A certain age
This morning, with both kids safely ushered to their respective destinations — Ben to be raised by strangers, Charlie to work the coal seam — I sat down at long last to square off against last week's New York Magazine article, "Parents of a Certain Age." I made a fresh cup of coffee, situated myself comfortably at my desk, and pleasurably readied my dudgeon for liftoff.
But I just couldn't get it up.
Lisa Miller, herself a first-time mother at 40, has written what I think is a really thoughtful, balanced article about becoming a parent later — no, really: laaaaater — in life. She looked at what it means socially to decide on motherhood past age 45. Part of it sounded eerily familiar:
A new child may be a blessed event, but when a 50-year-old decides to strap on the Baby Björn, that choice is seen as selfish.
You've heard this, right? Every person who's pursued unorthodox reproduction has. ART of any stripe? You're selfish for not adopting a child who needs a home. IVF with your own gametes? You're selfish for wanting a designercybertechnominigeneticlone. Donor gametes? You're selfish for exploiting the donor and for depriving your children of various inalienable ineffables. Surrogacy? Oh, lady.
It strikes me as misguided to the point of hilarity to condemn any particular decision about having children as selfish — not because I think of choosing to become a parent as inherently selfless, but because I think it's not. Nobody has children to...what? enrich the existence of all mankind? ("Hayden Messiah, you drop that dead squirrel now. You can resurrect things after your violin lesson.") We do it for love, for comfort, for experience, for belonging, for innumerable reasons that have nothing to do with what's best for anyone else, but with what would make us happy.
When we have kids intentionally, we do it because we get something out of it, because we want to, because we selfishly want, and the manner of conception doesn't change that fact. So, sure, I'll buy the argument that older parents are selfish. But no more selfish than the pregnant 17-year-old who wants someone to love her, or the 40-year-old single woman who goes it alone because she's scared she'll miss her chance. And no more selfish, in fact, than the financially responsible, perfectly fertile 30-year-old, in a stable job and married for five years, who worries that if she doesn't have kids, she'll feel incomplete. (We don't question her much, do we?) You can argue with these hypothetical people's decisions on other grounds if you want, but, sorry, selfishness doesn't fly. In that way, we all suck alike.
And whatever else you think about parenthood late in life — Miller's article covers the gamut, from perceptions about physical limitations to concerns about dying while the kids are still young — you'd have to work hard to find anyone who goes about parenthood more intentionally than women after age 45. Miller writes:
It is nearly impossible to have a baby at 50 by accident. "Oops" does not happen; that momentary abandonment of good sense or caution will almost never result in a pregnancy. No matter how a child is procured, whether through technology or adoption, her 50-year-old parents have likely gone through some kind of hell — paperwork, blood tests, questionnaires, waiting, visa applications, mood swings, marital discord, and recalibration of expectations — to have her. These are the most wanted of children.
While I might disagree with Miller's characterization as "the most wanted," I can't dispute the general gist. Now, I don't think wanting children a lot necessarily makes anyone a better parent. (I wish it did. I wish it made me a better parent than I am some days.) But it does signal a sincere commitment, and implies unusually thorough consideration. That kind of tenacity should incline us, I think, to respect the decision and give the parents the benefit of the doubt — to trust them to know their own capacity and to make good decisions, just as we do for people in the "right" age bracket who have kids for the "right" reasons under the "right" circumstances.
Which is where I was surprised to find myself after reading Miller's piece. It's not that I have any particular bias against older parents; in fact, I mostly — selfishly! — don't care. But I expected it to be full of the standard mass-media-meets-fertility crap, crawling with people I couldn't easily identify with. And sure, okay, there was a little of that. (If the first few lines don't creep you out — well, recalibrate your creepometer.) And the question of privilege is enormous and problematic, which Miller fairly acknowledges but doesn't explore in depth. Still, I thought after reading the article I would be incensed, and instead I was sympathetic.
I mean, aren't we all similarly damned, when we have children at the wrong time or in a complicated way or beyond the bounds of natural fertility, in some way other than how it was meant to be? (I was going to clap scare quotes around those terms, but once I started doing it I couldn't see where to stop.)
I linked to this on Facebook and Twitter, and I loved it enough to continue to thrust it forcefully at you here. It's Paul Ford's beautiful essay on undergoing IVF: "Over a beer an expectant father—another expectant father—gives me the news, tells me that his wife will soon have her second or third. Am I happy for him? What else can I be? Once again I put out my hand, close my eyes, and wish them joy."