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While playing with her daughters at a Chicago-area park recently, Karen Muller experienced what has become a rite of passage for a growing segment of adoptive parents. Pointing to her kids, a child asked, "Are you their grandma?"
Chronologically, she could be. But 56-year-old Muller didn't even add "mom" to her repertoire until she adopted from China at the age of 51. At 54, she adopted again.
Look around the playground, and you'll see more than a few silver-haired moms and dads chasing toddlers and pushing swings. Why are so many jumping into parenthood when their contemporaries are looking forward to the empty-nest years?
Many of these beaming new parents are women who devoted their first adult decades to traveling, building careers, and exploring other interests. Some, like Muller, are single, having decided, finally, to embrace parenthood on their own. Others have spent years in infertility treatment before exploring adoption.
Many other midlife parents are on their second round of child-rearing, filling an emptying nest or raising children with a new partner.
The cornerstone of such decisions, says one expert, is the fact that we can expect to live longer—and healthier—than our parents and grandparents. This expectation "has recalibrated the family time clock, shifting milestone events into later life," according to Dr. Merril Silverstein, Professor of Sociology and Gerontology at the University of Southern California's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center.
Whatever their reasons for waiting, people hoping to adopt later in life find that most state and many international adoption programs look favorably on older applicants—making it possible for them to fill their days with gummy smiles and Good Night Moon.
Ready, Willing, and Able
Taking on parenthood in your 40s and 50s (or beyond) comes with challenges unique to middle age. Flagging energy, ailing parents, and impending retirement may add to the demands of raising kids. And older parents face the possibility that they won't live to see their child graduate from college or take wedding vows.
But many older parents find that age has its own rewards. Nancy London, author of Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over 40, says that midlife parents have many gifts to offer, such as financial and family stability, knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, and the experience of decades of living.
For parents raising a young family for the second time, there is also the benefit of hindsight. Kathi Weiss of New Jersey adopted an infant from Guatemala at 52 after raising five biological children from a previous marriage. This time, she says, she is more confident in her abilities as a parent. "I'm not so quick to accept the pediatrician's child-rearing advice," she says. "And I'm certainly a much calmer mother than I was 30 years ago."
It takes patience, planning, and ingenuity to meet the challenges of late parenthood. But according to older adoptive parents, it's worth every extra gray hair.
The Playground, Again?
For many women, building a family in midlife brings a joy that lets them feel younger than their years. Lynn Levin, a Maryland mother who adopted her son when she was 50 and her daughter at 53, says she has more energy and stamina than ever. "Before I had children, I loved to sleep in on weekends," says Levin. "Now I look forward to having them wake me up."
Not so for all older women. Karen Muller tackled the energy issue in advance by devoting herself to workouts and strength-training during the year before her first adoption. But the women who sail into parenthood in their 40s often find it gets harder as they move into their 50s. The fatigue and hormonal fluctuations of impending menopause can make it harder to meet the physical and emotional needs of a young child.
Author Nancy London is also a social worker who runs support groups for older mothers. When she asks them to sum up their day in three words, the response is often, "Tired, tired, and more tired!" To alleviate the fatigue that accompanies caring for small children, London encourages midlife mothers to pay attention to their naturally slower body rhythms.
"Even when we're healthy, our body rhythms slow down as we age," she notes. "It's important to honor that and not feel pressured to look or act younger than we are."
An older mother herself, London found that one way to compensate for waning energy levels was to share quiet activities with her daughter, like snuggling up on the couch to watch a video. She also looked for opportunities to trade activities with more energetic moms. "When my daughter was smaller and wanted to go to an amusement park, I'd ask a younger mother to take both our kids," she says. "Then I would invite her daughter for a sleepover."
For women with health problems, the decision to become a parent involves more serious calculation. Sandra Benoiton thought long and hard about her health before adopting her son from Cambodia at age 52. "I had heart surgery five years ago and I take a variety of medications," she says. "I know there's a chance that I won't live to be a really old lady. But for as long as I'm around, Sam is guaranteed a mom who loves him with all her heart." Benoiton knows that Sam will always be well cared for, by his father and by a large, loving extended family, including her adult biological children.
The advantage of family connections and support matters to those who adopt late in life. Some parents decide it's important to adopt more than one child, to create a family of siblings who will have each other as they grow up. Families with few relatives may create connections for their children by being active in church or community groups, or by cultivating close friendships, especially with other adoptive families.
The children of older parents often miss out on the magic of grandparents—that special source of brownies, ancestral wisdom, and unconditional love. When grandparents are alive but ill, a midlife mom may need to care for them at the same time that she's raising young children. London, who found herself part of the "Sandwich Generation" when her daughter was young, was frequently away from home caring for her ailing mother. She knew, sadly, that her daughter wouldn't have the relationship with her grandmother that London had cherished with her own.
If parents are embarking on a second round of family-building, they may look to their older kids as a source of support. But bringing young children into an older family can reverberate in unexpected ways. Bonnie Fabian and her husband had already raised five children between them when they began to consider adoption. Her husband's children were "perplexed" but supportive of their decision to adopt a child from Vietnam. But Fabian's biological children weren't nearly as accepting at first.
"They thought we'd lost our minds," she recalls "They felt we were trying to replace them." (They have since embraced their two new siblings.)
Older children may resent their new siblings for getting what seems to them the kind of attention and commitment that they never had. And they may be right: Older parents often have more time and resources for their young children than they did when they were starting out.
If you think that your older kids are feeling shortchanged and resentful, try to get them to talk about it, suggests London in Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles. Even grown children with careers and kids of their own may be holding on to the memory of disappointments from long ago. Your job is to listen, without being defensive or suggesting that they're too old to harbor such gripes, and to acknowledge the feelings behind what they say. Talk about why things were the way they were, and help them remember some of the good times you had together.
Planning for the Future
Although many older parents are established in careers and financially well off, the arrival of young children can change economic assumptions and plans. A projected retirement may have to be postponed, or you may feel stuck at a job that you'd just as soon leave. With a family to support, an unexpected job loss can prove a bigger financial strain than it might have otherwise.
Marsha Callaway, a university librarian in Alaska who was 53 when she and her husband adopted their 18-month-old daughter from China, says they worried about retiring when their daughter was still in school. "But we knew we would have sufficient money to live on, and that we could save enough to send her to college—though probably not a private one."
In planning for their child's future, older parents—as well as younger parents—should have a legal will drawn. This document should include plans for meeting your child's financial needs, and name an executor to handle her finances.
It's also important to appoint a legal guardian to care for your child in the event of your death. In choosing a guardian, consider the complexities of raising an adopted child. Does the prospective guardian understand adoption, and feel comfortable with the questions and issues your child may face? If you have an open adoption, is she acquainted with the birth parents and birth family, and willing to maintain the relationship? If your child is of a different racial or ethnic group, is the guardian open to learning about his heritage? By exploring these issues in advance, you can prepare your child's guardian for a responsibility that, hopefully, will never be hers.
Your Mom is How Old?
Until they reach puberty, most children don't care if their parents are older (sometimes, much older) than the parents of their friends. But prepare yourself: The comparisons are coming.
Karen Muller—the woman mistaken for her kids' grandma—was adopted by her own grandmother when she was in her 50s. The experience gives her a unique perspective on her own life as an older mother. "I try to keep from being a ‘fogey,'" she says. "I wear more stylish clothes and pay attention to pop culture."
Lynn Levin also thinks about how her children will feel in 10 years, when they are adolescents and she and her husband are in their 60s. She's proud that she came to motherhood late in life, and believes that age shouldn't be a deterrent when a person is ready to start a family. But if the day comes when her children's embarrassment about her age is too much for her, Levin jokes, "Maybe I'll start to think about plastic surgery!"