I read the essay by Nona Willis Aronowitz in the Post this past weekend, “More people are putting off parenthood. What will that mean for their kids?” on the way home from visiting my parents.
I would have found her piece riveting no matter, but the timing made it especially searing for me.
“The irony is that when you have a child at 45, you’re ensuring that your children will grow up faster than you ever had to. It guarantees that your kids will have a little less of the freedom you enjoyed because they’ll be taking care of you a little earlier,” she writes.
Like Aronowitz, my parents had me when they were older at a time when this was far less common.
My mother was 37 when I was born and my father was 45. They were a good decade older than the parents of my friends.
Whenever my father brought me to the corner store after church on Sunday, the owner would greet us and ask my dad if he could give his granddaughter a treat. (He never corrected him, though I would giggle.)
When I was a teenager, the last child left living at home, my parents and I would frequently travel together and I remember looking longingly out the window of our car, wishing we could hike or bike instead of drive through national parks. But those active-parent years were behind them.
The upside was that they were mellow and confident parents by the time I showed up. My older sisters were brought up when the two of them still had the energy and naiveté to enforce too many rules and the innocence to be shocked by teenage rebellion. Our family was also more financially secure throughout my childhood.
For years, I enjoyed a relatively conflict-free and mature relationship with them and harbored little, if any, resentment. That strong relationship, though, has had a shorter duration.
My mother now is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and my father, now 83, is in poor health. Luckily, my daughters know my father, but they don’t really know my mother at all. And she doesn’t know them.
During this visit, my daughters high-fived my ailing father and hugged my cloudy-eyed mother. That was the extent of the interaction between them.
As a parent, I haven’t been able to partake in what I imagine can be one the great joys of life: watching your parents and kids enjoy each other.
I also haven’t been able to pick up the phone and ask my mom how to best calm a fussy baby or manage a mouthy preschooler. Or, even to thank her, as my gratitude has increased exponentially now that I am a mother too.
Many others in this situation are, like Aronowitz, also saddled with caregiving responsibilities. I’m fortunate to have four siblings who have taken on larger parts of that burden. Our family also has the good fortune that both my parents worked for the public sector when pensions and health benefits were still generous. Because of this, their considerable health care expenses are not crippling their kids.
For some families, the consequences of poor parental health can be far more devastating and financially draining.
That’s why Aronowitz’ piece is important, because it sounds an alarm no one wants to hear.
We are now as a matter of course delaying childbirth. It’s a wonderful thing that young people have more options to choose a timing that works best for a family.
The fertility breakthroughs that allow this, however, may leave us with the false impression that we have triumphed, at least a little bit, over biology.
I know something about this as both a daughter and a mother. When our second daughter was born, my husband and I were roughly the same ages as my parents were when I was born.
And, trust me if you don’t know this firsthand, energy levels in the late thirties are generally not nearly as high as they are 10 years prior. I can only imagine what faces us 10 years from now.
When my daughters are in their teens, I hope that they won’t be looking longingly out the window.
When and if my daughters have families of their own, I hope I can offer them some guidance as an experienced hand. I hope I can tell them that singing softly calmed them as babies and that ignoring a toddler’s tests is far more effective than showing anger.
But I haven’t exactly stacked the deck in my favor.
Are you an older parent or the child of older parents? What are the benefits for you? The downsides?