Bringing up baby-later
First-time parents in their 30s and 40s are on the front tines of a social revolution redefining the notion of having children
Mirrored in the closet door of a refinedlooking bedroom is a refined-looking backside in a very unrefined posture. A long, lean lawyer is hunkered down on the carpet, jacket discarded, vest unbuttoned, silk tie loosened, crawling around the corner of a big brass bed.
“Peek,” says the 36year-old.
“Peek,” squeals his flaxen-haired playmate,
catching sight of her father’s image from the other side of the bed.
“Peek,” whispers the mother, beaming indulgence from the doorway.
Though the game has become a sort of family ritual by now, Barbara Morin, 34, still has a sense of unreality about such fun house antics in her central Calgary home. Married to Michael for 11 years and mother to Nancy for one, she reflects that the three of them must look the picture of domesticity—yet for years she hated the very idea of having a baby. When she and Michael were married back in 1970, children— emphatically—were out of the question. Michael was just starting out in law and Barbara, a universitytrained home economist, had her own more “manly” ambitions. “I knew women who got pregnant and were housewives and none of it looked that great,” says Barbara with studied understatement. “I wanted to be different. I wanted a career, I wanted to travel....”
Yet today, Barbara and Michael Morin are on the front lines of a social revolution, one that may well redefine the whole notion of having children and raising them. They are participants in a small but well-defined baby boom among new parents in their 30s and 40s—an unprecedented development and one of enormous potential impact. The Canadian statistics, sparse as they are, tell only part of the story. There was a 57-per-cent increase in over-30 first-time mothers from 1972 to 1978, accounting for 4.7 per cent of 1978’s total births. But what the eye can see the census taker has not yet recorded: everyone in Canada’s urban centres, from maternity ward workers and sociologists to the people in the next office, has noticed the increase in late-timing parents. “There are definitely more women having babies late,” says Toronto gynecologist and obstetrician Dr.
Manuel Spivak. “I have many more patients who are 35-plus than I’ve ever had.” These mid-career babies take on special significance at a time when the birthrate in other age groups is static or falling and when their parents are among society’s most highly visible and influential. “Although I haven’t seen any studies yet, I feel very strongly that mid-career parents have an impact that far outweighs their numbers,” says psychologist Charlene Berger, a director of psychosocial research in family planning at the Montreal General Hospital.
At first glance, mid-career babies would appear a simple result of the advancement of medicine; the same medical technology that recently gave people the freedom to control conception has so reduced the risks commonly associated with older parents—birth defects and maternal danger—that the prospect of deliberately postponing parenthood, though not without risk, has only just become a rational alternative. But while medicine has opened the way, the trend to postponed parenthood is much more a social phenomenon, an experiment undertaken by couples defying traditional role definitions. “There has been an almost automatic assumption that when you get married you have babies,” says University of Victoria sociologist Jean Veevers, author of Childless by Choice. “It’s a radical idea that having babies is something about which you make a decision.” So strong was Barbara Morin’s reluctance to stay home and be a mother that it expressed itself physically: the very thought of her fit, flat stomach swelling out in pregnancy made her feel queasy. “When I was 30 or 31 and had succeeded at work and so on, I had a
much better sense of myself,” she says now. “It was around then that I stopped worrying about losing my figure.” Although couples like the Morins are doing little more than setting an individual timetable for parenthood, collectively they have become a vanguard in the evolution of what it means to be mother and father, wife and husband, woman and man.
Not that mid-career parents see themselves as revolutionaries—they’re simply attempting to accommodate conflicting aspirations. Basically, they want it both ways: both partners want a career and both want children; and they refuse to accept one at the expense of the other. But what makes their dual goal more attainable for them than for most is their ability and willingness to make the effort to be different from their parents—to let the man become as deeply involved as the woman in the details of diaper rash, dribbling and daily development. Luckily, they have at their disposal the armaments of the exceptional.
Inclined toward competitiveness and upward mobility, most late-timing parents are successful, career-oriented city dwellers who reject the common assumption that you “pay” for a baby by “giving up” other ambitions (education, mutual career development, travel). Overwhelmingly, they don’t want a baby while they still see it in terms of giving up anything; they want the freedom and control implicit in having a baby on their own terms:
• “I wouldn’t have been able to give as much to the baby when I was in my 20s as I do now,” says Barbara Morin. “I was immature. I was much too busy taking. I was young enough to be carrying around a lot of my own unresolved psychological baggage that wouldn’t have done the baby much good. I’d have been as critical of her then as I was of myself.”
• “We had so many other things to do,” says former teacher and stockbroker Judy Wagner, 34, who gave birth to a son, Grayden, nearly two years ago after 11 years of marriage. Adds her husband, Brian, also 34, an engineer who now manages a construction company in Saskatoon: “Kids seemed too much trouble when we were younger. I was more interested in myself.”
• “A baby wouldn’t have been a logical choice the way we lived. We moved a lot and few of our friends had children,” says Ottawa librarian Nancy Wildgoose, who had her first baby, Mary, after nine years of marriage to Winnipeg-born lawyer Donald Kubesh. That was three years ago when she was 32 and Kubesh 38; they were delighted at the birth of a second child, Peter, at the beginning of April.
• “If you have a baby when you’re 22, you’re really stuck,” says Christina Simmons, now 32 and expecting her first child in mid-June. “I was busy with my education, the women’s movement—and getting my own life straight.” Just completing a doctoral dissertation in history, she is married to Bruce Tucker, 33, a history professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “I shudder to think what any family I would have been involved in at 22 or 23 would have been like,” admits Tucker. “Now I feel we have more control of our lives.”
The partners want both: they want a career and children, and refuse to accept one at the expense of the other
What career most distinguishes couples is from age—not midthat they are too old to be parents but that they are old enough to have solved so many of the day-to-day problems that plague other parents (the median age for a new mother is still about 24). Since most mid-career parents have already achieved some measure of success in their work, they can afford, financially and emotionally, to put the career on hold for a while and focus more attention on a joint “project,” the baby. Almost always, the couples attend prenatal classes and the father is present at the birth. “We both did a lot of background reading and tried to be rational,” says Brian Wagner, who went with Judy to natural childbirth classes. Unlike many younger parents, the midcareer variety agree from the beginning on the principle of shared duties and responsibilities. Long accustomed to juggling their work schedules, they are more ready to make mutual accommodations, taking turns with late-night feedings and early-morning risings. Says Bruce Tucker, who plans to do his half of the work in child-rearing: “Compared to friends who had children fairly early in their careers, I think we’re a little more prepared—a little less romantic.”
Often ready siderable these bought tranquillity couples themselves have conin the alform of options. Their destitute 20s behind them, they tend, for example, to have mortgagefree or easily manageable spacious homes. And if one partner wants to stay home with the child for a few years, chances are the family can live on one high income—a privilege indeed in the two-income ’80s. If, on the other hand, both parents prefer to work, there is usually enough money for invaluable assistance: baby-sitters, housekeepers, cleaning ladies, gardeners. “I have a nanny and a cleaning lady. Some people consider them a luxury; I consider them a necessity,” says Nancy Wildgoose, who has a three-storey house in downtown Ottawa and who returned to work when her daughter was four months old. While support systems for working mothers are abysmal throughout Canada, mid-career parents can pick and choose from the very best. “I look at the services I pay for—the cleaning lady, the gardener—as ways of minimizing the disruption in Barbara’s life,” says Michael Morin. Adds Barbara, who has a part-time job as a sales representative and is on the board of Theatre Calgary in addition to caring for their daughter: “I’ve noticed that with younger parents it often seems that something has been done to them. In our case we made a real choice consciously, aware of all the factors involved.”
It all sounds so deceptively easy. While money undoubtedly makes the job of parent a much more convenient one, all that waiting and planning never produces perfection. And sometimes it makes things worse. The Morins and the Wagners talk of how they analysed themselves into near-paralysis as they waited for the “perfect time” for children. Judy Wagner says her unplanned pregnancy (“After more than a decade, I guess I really didn’t believe I’d get pregnant”) ended a postponement that might have extended past the unalterable deadline of menopause.“Looking back,” Brian now admits, “I can see that any time would have been a lousy time.” As well, he points out that the older people get, the more accustomed they become to various routines and structures that a baby can demolish within a week. “In my case there was a lot of trauma, a lot of sulking”—so much so that for the first time in 12 years Brian felt his relationship with Judy might be in danger. “For the first few months I didn’t think much of Grayden at all. Mostly he was a noisy little thing that interrupted my sleep and intruded on my relationship with my wife. I thought, ‘Why did we do this?’ Now I think he’s terrific.”
A lemma partner, singularly arises panicked wrenching when one by the redilentless ticking of the biological clock, decides the waiting is over: it’s now or never. And then one partner votes now and the other votes never. “It’s an awful situation because we’re both right,” says one Toronto career woman whose mate adamantly refuses the role of father. “On the one hand, I’ve no right to force him to do something he doesn’t want to do, but on the other hand I really would like a baby and I can’t have one without his co-operation.” There is nothing new about relationships being ended by disagreements over children, but Toronto gynecologist Spivak and Montreal psychologist Berger agree that it happens only occasionally among more mature couples. Now that women no longer face the biological imperative of making “the” decision in their 20s, such disputes are usually resolved quite happily, given time and commitment. In fact, Berger says, a baby dispute is an insignificant factor in breakups. It may be merely the mask that other problems wear.
7 shudder to think what any family I would have been involved in at 22 or 23 would have been like.,
Not so long ago, however, before medicine provided time for the late-bloomers and cures for the infertile, some people who are now numbered among latetiming parents would have remained forever among the “pitiable” barren and the “unfortunate” unmarrieds. Since postponement has been more forced than willed in these cases, they are not really in the mainstream of the late-timing movement. Monica and Jean-Claude Tremblay of Toronto had their first child, young Jeanclaude, last Christmas Eve. The mother was 42 and the father 44; they had been married (both for the first time) just two years earlier, after a courtship engineered by a friend. The Tremblays say they always wanted children and were only waiting for the “right person” to come along. Now, having come so close to missing marriage and parenthood, they exult in their infant son. “He was worth waiting for,” says Monica—and so, she would add, was her husband.
But the patience of the Tremblays is not a common ’80s characteristic. Increasingly, women who find themselves postponing parenthood for lack of a mate take matters into their own hands. Finding herself with a fiancé she didn’t want and a pregnancy she did, one Winnipeg nurse startled even herself by rejecting the man and keeping the baby. To her it was simple. She had a well-paying, secure job; she was turning 30 and she had waited long enough. She would go it alone. “What I’ve done is still not acceptable to some people,” she says. “But I’ve received a lot of support from family and friends and I have no regrets. I love my son very much and believe we’ll manage just fine.” In the U.S., there have been reports of single women seeking artificial insemination and even advertising in personal columns for men to function as studs. But such direct activity isn’t noticeable yet in Canada, nor has there been much deliberate deception. Says Spivak: “Few women actually ‘trick’ a man into getting them pregnant.”
Single or married, mid-career mothers feel more isolated and inept at home than younger mothers do. Accustomed to defining themselves by solid achievements at the office, they soon find that the eight-hour day has stretched to 24. “I was always very organized at work,” says Judy Wagner. “I liked timetables and schedules, and I tried to run my home the same way. But I didn’t know you couldn’t do that with babies. I felt inefficient.” Ottawa’s Wildgoose was full of “an undefined angst” at the end of the four months she spent at home. “I hope to be more at peace with my second child,” she says. “With Mary I was constantly disappointed with myself. At work I was a productive person and I could always see tangible results. But nurturing has a whole different schedule and kind of value to it. Nobody ever says, ‘Well done!’ ”
Inclined toward competitiveness and upward mobility, most latetiming parents are career-oriented city-dwellers
This sense of inadequacy can be aggravated in a career man or woman who decides to be a full-time parent for a few years. Like Barbara Morin, older parents may feel they have earned the right to stay home and enjoy their babies, but they need to learn how to let themselves. “They tend to be real worriers,” says Dr. Heather Woodland, a St. John’s family practitioner who has noticed an increase in mid-life mothers in the past year. Like many doctors, she says older parents have trouble making the transition from work to home when the neighborhood mothers are so much younger than they are and their friends are still working. “I found myself a little short of a reference point,” says Wildgoose. “I must say I don’t despise coffee klatches the way I once did.” Penny Handford, a social worker with Vancouver’s Post-Partum Counselling, says a mid-career mother typically phones up and says: “I have a beautiful baby and a wonderful husband. I did everything exactly the way I was supposed to. And now I feel terrible. I used to know who I am but now I don’t.”
Paradoxically, while mid-career mothers have trouble staying home from work, they find it harder than average to go back, says Dr. Valerie Duncan, 29, an Edmonton family practitioner whose first baby is due this month. Having planned so meticulously and waited so long and knowing that in all probability it is a one-time experience, mid-career mothers truly treasure their time with the baby. “I didn’t want some baby-sitter seeing Nancy’s first step,” says Barbara Morin. But if a woman has been strongly career-oriented, says Duncan, it’s often crucial to her own sense of self-worth to return to her career at some point, even more so if she has invested several years in specialized training. (Duncan plans to take a five-month pregnancy leave before returning to a limited general practice.)
But when the new mother expects and needs a balance between home and work, an integration that in theory is possible in egalitarian relationships, a subtle and serious problem can arise. While late-timing parents almost uniformly agree on the concept of sharing, the spoiler, as Charlene Berger puts it, is “intellectual feminism.” The 35-yearold psychologist, who has three children of her own, says that when it comes to homelife there is still a huge gap between the intellectual and the behavioral—between what men say and what they actually do, despite the best of intentions. “They’ll sit down and talk about what’s going to be done and how things are going to be shared, but when it comes to following through with a fair degree of responsibility. . . . Well, I’m not saying a truly egalitarian marriage where children are involved doesn’t exist, but among my patients, my colleagues and my friends, I just don’t see it.”
Comparatively, older first-time fathers often are exemplary. They really want to spend a lot of time with their children (“I don’t feel the need to escape to the office like I see other men doing,” says Michael Morin. “I enjoy being at home with my family”). But both Morin and Brian Wagner volunteer that they don’t do their fair share, not even in the evenings and on weekends. “It’s tough to change your lifestyle and I guess I haven’t made all the adjustments,” says Morin. “I take refuge in seeing myself as breadwinner—and even a minor disruption of my work life seems intolerable. The other day I had to baby-sit Nancy during the day because Barb was sick, and I was angry and frustrated. It ended in a shouting match.”
Postponed parenthood could alter traditional notions of male-female responsibilities
But the notion that parenthood is something to be genuinely shared by mother and father—messy diapers and arranging for the baby-sitter included—is, after all, revolutionary in itself. Since it goes against the norm and certainly against most people’s upbringing, sharing is most likely to be successful in less traditional situations where both parents have high-powered jobs or, even better, where work hours are flexible enough so that both partners work part-time and take care of the child. This is the arrangement envisioned by Christina Simmons and Bruce Tucker of Halifax, whose baby is due next month. “We’re very lucky because of our occupational status,” says Simmons. She will be working on a research fellowship next year while her husband continues to teach at Dalhousie University.
Simply by accepting the ideal of egalitarianism and feeling guilty at not quite achieving it, older fathers put themselves at the head of the movement for change. Understanding this, Barbara Morin is much less critical of Michael than he is of himself. She thinks he’s a “fantastic” example of what a husband and father should be. “I had this fear that he’d be a really traditional father and it didn’t turn out that way at all. Right from the beginning we shared. He took the first week off work and we coped together. I never told him how to do things. I’d always say, ‘What do you think?’ and we’d discuss it.” Pleasantly symbolic of their shared attitude to parenting was the baby’s first bath in hospital. “I asked Michael to bathe her,” says Barbara. “It was hard for me to hold back and let him do it, but it was worth it. Then he felt really involved and could show me how to do it the next day.”
A distinctive. child marriage raised cannot For in this help one kind but be thing, of the majority of mid-career babies remain only children because age, lifestyle and work pressures tempt parents to stop at one. And being an only child is now considered a good thing. Recent studies show that only children are not, as popular opinion would have it, likely to end up lonely, spoiled and selfish. In fact, they turn out no more maladjusted or selfcentred than other children—and are brighter and more ambitious than average. As Charlene Berger observes, mid-career children also receive more individual attention from their parents, which provides ample opportunity for learning by example. When mother and father are high achievers, it’s more probable that their children will be powerful and seek out powerful spouses.
If, as Berger predicts, these postponed children also opt for postponement, they will find themselves, like their parents before them, redefining male-female responsibilities. And if the general population repeats the predictable pattern of imitating the influential, many more couples will follow. All of them, in their own small way, will be moving away from traditional family life. In a society where many are dissatisfied with inherited roles but few indeed have altered them, their impact will be felt.