Saturday, May 26, 2007

The aging parent

So, have you all seen the story about the New Jersey woman who just had twins at age 60?

On the one hand, it's nice for her that she was able to achieve a successful pregnancy. We all know that it's hard not to have the family you want, regardless of how many you already have, and it makes sense to me that she wanted a closer sibling for her six-year-old. While I don't think that secondary (or in her case, quaternary) infertility is perhaps as wrenching as primary, it's no walk in the park, either, as I suspect I'm going to find out in a few months. So I'm sure it wasn't easy for her, and I know she is happy to have completed her family.

On the other hand... y'all, I'm 30, just like the woman's daughter, and my mom is 60. I absolutely cannot imagine her becoming a mother of twins right now. My mom is in good overall shape, but she is starting to have some trouble with arthritis, and there was the recent scare with her episodes of confusion. She volunteers to babysit quite often for me, but I try not to leave her with them for more than an hour or two, because they can be exhausting. I've never seriously contemplated leaving them with her overnight, at least until they're a bit older and easier to care for. It's not that I wouldn't be comfortable with it, just that I don't want to put her through something like Wednesday night, where the babies were awake from 1 to 5 and again at 8. I don't think she could handle being a full-time mother of twins, even with the nanny I am assuming this woman probably has.

Maybe this woman is very youthful and healthy now, but age and illness can be an unpredictable thing. I find it irksome that our culture often seems to think every physical ailment can be conquered with the right lifestyle choices and mindset. Infertility can be cured by relaxing, or eating pineapple and eliminating caffeine, or possibly by adopting. Diabetes only happens to people who are lazy and eat too much sugar, jogging will stave off heart problems, and you won't get cancer if you don't smoke. If you're a thin vegetarian nonsmoking marathoner, well, congratulations, you're immortal. This woman may take very good care of herself, but she is still at a much higher risk of serious illness or death, simply because of her age.

I was 21 when I lost my father, a healthy eater and jogger, to the long-term fallout of a heart attack at age 40. I was three when he had the heart attack and nearly died, and I remember quite well how scary it was. It was scarier at thirteen, when he had the second heart attack because the grafts from the first bypass wore out. It was pretty damn awful at fourteen, when he spent six months in the cardiac ICU waiting for a heart transplant. It was really fucking awful at 21, when he spent six months being eaten alive by cancer caused by the anti-rejection radiation treatments he got right after the transplant.

By then, though, I was an adult, more or less. While he would miss seeing me graduate, and get a job, and get married, and have babies, I did have a father during my formative years. My sister was eighteen, and had a harder time with it, but ultimately, I think neither of us really thought of ourselves as fatherless children. It was a tremendous loss for my brother, though, who was in that critical period of transitioning from boy to man. And it was hardest of all on my half-brother, who was only eight when Dad died; I don't think you can blame everything on losing a parent, but I think it's fair to say that his life to date probably would have turned out substantially differently, and for the better.

Those new babies have a 58% chance of losing their father before graduating high school, a 37% chance of losing their mother, and a 21% likelihood of losing both parents -- and that's just the risk of death itself, not infirmity. A one-in-five chance is pretty darn big, probabilistically, worse than the odds of Russian roulette. Yes, bad things can happen to parents of any age, but here it's the difference between knowing you might get hit by a car, and driving the wrong way down the highway.

I am generally against legal or professional restrictions on ART, and I don't support them in this case either (not like it would matter, since the couple in question went to South Africa for their treatment). I try not to be judgmental as a general rule, since it's hard to know what it's like until you've walked in someone else's shoes, but this particular pair is at least somewhat familiar. Me, though, I don't think I could go to great lengths to have children, knowing how likely I was to leave them orphaned.


Stacey said...

It bugs me when women treat their fertility as a burden for 20, 30, even 40 years, then all of a sudden it's "hey! NOW I want a kid!" I know that wasn't quite the case with this woman, but still. It is, frequently, when women wait till they're much older then force their bodies to have children. I think they confuse their biological clock with loneliness.

It's downright selfish to have children on purpose when you don't have the reasonable expectation that you can adequately care for them for the duration of their childhoods and at least partially into their adulthoods. This not only goes for women who get pregnant when they're in their 50's and beyond, it goes for women who get pregnant on purpose when they don't have the money, don't have the emotional maturity, don't have the familial support, et cetera et cetera.

Just call me Ranty McBitchypants.

Jody said...

I was struck by the fact that this woman and her husband have been together for 38 years, and already had two children. I question their approach to mortality, that they decided in their fifties to "re-start" their lives with a brand-new family. (I'm assuming they've been TTC again since soon after their 6yo son was born.) I completely understand that it's really none of my business, and I agree that the legal implications of letting the state decide whether this is right or not are not welcome, but eh. I hope I have a different attitude in my fifties, and embrace the particular gifts that age brings (along with its increasing limitations).

My mom is only 57, in very good physical health, and if she had young children now, the physical exhaustion would be such that her emotional availability to children would be affected.

My goodness, I don't want to let go of at-home motherhood myself, but isn't that what life's about? Endless change?

I hope I'm more graceful about aging, is I guess my point.

Can you imagine embracing the drug regimes and PIO at FIFTY-NINE? I guess I should applaud her stamina, if nothing else, no?