Supporting Mothers at Any Age: How Media and Society Need to Change

One thing is clear about our media conversations regarding parenting: you are never the right age to be a mother. Whether it’s alarmism about the high rates of teen pregnancy or the more recent alarmism about pregnancies and births to women who are too old, the message is clear.

The conversation on both ends frustrates me. Both rely on generalizations and assumptions about how age correlates to parenting ability and health of the pregnancy. Both conversations are tinged with a tone of judgment toward mothers regarding the decisions they make as parents. Both ignore the actual challenges that can result from pregnancy and parenting at a certain age, despite the fact that many of those challenges are ones we can actually address. Getting women to change when they decide to parent? Not likely. A more likely result is making everyone feel bad about when they choose to parent—something that does zero to improve children’s lives.

I’ve written before about what can be done to improve outcomes for teen parents—provide them the resources they need to succeed as parents, rather than putting all the resources into discouraging other teens from parenting. While there isn’t currently a government-funded campaign to discourage pregnancy and parenting over a certain age—say, 35—it’s not out of the realm of possibility, particularly when you look at the kind of dialogue included in the recent conversations about older parents. From The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz’s piece, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” you get a clear picture of the sort of dystopian future she believes we may be entering thanks to the aging of parents and the supposed rise in developmental disorders among their children.

Two things are refreshing thing about Shulevitz’s piece. One is that she also focuses on the impact the age of the father might have on the health of the child, an uncommon moment of sharing the burden of responsibility with women. The second was eloquently described by Dana Goldstein: “it’s refreshing to read about the potentially problematic breeding practices not of young, unwed single moms, but of some of the affluent, hyper-educated married couples who delay child rearing into their forties or even beyond, and who will be well into senior citizenship by the time their children are fully “launched” into the adult world.”

Shulevitz’s article is worth a read because it does thoroughly explain the ways in which fertility treatments in particular may be changing which babies are born and altering the likelihood of children with certain developmental disabilities. Much of Shulevitz’s concern also comes from the ability of older parents to parent effectively, how early in their child’s life they are likely to die, and the burden of caring both for their elderly parents as young parents, and the burden placed on their kids to provide care to them when they reach old age.

While her article does address the ways in which social programs could address these challenges, they are mostly directed at encouraging parents to parent earlier (tax benefits, cash support, etc) rather than the ways in which social programs could be strengthened in order to support families of all age make-ups.

The commonality between the conversation about teen parents and the conversation about older parents is that the solutions which could address the challenges that result are not so different. If we as a society created systems that supported families to a greater extent, taking the pressure off of individuals to provide for their own across the lifespan, we might find ourselves with improved outcomes for kids regardless of their parents age. Rather than trying to convince people, especially women, to give birth in the socially-acceptable and medically-sanctioned 15-year window between college and age 35, why not change the way our society support families, so that whenever the moment for parenting arises, people have the support they need to do it successfully?

Many of the challenges referenced by those who decry teen pregnancy, and in these conversations about older parents, are ones that can be addressed with social and political changes. Relying on nuclear family systems to provide care to children and the elderly obviously has serious drawbacks, and even without a change in the age of parents, will be a complete failure for many. We also need improved services and educational systems for kids of all abilities.

The truth is that there is no perfect time to be a parent. Even the 15-year window indicated by the arguments on both ends of the spectrum ignores the reality of many young people today: high rates of un/underemployment, student loan debt, skyrocketing rents, an uncertain economic future. Not to mention the difficulty of getting insurance coverage that is affordable and covers things like maternity care or dependents. Asking people to change their decisions around parenting is a waste of breath. Instead we need to change the conditions that keep families from succeeding because there truly is no right time to be a parent.

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