Motherhood After 40: Seven Women Share Their Stories

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More American women are becoming mothers later in life. For nearly 40 years straight, the proportion of American women giving birth at ages 40 to 44 was on a steady rise. That subsided in 2020 with the pandemic, when the overall birthrate in the United States dipped, but the rate among women in their late 40s grew.

Researchers attribute these increases to advances in assisted reproductive technology as well as shifting social norms, which have given women more opportunity to focus on their careers in early adulthood rather than having families. But obstacles abound. Women over 40 are less likely to conceive and deliver babies; if they do become pregnant, they are more susceptible to pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and other pregnancy complications.

Raising children in your 40s can be wrenching, rewarding, complicated and sublime in all the ways parenthood is, but it also comes with its own triumphs and challenges. The Times recently asked mothers who had children after 40 to share their experiences, and nearly 1,200 responded. Here are seven of their stories.

‘I fought really hard’

Brigitte McQueen became a mother at 44.


Omaha

In her 20s and 30s, Brigitte McQueen was so sure she wanted to be a mom that she pre-emptively bought baby clothes in thrift stores. One weekend, she picked up a teeny yellow pinafore for her future daughter — only to learn two weeks later that she could not become pregnant. She was 35 years old.

Still, Ms. McQueen longed for a baby. In her 40s, she and her then husband opted for embryo donation at a fertility clinic in Sacramento. She had her first daughter at 44 and a second at 46.

Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

Each year, she and her girls celebrate the anniversaries of their embryo transfers, Ms. McQueen said. Together, they look at the balls of cells on the girls’ ultrasound images and talk about the lengths Ms. McQueen went to in order to have them.

“I fought really hard to be where I am,” she said. “I just feel really proud for making it here.”

Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

Ms. McQueen said she wasn’t sure she would have the same appreciation for the small moments of joy throughout a day — watching her 6-year-old fumble through cartwheels on the lawn after school, holding her children’s hands on their first plane ride and seeing the shock on their faces when the wheels lifted off the ground — if she had become a parent at a younger age.

Both her daughters have worn that yellow dress.

‘This is where we want to be’

Denise Shannon and Shannon Batson became mothers at 46 and 43.


Austin, Texas

Denise Shannon didn’t want kids until she met her wife, Shannon Batson. The Shannons, as they call themselves, went back and forth for years, and eventually Ms. Shannon decided that her wife’s desire to have a child outweighed her reluctance. In 2003, they flew to China to adopt a 10-month-old baby, after a heap of paperwork and months of anxious preparation.

Montinique Monroe for The New York Times

They both said they felt more settled in their careers at that point — able to leave work earlier and spend more time caring for their child as she grew up. Their daughter loved to ride horses, and Ms. Shannon would pick her up from school nearly every day and take her straight to the barn, sometimes working from the car, sometimes just watching her daughter canter across the dirt. “We weren’t striving for promotions,” Ms. Batson said. “We were just like, This is where we want to be.”

Montinique Monroe for The New York Times

Now, in their 60s, Ms. Batson and Ms. Shannon are also taking care of Ms. Shannon’s mother, which gives them less time to check in on their daughter at college an hour and a half drive away. “The cycle starts coming around,” Ms. Batson said.

Confidence that comes with age

Ngozi Okwuwa became a mother at 44.


Warren, R.I.

A few weeks ago, Ngozi Okwuwa and her husband decided it was time to sleep-train their 6-month-old twins. As she listened to her babies cry through the walls, Ms. Okwuwa teared up but forced herself not to go in and soothe them. At that moment, she realized this would all be so much harder if she’d been a parent when she was younger.

Philip Keith for The New York Times

Philip Keith for The New York Times

Ms. Okwuwa and her husband used a surrogate to have their twins. She hadn’t felt “emotionally prepared” for parenthood in her 20s and 30s, she said; she was focused on her career, first as a lawyer and then studying to become a nurse.

“This was deliberate, this was well thought out,” she said of her decision to have kids at 44. Ms. Okwuwa works 12-hour shifts at a hospital three days a week. On the other days, she’s with the babies, bringing them to story hour at the library, pushing a double stroller through the park.

She attributes much of her confidence as a mother to being in her 40s. Sometimes she scrolls through parenting forums online and feels sorry for the moms on the other side of the screen. She doesn’t worry about whether her babies hit their milestones early; she doesn’t compare them with other people’s kids the way she thinks she might have if she’d had them earlier.

“I’ve lived life long enough to know that it’s not a race, you’re going to get there,” she said. “I’m a lot more self-assured. I don’t question myself that much.”

Exhausted ‘every second of every day’

Mollie Allen became a mother at 42.


Mobile, Ala.

Mollie Allen doesn’t know how long she sat on the edge of her bathtub squinting at the pregnancy test. What she remembers is a sense of terror as she stared at the pink lines. She tried another test. Then another. At 41, Ms. Allen, who had been told since her early 20s that a combination of polycystic ovary syndrome and hypothyroidism would make it difficult or even impossible for her to conceive, was pregnant.

She had wanted children since she was a girl, but had come to accept the idea of a child-free life. She and her husband got dogs to care for, two miniature pinschers. She doted on her nieces and nephews. Then, in 2016, Ms. Allen was diagnosed with a seizure disorder, which forced her to stop working and focus on her health.

Emily Kask for The New York Times

When she learned she was pregnant, Ms. Allen said, she was just figuring out how to manage her illness. After a period when she was in so much pain she would lie crumpled on the couch, she had built up the strength to walk around the neighborhood. Pregnancy took a toll: She went to the emergency room six times before giving birth.

Caring for Ezra, who is now 5, has come with “overwhelming guilt” over the things she can’t do, Ms. Allen says. She and her husband separated when Ezra was 2. If she’d had Ezra before she got sick, or just when she was younger and had more energy, Ms. Allen wonders, would she have been able to run around the playground? She’s not sure how much of her exhaustion stems from her illness and how much from age. “I have to severely limit everything I do,” she said. “I’m tired a lot, all the time. Literally every second of every day.”

Emily Kask for The New York Times

When she goes to Ezra’s school, the other mothers look like they could be her children, too, Ms. Allen jokes. She wishes she had friends her own age she could talk to about parenting a small child.

Still, she calls Ezra “my reason for being.” When she feels overwhelmed, she looks at construction paper notes from Ezra— “I lovu you mama.” Then she keeps going.

The power of feeling needed

Maja Stodte became a mother at 47.


Housatonic, Mass.

Maja Stodte remembers trying, as a 24-year-old babysitter, to creep out of the room of the 4-year-old she was caring for. He bolted up in bed and shouted: “Don’t leave! I need you!”

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

In that moment, Ms. Stodte knew she wanted to be a parent. She said she liked fulfilling someone’s needs, and wanted to one day soothe a child of her own. It took 20 years, though, for her to feel ready for parenthood. She realized she would rather have children on her own than find a partner first, and started fertility treatments using donor sperm, which helped her to conceive twins. It didn’t feel real until she bought two car seats and strapped them into her car, she said.

She now sees her 2-year-old sons, and how clearly they need her, as a constant source of “rejuvenation.”

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Every morning, they pile onto a rocking chair with the kids on her lap and Ms. Stodte reads to them. They count trucks on the drive to school. “Saturday nights are so far behind me,” she said. “There’s no part of me that’s looking for a babysitter so I can go out to a club.” At 50, with twin toddlers, she feels like she’s lived her life; she can focus on her children now.

An extra layer of isolation

Jennifer Park became a mother at 42.


Boston

At 38, Jennifer Park met her husband, who was eager to become a father. She knew that, statistically, the odds of conceiving would only decrease with time, so they started trying to get pregnant right after they married. A year and a half ago, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The pandemic added an extra layer of isolation to an already lonely experience, Ms. Park said. Her family lived in Texas and California, a plane ride away. Most of her friends either had become parents years ago or were child-free. She felt overwhelmed, and siloed off from the rest of the world. Local Facebook groups, with recommendations and stories of struggle from other parents, became a source of comfort.

Shelby Tauber for The New York Times

“They’re your closest support group, but you don’t even meet them,” she said.

Shelby Tauber for The New York Times

Doing the math

Dena Gudaitis became a mother at 41.


Silver Spring, Md.

In her 20s and early 30s, Dena Gudaitis had assumed that motherhood would just “happen for me,” she said. She’d meet a partner and get pregnant, she thought. But at 39, she realized that the time to have a baby was “now or never.” She decided to try to become a mother on her own.

Greg Kahn for The New York Times

Greg Kahn for The New York Times

For some time Ms. Gudaitis grieved over what she had thought her life would look like — a two-parent household, a more conventional family structure. But today, she said, she takes pride in the life she’s created.

She keeps thinking about the math, she said: Having a child at 41 means she’ll be almost 60 when he graduates from high school. She plots out paying for retirement and her son’s college tuition at the same time. And she tries to stop herself from calculating how old she might be when he marries, or whether she will be alive to hold her grandchildren.

But when she looks at her son, she’s filled with gratitude. “I’ve had some great adventures as a single person,” she said. “I was excited to have an adventure in a different way.”

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