In praise of older mothers

How a 60-year-old new mother is part of a positive trend

Though he’s unfailingly polite, Tony Hayer is fed up. Last week, two days after his 60-year-old aunt Ranjit became the oldest woman in Canada ever to give birth, delivering twin sons, the newspapers started calling. Incessantly. And Tony, genuinely perplexed by the interest, has had enough. “It’s a personal decision,” he says. Nor is his aunt’s ardour for children a product of her Punjabi background, a media conceit Tony particularly dislikes. “It’s not specifically a cultural thing,” he says. “They’re independent, they’re going to take care of the children and that’s it—it’s just a normal family. It just happens to be, they’re 60. That’s all.”

Ranjit and her boys, Manjot and Gurpreet, remain in hospital, healthy but suffering the hangover of a bumpy pregnancy. Her husband, Jagir, also 60, is overjoyed, long in tooth or not. Reportedly a warehouse worker, he saved for years so that Ranjit, who was refused the treatment in Canada because of her age, could undergo in vitro fertilization in their native India. Last year she became pregnant with triplets. Back home in Calgary, she ran into complications. Doctors terminated one embryo, then delivered the twins seven weeks early due to severe bleeding.

But with the immediate health concerns of mother and sons now apparently resolved, whither the Hayer family? It’s a future even Ranjit’s specialist, Calgary obstetrician Colin Birch, felt compelled to discuss publicly last week. “I couldn’t imagine if I was 65 having two five-year-olds running around,” he told the CBC. “The energy to do that is incredible.”

It was one uneasy reaction among many. Yet older men have long fathered children (Charlie Chaplin at 73, Anthony Quinn at 81, to mine Hollywood lore), and grandparents have parented children for millennia (the Prophet Muhammad, Sir Isaac Newton and Barack Obama, to name three). Now that technology permits older women to bear children, it’s not easy to sustain an argument denying them the option. “The main concern is, at 60 years old, how long are you going to be around for your child?” says Aron Shlonsky, of the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “But that’s pretty fair to ask with almost any kind of parenting situation.”

And a growing body of research examining the outcomes for children raised by older parents and grandparents suggests Manjot and Gurpreet have rosy futures. Older parents are more mature, better-off financially and can draw upon more deeply rooted social networks than their younger counterparts. Older fathers are more nurturing, older mothers are better at interacting with children, and both aren’t likely going anywhere. “The type of person who agrees to this quite daunting undertaking tends to be resourceful, committed, mature—all of the above,” says Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at U of T.

Which is good for the children, if not always for those doing the work: studies found that U.S. grandparents raising children demonstrated more depressive symptoms, felt more isolated and were less satisfied with their lives than grandparents who weren’t. “It certainly has its toll,” says Fuller-Thomson. “Health outcomes aren’t necessarily great on the grandparents.” But neither is old age for sissies.

Already, there are plenty of parents the Hayers’ age. A 2001 Statistics Canada study found that over 25,000 children under the age of 14 were being raised by grandparents. As many as 70,000 non-parent family members, most of them grandparents and other older relatives, are now rearing kids, says Betty Cornelius, the founder of Cangrands, a support group for such caregivers. The phenomenon is growing—up 20 per cent between 1991 and 2001—and is often attributed to poverty. Indeed, many children in the care of grandparents have been removed from their parents’ homes due to drugs and alcohol, making such issues as fetal alcohol syndrome a common challenge.

The Hayers presumably face none of these difficulties. But it’s worth noting that research suggests even maltreated children who go on to be raised by grandparents do very well—frequently better than kids placed with younger non-relatives. “In general the outcomes are remarkably good, considering how many losses these children have in their lives,” says Fuller-Thomson, who points out the children are more likely to “feel loved” and benefit from the stability of family. Grandparents can even surpass parents, doing more with less. Fuller-Thomson cites one 1995 U.S. study that found not-at-risk children raised by grandparents had similar health and behavioural outcomes to those living with both biological parents, even though grandparents are often more financially strapped.

And who’s to say Ranjit and Jagir will exhaust their parents so easily? “I see these grandmums out there playing road hockey with their kids,” says Fuller-Thomson. “These are unbelievably impressive women. My guess is that somebody who takes on this responsibility at 60 is going into it with their eyes open.”

And yet not everyone’s convinced. “God, is she crazy?” asks Cangrands founder Cornelius, who has been raising her granddaughter for over a decade. “This is a club I didn’t sign up for. I’m 60 years old and I’m raising a 15-year-old. I’m hormonal and she’s hormonal. It’s not pretty. This woman is going to be 75 when she gets her hormonal two teenagers. When she’s losing her driver’s licence, that kid’s going to be going for his.”