"

Many late-life parents, though, say their children came at just the right time. After marrying late and undergoing years of fertility treatment, Marilyn Nolen and her husband, Randy, from Killeen, Texas, had twins. "We both wanted children," says Marilyn, who was 55 when she gave birth. The twins have given the couple what they desired for years, "a sense of family." Dusting off the cradle for a second time can also be a chance to rewrite history. Dr. Sherman Silber, head of the Infertility Center of St. Louis, has performed vasectomy reversals for 27 years and kept tabs on the offspring. Kids of older dads, he says, are often smarter, happier and more socially attuned because their fathers are more involved in their lives. "The dads are older, more mature," says Silber. "And more ready to focus on parenting." Although he already has children in their 20s, Steven Toushin, 54, says he's a different kind of dad this time around: more relaxed and better able to weather the twins' demands. "I just couldn't have done that in my 20s," he says. For Toushin, having midlife children was a chance to get it right. For that, he says, you can never be too old.

With Hilary Shenfeld in Chicago and Ellise Pierce in Dallas

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.