Laurie Cunningham became a first-time mom just days shy of her 40th birthday. She shares why she refuses to worry about all the risks associated with older parents.
A few days ago I was Christmas shopping with my friend, Erin, when we stopped at a café to grab lunch. For the two hours we’d been perusing cookware at the kitchen store, top-sellers at the local bookstore, and knitted earmuffs at the artist co-op, my 6-month-old son, Owen, had been nestled against my chest in a baby carrier sucking on the shoulder strap and staring at other shoppers with his big brown eyes.
I had timed it so that we’d be stopping for lunch around 2 p.m., when he’d be ready for his afternoon bottle and would sit on my lap sucking away so that we could eat and chat in peace. After we sat down at a table, I handed Owen to Erin so I could prepare his bottle using both hands. As I rummaged through the diaper bag, I located bottled water, a bottle, a burp cloth, and lots of toys that squeaked but not the magic ingredient that would make lunch a quiet success.
“Damn, I forgot formula,” I told Erin.
“Uh, oh,” Erin said in between making faces at Owen to make him laugh.
I thought quickly, a skill I was getting better at as a new mom who couldn’t seem to leave the house without forgetting something Owen needed. Walgreens. There’s a Walgreens down the street.
“I’m going to run down to the corner and buy some formula,” I said. “Do you mind watching him for a moment?”
“No, not at all,” Erin said, making another face at Owen.
I dashed down two blocks, hurried through the electronic doors, scanned the signs for the baby supplies aisle and grabbed a box of Enfamil off the shelf. As I handed the formula to the checkout clerk, a teenage girl with long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, she studied me while scanning the box and putting it into a plastic bag.
“You’re a mom?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t look like a mom.”
“Really?” I had my blonde hair pulled back in a messy bun and was wearing a touch of mascara and blush, a black jacket, maternity jeans with the elastic waistband (I still have five pounds of baby weight to lose) and my Puma tennis shoes.
“You’re thin,” the clerk said. “And you don’t look old enough.”
I wanted to kiss her. Or tip her. Or something.
“Thank you,” I said, and practically skipped back to the restaurant.
The truth is, I’m not only a mom, I’m an older mom. I was 39 when I had Owen, my first and only child (so far), on June 11th. He was born 10 days shy of my 40th birthday and believe me, I knew I was a latecomer to motherhood. I had wanted children for years and had agonized that I might never fulfill that dream as one relationship after another fizzled. It took me a lot of trial and error to find Dave, my husband, who was not only tall, dark, and handsome but 10 years younger. And you know what that means…healthy sperm!
A few months after we got married in September 2010, I started searching the Internet to find out how to get pregnant. After a lifetime of trying not to get pregnant, I was surprisingly naïve about my menstrual cycle (i.e. when I was most fertile) and how long it might take (apparently forever).
The how-to-get-pregnant articles I found were downright frightening. Every one made it sound like the second a woman turned 35, her fertility fell off a cliff. I finally had to close my laptop, lay on my bed, and take deep breaths. Even though I’m a journalist by training, I decided that was more than enough research.
It was about as encouraging as reading this recent article in The New Republic about the “scary consequences” of men and women waiting later and later to have children. That has led to a spike in autism, attention-deficit disorders, learning problems, and developmental delays in today’s children, the author says. Babies born to women in their 40s are also at much higher risk for Down syndrome, premature birth, cerebral palsy, and low birth weight. And even if they’re healthy, children of older parents are destined to become orphans much earlier than previous generations.
That’s the bad news. And yes, it sounds plenty bad. The good news is that at 38 years old, I got pregnant the first month we tried—twice. The first time I had a miscarriage, which friends and family assured me happened to almost every woman regardless of age. The second time I felt so ill a few weeks after seeing double pink lines on the pee stick that I was convinced it was a viable pregnancy. The hormonal changes were too striking to indicate anything other than my body was fully engaged in creating life.
I was so sick during my first trimester that I didn’t have time to worry about much other than whether any of my coworkers had just seen me puke into the trashcan under my desk. But because of my “advanced maternal age,” my husband, Dave, and I decided to undergo testing to rule out chromosomal abnormalities like Down syndrome and trisomy 13. When I told my aunt I was getting a CVS, she thought I was talking about the drug store. “CVS does prenatal testing?” she asked. When I explained that it stood for “chorionic villus sampling,” it made much more sense.
When I was 11 weeks pregnant, Dave and I took the bus to the hospital, where the doctor inserted a long needle into my belly and took a sample of cells from the tiny, finger-like projections on the placenta (chorionic villi), which has the same genetic makeup as the baby. So if they test the chromosomal makeup of the placenta, it’s the same as testing the baby (who knew?). I was so blissed out watching the baby move around on the ultrasound (it actually looked like a baby now) that I didn’t even care about the sharp pressure in my abdomen as the needle went in.
“It looked so healthy!” I told Dave breathlessly as we left the hospital. “There can’t possibly be anything wrong!”
“You don’t know that,” Dave said, always the skeptic until scientific data proved otherwise.
I went home and dropped into a deep sleep, exhausted by the morning’s excitement and stress. I awoke three hours later to my cell phone ringing. It was the doctor. The tests had come back negative. The baby was fine.
“Don’t worry about anything and enjoy the holiday,” the doctor said. The next day was Thanksgiving. We were going to Dave’s parents’ house, where we planned to break the news of the pregnancy if the results came back OK. If they didn’t, we would have a long, depressing weekend ahead of us and a big decision to make.
When I called my mom in Los Angeles to tell her the test results were normal, she started to cry.
“I’m…so…relieved…and…happy…for…you,” she squeaked between sobs. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted, one that I didn’t even know I had been carrying. So did Dave. We suddenly felt free to tell everyone the big news: We were having a baby.
A few months later, we got further confirmation that our baby was healthy during the 20-week ultrasound, when they check all the heart chambers and organs, measure the brain lobes and count fingers and toes. We wanted to keep the sex a surprise, so we looked away from the screen when the sonographer zoomed in on the genital area.
“Everything looks perfect,” she told us. “All it needs to do now is grow.”
And grow he did. Owen was 9 pounds when he was born two days after my due date (so much for premature labor and low birth weight). He was as healthy as could be except for a slight heart arrhythmia the fetal monitor picked up during labor. After delivery they kept Owen in the nursery hooked up to a heart monitor rather than letting him in the room with me. A few months after we were discharged, however, the irregularity in his heartbeat resolved itself and disappeared, just like the pediatric cardiologist told us was likely to happen.
We were left with a perfect baby who loves his bottle, drooling, sleeping (thank God), and sucking on all 10 of his toes. I sometimes stare at the folds in his ears, which look as intricate as the chambers in a nautilus shell, and marvel that my body made him. When he was 2 months old, he started smiling and cooing right on schedule. But Dave and I noticed he had a funny habit of staring at people and smiling, then turning his head away to avoid eye contact.
“Are you autistic?” we’d ask him, half joking. At 6 months old, he seems much too social to be on the autism spectrum. Yet with all the publicity about the disorder, even I know that avoiding eye contact is one of the signs. I suspect that the most serious condition we’re dealing with is shyness, but as a mother my age, you can never be too sure. There’s always some developmental stage to worry about. And if I forget to worry, articles like the one in The New Republic will remind me.
Like sociological studies have shown, I feel like I am a much wiser, more patient, attentive, financially stable parent than I would have been in my prime childbearing age 15 years ago. Having Owen later in life enabled me to put in the long hours at work to establish my career and learn life lessons that have helped me mature. Yet despite beating the odds and having a healthy baby, I’m sometimes plagued with thoughts like the one I expressed to Dave the other day.
“Do you realize that when Owen is 40, I’ll be 80?” I asked. “That’s really old.”
As I said that last part, I’m pretty sure I crinkled my nose. When I was young, my grandparents were in their 60s. Back then, I thought they were ancient. I remember my grandma talking about her cataract surgeries, knee replacements, and 101 other aches and pains. Now that I’m 40 and my mom is 65, the 60s don’t seem so old. But man, the 80s sure do. All the more reason for diligent self-care.
Of all the scary biological and societal consequences of aging parenthood The New Republic article recounts, that’s the one that bothers me most—the fact that I’ll have less time on earth with Owen. That I may not be around for the second half of his life. That I may not live to meet my grandchildren. Or if I do, I’ll be too riddled with arthritis to pick them up.
But really. I can’t worry about that. I mean, I can if I want to, but what’s the point? Owen is here and so am I, 40 or not. A byproduct of my advanced maternal age is my hard-earned wisdom that life unfolds the way it’s supposed to. The consequences of older parenthood may be real and worth discussion. Yet for parents like me, The New Republic article amounts to little more than fear mongering. And if there’s anything I would like to teach my son, it’s that a life lived in fear is not worth living. You take your chances. We all do.
Laurie Cunningham is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor who now works at an international law firm in Chicago writing about legal trends and teaching lawyers to use shorter sentences. In her spare time she blogs about marriage, pregnancy, parenthood and whatever else is on her mind.