While playing with her daughters at a Chicago-area park recently, Karen Muller experienced what has become a rite of passage for a growing segment of adoptive parents. Pointing to her kids, a child asked, “Are you their grandma?”
Chronologically, she could be. But 56-year-old Muller didn’t even add “mom” to her repertoire until she adopted from
Jumping into parenthood late
Look around the playground, and you’ll see more than a few silver-haired moms and dads chasing toddlers and pushing swings. Why are so many jumping into parenthood when their contemporaries are looking forward to the empty-nest years?
Many of these beaming new parents are women who devoted their first adult decades to traveling, building careers, and exploring other interests. Some, like Muller, are single, having decided, finally, to embrace parenthood on their own. Others have spent years in infertility treatment before exploring adoption.
Many other midlife parents are on their second round of child-rearing, filling an emptying nest or raising children with a new partner.
Recalibrating the time clock
The cornerstone of such decisions, says one expert, is the fact that we can expect to live longer—and healthier—than our parents and grandparents. This expectation “has recalibrated the family time clock, shifting milestone events into later life,” according to Dr. Merril Silverstein, Professor of Sociology and Gerontology at the University of Southern California’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center.
Whatever their reasons for waiting, people hoping to adopt later in life find that most state and many international adoption programs look favorably on older applicants—making it possible for them to fill their days with gummy smiles and Good Night Moon.
Ready, willing, and able
Taking on parenthood in your 40s and 50s (or beyond) comes with challenges unique to middle age. Flagging energy, ailing parents, and impending retirement may add to the demands of raising kids. And older parents face the possibility that they won’t live to see their child graduate from college or take wedding vows
The pluses can outweigh the minuses
But many older parents find that age has its own rewards. Nancy London, author of Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over 40, says that midlife parents have many gifts to offer, such as financial and family stability, knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, and the experience of decades of living.
For parents raising a young family for the second time, there is also the benefit of hindsight. Kathi Weiss of
It takes patience, planning, and ingenuity to meet the challenges of late parenthood. But according to older adoptive parents, it’s worth every extra gray hair.
Feeling younger than ever
For many women, building a family in midlife brings a joy that lets them feel younger than their years. Lynn Levin, a
The fatigue factor
Not so for all older women. Karen Muller tackled the energy issue in advance by devoting herself to workouts and strength-training during the year before her first adoption. But the women who sail into parenthood in their 40s often find it gets harder as they move into their 50s. The fatigue and hormonal fluctuations of impending menopause can make it harder to meet the physical and emotional needs of a young child.
For women with health problems, the decision to become a parent involves more serious calculation. Sandra Benoiton thought long and hard about her health before adopting her son from
The importance of family
The advantage of family connections and support matters to those who adopt late in life. Some parents decide it’s important to adopt more than one child, to create a family of siblings who will have each other as they grow up. Families with few relatives may create connections for their children by being active in church or community groups, or by cultivating close friendships, especially with other adoptive families.
The absence of grandparents
The children of older parents often miss out on the magic of grandparents—that special source of brownies, ancestral wisdom, and unconditional love. When grandparents are alive but ill, a midlife mom may need to care for them at the same time that she’s raising young children.
The second round of family building sometimes creates problems
If parents are embarking on a second round of family-building, they may look to their older kids as a source of support. But bringing young children into an older family can reverberate in unexpected ways. Bonnie Fabian and her husband had already raised five children between them when they began to consider adoption. Her husband’s children were “perplexed” but supportive of their decision to adopt a child from
“They thought we’d lost our minds,” she recalls “They felt we were trying to replace them.” (They have since embraced their two new siblings.)
Older children may resent their new siblings for getting what seems to them the kind of attention and commitment that they never had. And they may be right: Older parents often have more time and resources for their young children than they did when they were starting out.
Planning for the future
Although many older parents are established in careers and financially well off, the arrival of young children can change economic assumptions and plans. A projected retirement may have to be postponed, or you may feel stuck at a job that you’d just as soon leave. With a family to support, an unexpected job loss can prove a bigger financial strain than it might have otherwise.
In planning for their child’s future, older parents—as well as younger parents—should have a legal will drawn. This document should include plans for meeting your child’s financial needs, and name an executor to handle her finances.
Appointing a legal guardian
It’s also important to appoint a legal guardian to care for your child in the event of your death. In choosing a guardian, consider the complexities of raising an adopted child. Does the prospective guardian understand adoption, and feel comfortable with the questions and issues your child may face? If you have an open adoption, is she acquainted with the birthparents and birth family, and willing to maintain the relationship? If your child is of a different racial or ethnic group, is the guardian open to learning about his heritage? By exploring these issues in advance, you can prepare your child’s guardian for a responsibility that, hopefully, will never be hers.
Your Mom is how old?
Until they reach puberty, most children don’t care if their parents are older (sometimes, much older) than the parents of their friends. But prepare yourself: The comparisons are coming.
Karen Muller—the woman mistaken for her kids’ grandma—was adopted by her own grandmother when she was in her 50s. The experience gives her a unique perspective on her own life as an older mother. “I try to keep from being a ‘fogey,’” she says. “I wear more stylish clothes and pay attention to pop culture.”
Lynn Levin also thinks about how her children will feel in 10 years, when they are adolescents and she and her husband are in their 60s. She’s proud that she came to motherhood late in life, and believes that age shouldn’t be a deterrent when a person is ready to start a family. But if the day comes when her children’s embarrassment about her age is too much for her, Levin jokes, “Maybe I’ll start to think about plastic surgery!”
· Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty, by Nancy London, M.S.W. (Celestial Arts). Explores the joys and dilemmas of being a midlife parent, and offers advice for meeting the challenge
GARRPadopt. An online forum for adoptive or would-be· adoptive parents over 40. Join at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GAARPadopt.