Becoming a Parent After 40: A Conversation with Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin

September 21, 2021   •   By Eleanor J. Bader

TO THE GREAT consternation of pro-family conservatives, US family structure has shifted dramatically over the last 60 years. According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, only 46 percent of children under 18 currently live with two married, cis, heterosexual parents of the same race. This is down from 73 percent in 1960.

But the changes are even more far-reaching, with single-parent, queer, interracial, and interethnic families becoming common, if not ubiquitous. Another variation rests with the trend to have children later in life.

Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin interrogate the latter topic in Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent after 40 (Dottir Press), a collection of 32 articles that offer diverse perspectives on having and raising children — by choice, as well as by circumstance — at an age when some are envisioning retirement. Men and women, straight and LGBTQIA+, touch on topics including adoption, assisted reproductive technologies [ART], stepfamilies, pregnancy risks, medical malfeasance, and social stigma. Along the way, humor, joy, and heartbreak unfold. It’s an engaging, thoughtful, and provocative mix.

Breitbart and Bauer-Maglin spoke to LARB’s Eleanor J. Bader about the collection and the political and social forces that both encourage and discourage parenting for those over 40.

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ELEANOR J. BADER: How did you ensure that the contributions to the anthology were diverse?

VICKI BREITBART: I adopted a child when I was 55, and everyone I spoke to about my decision to do this told me I was making a mistake. I didn’t listen. Later, after I adopted Mya, I started to write an article about older people becoming parents and I interviewed about 20 women and men. They all knew others who had become parents after 40, so I had a lot of contacts. The challenge was getting diverse voices so that the book went beyond white, middle-class professionals.

That said, the impetus for the book was my own experience.

Nan and I are part of a group of older women who meet regularly to share our work. About three years ago, I read the article I’d written about older parents to the group and realized that there was a book waiting to be written on this topic.

Lastly, Nan and I have been friends since college but we’d never worked together. We saw this as an opportunity to collaborate despite the pandemic.

NAN BAUER-MAGLIN: When Vicki asked me to work with her on Tick Tock, the idea was exciting to me. A lot of my work over the past four decades has dealt with family issues. I’m also on several women’s studies listservs, so I used these groups to put out a call for contributors. This is my eighth book, so, in addition, I reached out to people who’ve contributed to other anthologies I’ve assembled. The result is a fairly diverse cross section of people: grandparents who are raising their children’s children; single parents; lesbians and gay men; and people who are cis and straight. They’re all races. Some became adoptive parents and others became pregnant on their own or through assisted reproductive technologies. But unfortunately, Tick Tock is not diverse in terms of class. What’s more, none of the contributors are trans and none have trans kids.

We did, however, get two contributions from the children of older parents, which adds an important perspective to the book.

Did any of the revelations in the essays surprise you?

BREITBART: It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but many of the essays affirm how happy these parents are and attest to how successful they’ve been in raising great kids. These are largely people who have professional careers and were economically secure before having children, women and men who’ve charted their own course. The women, in particular, were determined to have independent lives. They’ve been able to give their children a lot of attention.

Still, it was upsetting to hear them describe the dearth of social supports and the difficulties they’ve had in combining their careers with childrearing. Even worse, racism continues to take its toll on Black and Brown women, which leads to higher maternal mortality rates, especially as they age.

These were not surprises, necessarily, but the essays elevated and illuminated these issues.

BAUER-MAGLIN: Laura Davis’s essay, “Out of the Closet and Out of Time,” is about being raised Southern Baptist in the Deep South, and she poignantly describes her fear of living openly as a lesbian. Her writing highlights the fact that she has to live with what she calls “a simultaneous lament of sorrow and bittersweet regret over precious time lost” since it took her more than a decade to come out, find a partner, and have kids. I found her struggle sad and startling.

I was also surprised by the lack of ambivalence most of the writers expressed about having children. I was so ambivalent about becoming a mother, and a lot of women my age (I’m 79) felt that. Another surprise was the revelation that men have a biological clock. That’s important to know and it is not talked about nearly enough, certainly not as much as the ringing of women’s biological clocks.

BREITBART: Another welcome surprise was how aware people are of the issues raised by being a mixed-race family that can occur in international adoptions, stepfamilies, and between interracial partners. When I was working on my initial older-parent article, I interviewed a woman who’d attended a workshop for prospective cross-race adoptive parents. She said a lot of people dropped out after the workshop because they could not handle how complicated it can be. They apparently did not want to commit to taking on the challenges that arise with cross-race families.

I found the expression of sadness and fear that some older parents expressed — that they might die before seeing their children come of age — extremely moving.

BREITBART: Yes, there is often sadness and a sense of loss. They may not get to be grandparents or even see their kids go off to college.

In some ways, these essays are a way for the contributors to talk to their children about these concerns. They’re leaving their words as part of a legacy. In addition, a few of the writers talk about being mistaken for their child’s grandmother or grandfather. There’s comedy as well as tragedy here.

Despite the fact that more people are becoming parents after 40, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding this, especially for first-time parents. “Why did you wait so long?” remains a frequent question.

BREITBART: It varies by culture, but this is certainly often true. Salma Abdelnour Gilman’s essay, “We Can Wait, But Are We Paying Too High a Price?,” addresses the pressures she felt from her Lebanese family to get married and have children when she was in her 20s. She resisted and had her first child at 42 and her second 18 months later. But she developed preeclampsia, extremely high blood pressure which can be life-threatening if not caught and treated early. Women die in childbirth, she writes, not because they have medical problems that can’t be treated, but because of insensitive staff, miscommunication among doctors, and issues related to structural racism and socio-economic prejudice in hospitals.

That’s a big part of what has to change. Then there’s the language medical professionals often use, terms like geriatric pregnancy and old womb. These are offensive. People having babies over 40 want to be treated like individuals.

BAUER-MAGLIN: I was very involved in feminist organizing in the 1970s and ’80s and did not know I wanted to have a child until I was older. All of a sudden, I woke up and felt my biological clock beginning to tick. A lot of other women felt something similar. Was it biology or socialization? I don’t know. I do know that even if you go against the medical grain, you deserve respect from health-care providers.

A lot of the book’s contributors write about needing to create community and struggling to build a “village” to raise their kids.

BREITBART: I went through an agency to adopt Mya and they asked a lot of questions about the community I’d be bringing her into. We were lucky to live in an area where it was easy to find acceptance and support.

I had a terrific childcare setup and gravitated to the other older parents. Needless to say, not everyone has access to this type of support system.

BAUER-MAGLIN: Many of the people who contributed to the book are from the generation that created women’s groups for consciousness raising, therapy, and political activism. Some formed health-care collectives or came together for social reasons. They’re comfortable in groups. Of course, if healthy and supportive extended family networks existed, as they do in many parts of the world, it would provide additional help to families that are juggling multiple obligations.

You write in the book’s introduction that fees for assisted reproductive technologies [ART], including egg extraction and in vitro fertilization, can run upward of $100,000, limiting who has access to these medical advances. Does health insurance ever cover these treatments?

BREITBART: Only 19 states require insurance providers to cover ART. Despite all the talk about pro-family politics, our social policies do not support creating families with these technologies. It can also be expensive to adopt. Even worse, if you manage to get pregnant and have a child, finding affordable childcare can be difficult.

What policies should Congress put in place to support having and raising healthy, well-cared-for children?

BREITBART: We need paid family and medical leave for both men and women. We need affordable universal childcare, and we need insurance coverage for assisted reproductive technologies. These are three huge areas that are ripe for reform.

Medical professionals also need better training to be attuned to racism, sexism, and homophobia so that everyone feels comfortable going to a medical office.

BAUER-MAGLIN: Men need to be encouraged to be fully involved parents. This has definitely started to happen, but additional encouragement for this would be great. We also need more income supports for low-income families and more daycare for working parents.

Preschool is important, but it typically lasts for just half a day, so it’s still hard to work full-time and feel confident that your kids will be well cared for. Despite progress, there’s ongoing prejudice against putting children under five in all-day care. It’s crazy.

When it comes to medical care, we need birth doulas specifically for older parents, to be on call to address the issues and answer their questions.

The right talks about “family values,” the “sin” of abortion, and “selfish” women who put their careers before their families. Some of the writers in the book talk about their difficulties getting pregnant and carrying to term. Are you afraid that Tick Tock will feed into conservative ideology?

BREITBART: The right will object to anything that questions traditional norms and women’s roles. Since they talk about family values, they should see how happy these families are and how well cared for these children are, whether they’re biological or adoptive. There are problems, yes, and issues and sadness, but overall these are success stories.

BAUER-MAGLIN: For the right, it’s have children and never, ever, terminate a pregnancy. Then you are left on your own to raise them.

What was your goal for this book?

BAUER-MAGLIN: We believe that everyone should be able to live their lives as they see fit. I’m a big fan of writing and believe that we need other people’s stories. They help us feel less alone and open us up to what’s possible.

BREITBART: One of our goals in assembling Tick Tock has been to push the envelope on what’s “normal” for families and parents. Of course, some things have changed over the past half-century, but we’re still up against backlash to feminism and changing family configurations. Parenting as an older person is not without medical and emotional challenges. There can be problems and obstacles, but when we push through, we see our lives expand. That’s powerful.

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Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to LARB, she writes for Truthout.org, The Progressive, Lilith Magazine, Fiction Writers Review and other online and print publications.