How old is too old to be a mom?
On gaming your gametes
A few weeks ago, I boredom-clicked on an article about Elton John’s 74th birthday. Like many of us have had to this past year, the singer spent his birthday at home with his family. Though I once listened to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — the song, not the album — on repeat for four days straight, my knowledge of all things Elton John ends with his music. That’s to say I didn’t know he was a dad or that his sons were 6 and 8 years old. It’s not uncommon for men, especially famous ones, to have children later in life. Good for him, I thought, and went on living.
A few days later, I saw an article about Barbara Higgins, a woman in New Hampshire who gave birth at 57. There were a lot of things that stood out to me about the story. I don’t believe in violating people’s privacy for the sake of a story but I think it’s journalistic malpractice to report that a 57-year-old gave birth and not share how she conceived. It is impossible to get pregnant after menopause with your current ovarian material — even if using IVF. There are a few scenarios in which a 57-year-old woman can give birth: 1) With her own eggs or embryos that were previously frozen, 2) using a donor egg, 3) using a donor embryo. While it’s not really anyone’s business how she became a mother, it’s frustrating to see stories like this because it contributes to some pretty prevalent falsehoods about IVF. But I digress.
What stood out most about Higgins’ story were the reactions on social media. In typical internet fashion, people had lots of opinions and virtually none of them positive. “This is going to give me nightmares,” one person tweeted. “How about no?”, another wrote. Curious, I went back to the Elton John story to see what, if anything, people thought about becoming a father later in life. There were a few comments about his age but each comment had hundreds of replies defending the singer’s choice. No one really defended Higgins. While I’m sure the swell of support for John has a lot to do with his celebrity, it’s no surprise that people are more comfortable with old dads than they are old moms. But why?
I think a lot of it comes down to biology. We’re often told that eggs have a shelf-life but not sperm. That’s a myth. Both sperm quantity and quality decrease with age just like eggs. And sperm-related infertility is just as common as ovarian- and uterine-related infertility. The only difference between sperm and egg viability is that eggs are no longer viable after menopause. Sperm may age but there are, obviously, cases where it can still be viable. When we think about delaying parenthood we should talk about both egg and sperm freezing. After analyzing 40 years of research on fertility, researchers recommended that those looking to delay parenthood, ideally freeze their sperm by 35, 45 the latest.
The other factor is pregnancy itself. Pregnancy is physically demanding. There was a lot of focus in Higgins’ article on what good shape she was in for her age. I imagine that factored greatly into her doctor’s decision to go ahead with fertility treatments. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends doctors limit embryo transfers to 50 years of age for mothers with health conditions and 55 years of age for those without health conditions. Higgins isn’t the oldest new mother though. That title goes to Yerramatti Mangayamma, who gave birth to twins in India after doing IVF at the age of 73. Her husband was 82.
This week, I wrote a story for “Bitch” about how we blame women for their infertility. In doing the research for that piece, one thing I saw, again and again, was a push for age limits on who can use IVF. Participants surveyed in one study said women should accept infertility as a consequence of waiting to have children and as such IVF should have an age limit of 40 to 44.
How old is too old to become a parent? Even outside of assisted reproductive technologies, there are age limits placed on parenthood. Adoption agencies tend to have age cutoffs, fostering less so as long as you are in good health. This isn’t a question for me to answer but if you have thoughts, I’d be curious to know.
Calls for Interviews
I am still looking for people to interview. I’m hoping to feature at least 100 different perspectives in the book and so I will probably be putting out calls for interviews until I turn in my manuscript. This is in no way an exhaustive list but here are some people I’d love to hear from: queer parents; queerspawn (kids of queer parents); anyone in the adoption, fostering, or donor conception space; men (yup, just men in general); people living in middle America; people who feel pressure to have kids; people from big families; people who are first- or second-generation Americans; and folks for whom religion factors into their family planning decisionmaking. If you are interested in sharing your perspective, please fill out this form. (I’m always looking for new perspectives so fill it out even if none of the above applies to you if you are interested in sharing.) If you are open to sharing this with your networks, I’d be grateful and honored.
When filling out the form, the more detail the better. Unfortunately, and I mean this because I love doing interviews, I do not have the bandwidth to interview everyone. I will however be using many of the responses in the book. I will be reaching out to people who filled out the form to let them know I am using their replies most likely in June.
Links I Like
Dr. Roohi Jeelani is a reproductive endocrinologist (fertility doctor) who is doing IVF herself. To help demystify what happens during IVF, she recorded her egg retrieval, which is integral to both IVF and egg freezing.
College student Anya Steinberg won NPR’s podcast competition with a submission about unpacking her identity as a donor-conceived person. It’s a great introduction to the complicated feelings many donor-conceived folks have.
Keeping it Light
I’m still figuring out the format of this newsletter. (Have things you want to see? Let me know.) But I’m adding in this new section courtesy of my partner, Zack. As a health journalist, I cover a lot of dense topics. I also have a pretty dark sense of humor. At least once a week, Zack tells me to “keep it light,” and now it’s a running joke in our relationship. I don’t get much of an opportunity to write about fun things, so I want to try and close on the light side.
In other news, I bought a juicer. It was a totally frivolous purchase but I subscribe to a service that delivers produce from local farms and found myself with an abundance of oranges. I knew I wasn’t going to eat 12 oranges and I didn’t want them to go to waste so I spent $30 on a juicer. Let me tell you, I love that thing. (This is not a sponsored post, lol. I’m just that excited about a juicer. Tells you how much I’ve got going on these days.) In some ways, it is an exercise in futility seeing as it takes about 4 oranges to get half a cup of juice. But it is the perfect mindfulness exercise in that you get to use your five senses: the touch and force of pushing down the orange, the sight of the juice coming out of the nozzle, the smell of the orange peel that inevitably gets on your hands, the whirring sound of the electric juicer, and of course, the taste of freshly squeezed juice.
Until next time,
P.S. Moving forward, this newsletter will go out on the last Thursday of the month. After July, my goal is to send it every other week. If there is something you’d like to read about in future editions, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
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