News feeds were flooded recently with celebrations for Amal Clooney, the 39-year-old wife of George Clooney, who had just given birth to twins. Despite everything else going on in the world, the media still had time to jump up and down about this stunning event, with top-10 lists and opinion pieces praising Mrs. Clooney for her boldness in having children “later” in life.
Unfortunately (and predictably), the challenges that come with entering motherhood and middle age within the same stride are being overlooked. Before we celebrate this trend, let’s take a moment to think about it what it means for the children at the center of it all.
Suppose a woman has a child at age 45. In two decades, right when that child is preparing to begin adult life, what happens? Her 65-year-old mother gets sick or suffers an injury that requires assistance — a burden that usually falls on the child in American families. A son may have to abandon a career, a calling, an avocation or even an entire lifestyle to care for a mother who postponed having children so that she could have a career.
I know about this intimately, which is why I can weigh in on it: I was born to a 48-year-old father and a mother who was 40. By the time I graduated high school, they were beginning to approach the status of “elderly,” and I was college-bound. However, because of their increasing medical and mental instability, I was forced to drop out of school to take a job. My whole life was put on hold — how could I think of doing anything when my phone constantly buzzed with the notifications of one family crisis after another?
I wanted to buy a car. I wanted to get married. But because I was taking care of my ailing parents, neither of those happened until much later.
I married my wife at age 40. She, only 27, told me she did not want children of her own because of her own complicated upbringing. Her mind changed many years later, however, and we had our wonderful son — but we then also set into motion the same thing again.
We’re older now, and some of my fears are coming to fruition, as our 13-year-old son is told he had better be ready to get a job when his mother is 65 so that he can take care of her. At his age, he hasn’t even begun to think about the future — yet he is already being asked to postpone dreams for the sake of his parents.
These kinds of stories are popping up across the world. In Great Britain, where Mrs. Clooney gave birth, a report issued by the Office of National Statistics shows that childbirth is more common among women over 40 than it is for younger women. Those who participated in the study cited careers and the rising costs of child care as primary reasons for their delay. It seems that waiting for a family is a sacrifice — but who pays the price for it? The mother or the children?
As the birthrate among 20-something mothers falls to a record low (according to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics report), we must ask ourselves the question: Is this worth the burden we are placing on the next generation?
Many would argue that by feminist reasoning, starting a family later in life in order to pursue a career first is a victory for womankind. But rarely do these late-in-life mothers consider the extra burden they are transferring to their own children. I would argue that by basic reasoning, considering these ramifications before pursuing anything would be a victory for humankind.
As it is, millennials are already forgoing buying cars and homes in order to pay for health insurance and college loans. Now add the burden of caring for their aged parents while they are in their 20s — and their lives really get complicated.
Yes, women have the freedom to have sex without children, to prove they can compete and achieve career goals equal to men. But a woman starting a family in her 40s can hamper her children just as they’re beginning their adult lives. Yes, women are achieving unprecedented career heights — but they can’t expect their children to achieve the same if they are caring for mom or dad in their 20s.
Bill Sardi is a consumer advocate and a health writer based in La Verne, California.