Attack of the 66-year-old mother

The strange case of Elizabeth Adeney prompts the question: How old is too old to have a child?

By Amy Benfer
Published May 19, 2009 10:30PM (EDT)

Having tired of the 12-year-old dad, the British tabloids are all aflutter over a new “act of breathtaking selfishness,” from a woman with a “strong sense of entitlement,” who has made a decision “sure to cause misery for parent and child.” Move over, Coctomom (sorry, just had to point out that new Nadya Suleman porno), there’s a brand-new Woman Making a Despicable Reproductive Choice.

The latest contender in the international gladiator match to crown the Worst Mother in the World just might be Nadya Suleman’s opposite: While the Octomom sucked at parenting because she was relatively young, broke and desperate for attention, Elizabeth Adeney is rich, reticent and really, really old. At 66, the British businesswoman is eight months pregnant with her first child, conceived in the Ukraine, where unlike in other parts of Europe, fertility treatments are available to anyone with the cash to pay for them (Britain’s National Health Service tends to cut women off at 40, and most British private clinics don’t like to treat any women over 50). While she’s got plenty of money to hire a young, live-in nanny, she is single, leading the papers to label her “the desperate divorcee.”

Besides the general barrage of icky older woman jokes, the crux of the argument against Adeney’s decision is that she is too old, and she’ll die before her kid reaches college. Writing in the U.K. Telegraph, Lesley Garner says:

A woman who has everything but a baby and who decides, out of kilter with natural timing that a baby is the one thing she must have, is certainly not thinking of the baby. Still less is she thinking of the school child, of the teenager, of the young person starting out in life in their twenties who has a parent in their late eighties to care for. I wonder if she sees herself at her child’s wedding. I wonder if she has realized the her bargain does not include being a grandparent or supporting her child in having his or her own children.

Given that the average life expectancy for women is around 85, this is hardly a remote possibility, and may even be the most likely outcome. Certainly it doesn’t take much imagination to see that dealing with an ailing or dying parent as a small child or as a young teenager (when, developmentally speaking, one should be able to selfishly spend most of one’s time thinking of one’s own needs), is potentially the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Susan Tollefsen, who was all over the British tabs after she gave birth to her daughter, Freya, at age 57, had four major surgeries in the first four months of her daughter’s life, including one to repair a burst ulcer and another to replace a knee joint. (Proving that one can always find a reason to justify one’s own choices at the expense of those of others, Tollefsen favors cutting IVF treatments off at age 60, and says that she’s better off than most older mothers because she has a relatively young husband who, at 46, can take over for her.) But kids do thrive under all sorts of conditions, and some of them even come out better for not having a normal childhood.

What does bother me is that the same people who weep for the future of Adeney’s child do not seem to regard it as tragic when older men father children whom they are likely not to see to adulthood. We could spend all day making lists of those who have done so but the Telegraph lists two prominent BBC broadcasters who became fathers in their late 50s and mid-60s, to which the general public response was “cigars all around.” Although these men may have fathered their children without resorting to fertility treatments -- high fives for virility! -- if the real issue is that it’s “unnatural” and “selfish” to conceive a child late in life, the parent’s gender shouldn’t matter.  

Do we really believe that it’s automatically more tragic to lose a mother than a father? And if so, aren’t we relying on the idea that a mother provides love and a father the wallet? If cash and pedigree are the only things that matters (and, of course, they aren’t), then the kid of a wealthy mother who ends up an orphan with a healthy inheritance by age 21 should be doing just fine.

But to be honest I do think it’s a problem, in general, for both men and women to parent children they may not see to adulthood, and I don’t understand how some people seem to have fetishized having a biological child, or bearing a child oneself, beyond all reason. Adeney's case also brings up troubling questions about the “fertility tourism” industry, which only exists to bypass bioethical codes in other, richer countries. The Telegraph quotes a Ukrainian doctor as saying, “We would even treat an 80-year-old. If she really wants it, then she can really get it.” There are no health screenings for the mother, no follow-up visits, not even a call back. How’s that for the Wild West of choice?

While pure choice feminism might say that any choice made by a woman is equally valid, I don't think that knocking up an 80-year-old is in anyone's best interest.  I'm not willing to throw out some hard and fast figure to tell you when one should just give up the parenting dream and adopt a neighborhood godchild instead. But honestly? I sort of wish an older woman with cash and a younger woman with a kid would simply band together and co-parent.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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