Monday, May 25, 2009

Older Mothers: Sexism, Ageism & Disablism

Elizabeth Adeney is soon to become the oldest new mother in Britain at the age of 66. There has been lots of news and blog coverage, much of it condemning her actions as selfish and reckless. You can probably gauge the two ends of the spectrum of opinion by checking out the Mail article (in which the poor lady becomes a "desperate divorcee") and the post at Feministing.

Ms Adeney has done an extraordinary thing which I can't empathise with one bit, but almost every criticism I have heard against her invokes some time-honoured prejudices around gender, age and disability. These include:

Older women having children is against nature.

Nature is a git when it comes to reproduction, has nothing to do with morality and most of us defy it. Personally, I intend to enjoy a lifetime of acrobatic sex without ever getting pregnant. In a society where the vast majority of our children will reach adulthood, all but a tiny minority of men and women control their fertility artificially.

Most women (not all) can have children naturally up until their mid to late forties, but because they rarely choose to anymore, we have this idea that the natural cut-off might be much sooner. As women get older, their fertility does begin to decline. It's likely to take longer to get pregnant. Natural conception above the age of 50 is rare, but not impossible.

Men's fertility declines from an earlier point, but does so very slowly, such that it is possible for some men to have children in much later life. The fact that a woman requires technology in order to do the same thing doesn't, by itself, make that it wrong.

It could not be paid for with public money - I'm anxious that some American commentators think it was, and imagine this is the sort of thing that universal healthcare is expected to cover. No way! The NHS won't usually give IVF to anyone over 40, but again this is not about morality, but viability. Most IVF cycles fail anyway and it is an expensive and traumatic procedure. As a woman with fertility problems is even less likely to get pregnant over 40, it is felt that it isn't worth (a) the money or (b) the heartache for the prospective parents to go through this. But there's nothing wrong with an individual going abroad and paying for treatment they cannot get here.

Personally, I would encourage people who cannot have children naturally to foster or adopt. There are a great number of children in the UK whose need for a loving home is far greater than any adults' need to have a child they happen to have given birth to. Well I think so. But it's not my place to tell people what to do or object to people doing what they wish to.

Older women have disabled babies.

The older we are, the more likely it is that mutations will take place in the DNA of our gametes. This applies to both men and women. For women, this results in a cultural anxiety about older mothers who are more likely to have children with certain impairments, such as Down Syndrome. For men, this results in academic anxiety that too few older fathers might slow human evolution. Older fathers may be more likely to produce children with autism, schizophrenia and a range of physical impairments, but wink wink, nudge nudge, proves there's life in the old dog yet!

Of course out of all the families you or I know, there is unlikely to be an obvious connection between older parents of either sex and disabled offspring – not because the statistics lie, but because the statistics are about an increase in a fairly small risk. Most disabled people were not born disabled. And of course, most disabled babies are born to women under the age of thirty-five simple because most children are born to women under thirty-five. The only way you can effectively avoid having a disabled child is not to have a child at all.

At my school, where about a third of my classmates went to Oxford and Cambridge, I had one of the youngest mothers among my friends. Mum had me (second born) at 27, whereas most of these posh ladies with the gold-chain handbags had had children in their mid thirties or later. The more affluent and well educated a woman is, the older she is likely to be when she first has children, and we know what having educated and affluent parents does for one's life chances.

So I'd guess being born to an older mother both increases your chances of being born with some impairment and increases your chances of a high IQ and financial affluence. Statistically speaking.

Women who are likely to have disabled children shouldn't have children.

As described above, it's not a matter of likely, but what if it were? Trouble wrote a bit about this in response to the comment thread at Feministing.

Mutation is not a bad thing – it occurs in our cells all the time, whoever you are, and it is necessary for evolution. Most things we identify as mutations we perceive as negative, although every step we've made from the primordial gloop has involved mutation. So the point about human evolution and older parents (as the same principle applies to both sexes) is valid - though I have my doubts about what conclusion, if any, should be drawn from that.

Some mutations result in children with impairments, but the child and the mutation go hand in hand; there is no cruelty in having a disabled child unless you think that that person's existence would be worst than if he or she was not allowed to exist.

And most people don't actually believe that at all. What some people believe is that the rest of us would be better off if (some) disabled people didn't exist, such as individuals whose net financial contribution is destined to be smaller than the cost they incur to the state. Like me! Yet even I would argue that I have intrinsic worth.

Not everyone feels this way. AJ certainly contests this – he says I should be put out of his misery. But I was playing Tainted Love on the ukelele at the time.

A woman who is disabled or likely to become disabled shouldn't have children.

Mary covers this very nicely in her BADD post, Well Meaning Insults. Seahorse and Frida also write a lot about disabled parenting and the prejudices they encounter. Ms Adeney is in excellent health, but her chances of becoming disabled within the next twenty years are significant - far greater than for a woman twenty or thirty years her junior. Commenters are anxious that she won't be fit enough to cope with a small child and that the child should later become an enslaved young carer.

This is sexist as well as disablist - people do not express nearly so much concern about older or disabled fathers. It all hinges on the idea that a mother must fulfill every conceivable need of her child without outside assistance. She must lift, carry, bath, change and entertain the child twenty-four hours a day and nobody else is allowed to help. No other family members can help (unless Daddy is some kind of superhero who overcomes his every masculine instinct to change the occasional nappy*) and certainly no outside party should be employed to help.

Of course, nobody parents like this and it would be pretty unhealthy if they did. People have always outsourced some practical aspects of child-rearing, to other family or community members and paid employees - although this became disapproved of in modern times with the rise of the isolated nuclear family and the idea that the mother is the only adult with whom the child is safe. Yet we don't condemn those fathers (they still exist) who perform almost no hands-on role whatsoever.

Of all the ways in which a parent can fail their child, being disabled isn't one of them.

Older mothers confuse people and invite their children to be bullied

As one Daily Mail commenter summarised all possible objections to a woman having a child at 66;

"Think of the raise eyebrows at parents evening!"

This same argument is made against gay parenting, single parenting, disabled and mixed-race parenting. You can't make the most important decisions of your life on the grounds that you might confuse some ignorant people and invite their ignorant children to make fun of yours. Okay, so it is fairly safe to assume that your average 66 year old with a small child in tow is its grandmother or even great grandmother, but that's not going to be impossible to work around. AJ was once mistaken for my father by a doctor in A&E - I wasn't offended, rather I laughed. And laughed and laughed. And then laugh again every time I remind him about it.

As for the children, a schoolmate once mocked me for the size of my father's nose (not much, it was just one of those ridiculous taunts children come up with). Dad doesn't have an especially big nose (there he is, you decide), but even if his nose was enormous, should he have considered getting a nose-job before he had children? Should parents have to wear a uniform to stop children taking the mick out of other children's parents' dress-sense? Bullying can be a soul-destroying experience, but you don't prevent it - can't prevent it - by removing potential targets of mockery from a child's life.

People have also commented on the fact that Ms Adeney is single and have pulled out all those clich├ęs about single parents. The only remaining issue is the fact that the lady will be approaching her life expectancy in the next eighteen years - I'm not sure she'd get a twenty year loan from the bank. This strikes me as by far the biggest potential issue, although it's none of my business. And it is probably safe to assume that this issue has been very carefully considered, and arrangements made accordingly. It is a very bad thing to lose a parent when you are still a child (it is a very bad thing at any time), but the possibility can be prepared for to a certain extent.

*Jeremy Hardy once recalled being on the bus with his eighteen month old, when an elderly woman, admiring the baby, asked if Daddy had changed a nappy yet. To which Hardy replied, "No. You're supposed to change it? I was wondering why she always smelt so badly."


Terri said...

Brava! When people want to judge someone else's choices ANYTHING will pass as reason. I am sure they don't even know how prejudiced and stereotyping they sound.

JackP said...

While I agree with the thrust of your argument, I disagree with your stats relating to Downs. It is an increase in a fairly small risk, but it's a heck of an increase.

While I can find other stats, the ones from Wikipedia sum up my understanding:

"At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is one in 1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is one in 214, and above age 45 the probability is one in 19."

That's an 8000% increase in risk, and one that - in my mind at least - moves it from "virtually insignificant risk" to "small but very much there".

I'm making no judgements about Downs, or people with it, but equally I'd not assume that parents with a higher income or more education would necessarily be better parents - any more than the assumption someone 'able bodied' would be... or that IQ is a good measure of intelligence, for that matter :-)

(NB your link to the "older fathers/evolution thing isn't working)

The Times article talks about mutation rate, but doesn't mention 'natural selection'. It also misses a key point: one old person might have more sperm with mutations, but even if all those mutations were viable ('tis generally not a good thing),the effect of one man fathering an excessive proportion of children would actually be to reduce the gene pool 'spread' because you've got less genes around to choose from...

In any case, there's little natural 'selection pressure' in this regard although there is still obviously sexual selection (people choosing partners they find desirable).

And why is there an assumption that further evolution is desirable or advantageous? We've reached the stage where instead of adapting to our environment, we are adapting the environment to suit us (although that is causing its own problems as well).

Anyway, where was I? Well, my first girlfriend's mother was 49 when she was born, so I've got nothing against older mothers per se; but I do think - as you say - the 'expectation of life expectancy' needs to be considered. If your odds of bringing your kids up to age 18 aren't great, maybe you should reconsider...

Other than that, fill yer bootees, as t'were...

The Goldfish said...

Terri, thank you. :-)

Jack, you're right about the Downs stats - I should have probably phrased that a little clearly. But as you say, still a small risk as opposed to the near-inevitability it is often made out to be.

My point about age, wealth and education is about statistics. Statistically, children from wealthy backgrounds do better at school, and measure better IQs (IQ scores being as much about education as anything innate, thus my link to the post about race and IQ).

So although there are stats which show supposedly negative outcomes, there are also states which show supposedly positive ones. No comment on whether older parents make better parents - who knows? And who can say - most of us only get one set each!

The Times article (the link to which I've now corrected but here it is again) is bizarre, especially the bit about polygamy - even in societies where it is accepted, only very high status met get multiple wives, otherwise there aren't enough women to go around and you get a very discontented mass of frustrated young men. So the implication that there were many men in our genetic history who had many many partners is dubious.

I also agree about evolution; any time anyone suggests that there might be a way to move the species on just makes my skin crawl - we have no idea what the next step will be.

ecobunni said...

Is it her own egg or not? I'm asking that because that makes a difference to the genetic chances the baby will have.

Personally I think it is her choice, maybe she will be a brilliant mother maybe not. Only her child will placed to judge.

Ariane said...

Very nice summary of all the arguments against. I think it's important to call the arguments into question, because my gut reaction is to condemn motherhood in the 60s (although I have the same gut reaction to fatherhood, so at least my bias isn't also sexist!) and I don't think it is a valid response.

Two minor points: I agree that mutations are not necessarily bad, in fact it is not clear they are even usually bad. I carry a mutation, discovered as a result of excessive screening, and it does nothing. Mutations that are bad are heavily over-represented in the "identified" category - after all who goes hunting for benign mutations?

Also, with respect to whether a disabled child is worse off than not being brought into this world - I am in no position to have an opinion, but I worked with adults with CF, and many, maybe even half, believed that CF should be screened for and foetuses affected should be terminated. If such screening isn't available, they felt that parents shouldn't have kids. That is one condition, and one sample of 30 or so - anecdata at best, but there do exist some people who think people like them are better off not existing. Their parents universally disagree.

Never That Easy said...

I do no know anything about this story: I am tangled up in a world all my own these days, but I read your post very, very carefully.

And if I could, I give you a great big hug, just for this line - Of all the ways in which a parent can fail their child, being disabled isn't one of them.

Bravo. And thank you.

Gone Fishing said...

I liked the "joke" on the radio this morning.

A group of People arrived to see the Baby.

But they had to wait until it cried so she knew where she had left it.

Word verification = taldepus, I like that talepes is in my history maybe I am just an old taldepus

The Goldfish said...

Thanks folks, sorry to dawdle on responding to comments!

Ecobunni - this is quite true. And I don't know whether or not she used her own egg - it is possible that she froze some a while back, but given her age now and the timeline of this technology, probably not.

Ariane - CF does seem to be one of these conditions - it's quite unusual for people with a congenital condition to say they wouldn't want to make another them, but I've heard people with CF say that myself. Which is sad and of course, those choices must be respected.

Thanks for the word anecdata, by the way. :-)

NTE - Thank you, consider yourself hugged back.

Gone Fishing - Oh dear. :-D Still, good to see you around.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself an older mom (42 when daughter was born) and yes I have a child with Down Syndrome. But I have many friends who do not and are of a similar age. Should I not have taken the risk? To each their own. There are challenges and there are gifts- how is that different than anyone else? I suppose I have some problems getting down on the floor at 53 compared to 20 but I have abundant patience and strategies galore. I certainly have the accumulated wisdom to know that 'isms' are for the unimaginative.

Anonymous said...

i crossed60 but still my mind is always think about sex and like mind always thrive about senior ladies. am i wrong.