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Mothers of a certain age

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Friday, September 07, 2007 | 0 comments

Current trend shows women are waiting until later to have children

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It's easy to spot little children playing in Granite Bay, Calif., even though few 20-something parents can afford to live there.

On just one street, you might hear 2-year-old Matthew Heinsen -- whose mom, DeDee, is 38 -- splashing with his brother in the family's backyard pool. Or, a couple of houses down, you might see 3-year-old Julie Jenkins, all dressed up like a ballerina, ready to be driven to lessons by mom Sarah, 42.

Granite Bay, where nearly 40 percent of births in 2005 were to mothers 35 and older, is indicative of a trend.

Since 1990, the birthrate among women 35 and older has risen about 45 percent in California's Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties combined -- almost twice as fast as the increase statewide, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of records from the California Department of Health Services. In 2005, about one of every six local births was to women over 35, up from one of every 10 in 1990.

Dana Paskowitz, a clinical psychologist in Davis who specializes in parenting issues, sees it in her practice, where she works with a lot of older mothers who "were pursuing advanced degrees and aiming for a high-powered career."

Because of their age, these moms face unusual struggles before, during and after pregnancy. But as their kids grow up, older mothers also bring something distinctive to their communities, showing a high propensity to volunteer and contribute financially -- actions that help build a strong support system for children.

The first challenge for some is getting pregnant, creating a market for fertility clinics.

"I had some fertility issues ... because of being older," said DeDee Heinsen, who had Matthew, her second child, with the help of fertility pills. "Once you've tried to have kids -- when it doesn't happen right away, it's kind of frustrating."

Conceiving is not the end to medical issues for older mothers, either. Local mothers 35 and older are slightly more likely to have low-birthweight babies and 60 percent more likely to undergo Caesarean sections than younger mothers, The Sacramento Bee's analysis found. Existing health problems also can be exaggerated by pregnancy.

"Your body is running a marathon for nine months," said Dena Towner, acting chief of maternal/fetal medicine at the University of California-Davis Medical Center.

Gina Williams, 37, who belongs to the same Bayside Church Mothers of Preschoolers group as Heinsen, had her third child two years ago. She had experienced problems with diabetes during her first pregnancy. But it was worse the third time.

"At 35, I had more trouble managing it," she said. "Your sugar levels drop off, so you feel really shaky. You just feel weird."

After giving birth, older moms quickly encounter the realities of doing a job traditionally undertaken by women not much more than half their age.

"The main difference is maybe my energy level," said Sarah Jenkins, mom of two, including Julie, the 3-year-old budding ballerina.

Difficulties aside, older moms have some advantages over their younger counterparts, and can be a boon to their communities. For one thing, many have spent years accumulating wealth.

Extra income allows Jenkins and some of the other older moms to stay at home and raise their kids. It also allows them to give more of their time and money to the community.

Many of the older parents in Granite Bay are transplants from other parts of the state and country, said Phil Johnson, head of the Eureka Schools Foundation, the local schools' booster club. They are grateful for good public schools, he said, and keen to pay back some of the price difference between those and private schools in donations and volunteer hours.

"The people who donate the most are the ones who are older," said Johnson. "They say it is a steal."

The older mothers themselves number among their biggest contributions something far less concrete: the basic traits of maturity.

That maturity shows up in the way Heinsen responds to her 5-year-old, Eric. He's a firecracker whose news of what he learned in gymnastics class or a trick he can do in the pool just can't wait until his mom is done talking.

"Eric," Heinsen says calmly, "we don't need to shout."

That maturity also shows up on a Monday morning at the Mothers of Preschoolers Group, when Williams advises a new, younger mom not to worry so much about all the little coughs and sore throats young children inevitably contract.

Her relaxed attitude, she reflected later, was based on experience: "Been there, done that."

It's unclear how long the trend of older women having kids will sustain its sharp rise locally. The ranks of new, older moms -- if not the birthrate -- will likely decline as baby boomers age beyond their childbearing years. But the conditions underlying the trend show no signs of abating.

"Women want to establish a career," Williams said. "Then they find their clock ticking at 35. They feel they should get the show on the road."


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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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