If you are over 35, you're probably aware of the increased risks of having a baby. Older women are more likely to have miscarriages, c-sections, suffer high blood pressure, and develop gestational diabetes. Your child is more likely to be born too early, not weigh enough, have chromosomal birth defects (most commonly Down syndrome), and other serious, potentially life-threatening conditions. Women are familiar with these hazards because their doctors talk about them routinely. Obstetricians, however, are ignoring another potentially critical outcome: Parents in their late thirties, forties, and fifties are more likely to raise kids without the help and support of their own parents, and their children are more likely to grow up without grandparents.
While life expectancy rates continue to rise, they are not increasing fast enough to compensate for how late women are having babies. For the first time in U.S. history, millions of children are at risk of having fewer years with their grandparents than ever before.
Experts are becoming aware of this trend. Kenneth Land, a director at the Duke Population Research Institute and one of the most highly regarded demographers in the United States, says government data prove that "the prevalence of children without grandparents has increased over the past four decades." In addition, Steven Mintz, American family historian at Columbia University, and former National Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, says this sweeping change "will have long-term consequences for American family life" and represents "a radical reconfiguration of the place of grandparent in their children and grandchildren's lives."
For the last three years, I've studied what it means to be a parentless parent. I conducted one-on-one interviews, led numerous focus groups, and launched the Parentless Parents Survey, the first of its kind, which gathered responses from across the United States and a dozen countries, in order to study this growing population. Below are some of my findings, as reported here previously, and in my new book Parentless Parents:
The Grandparent Gap
Researchers have long studied the influence grandparents have on grandchildren, and it's been determined that kids are shaped by grandparents in irrefutable and calculable ways. Children who spend time with their grandparents often have higher self-esteem, tend to have fewer behavioral problems, and do better in social circles. The cumulative lack of these influences, and many others, is "The Grandparent Gap."
Grandparents often pass on their love of art, books, and music. They teach skills related to their jobs and interests. They provide unconditional love and acceptance. And, especially important as children age, grandmothers and grandfathers often provide a safe and trusted refuge away from parents. For the teenage children of parentless parents, having fewer places to turn is a particular challenge, as many begin facing mounting peer pressure related to sex, alcohol, and drugs.
A doctor I interviewed took an educated guess on how the grandparent gap affects the children of parentless parents. "Imagine your child is a sculpture and your entire family -- including your parents -- is the shaper of that sculpture. You and your wife can provide 120,000 little pushes of the fingers to mold it and shape it, but your children are always going to miss some of the pushes that would have made the sculpture complete. You can still see the face, you can still see what it is, but some of those influences won't ever impact the final product."
The "I" Factor
The "I" Factor is the term I use to describe the specific losses experienced by parentless parents. "I" is short for irreplaceable. There's just so much information about your own childhood that's gone forever. If your daughter weren't crawling "on time," it would be reassuring to know if you also began crawling late. Without your parents, there are simply fewer answers to these developmental questions.
Caring for babies and young children is often physically more demanding for parentless parents because their moms and dads can't babysit. Most people, at first, will dismiss this. They'll argue their parents aren't available either -- they live far away, or are otherwise incapable of providing support. But parentless parents experience a quantifiable vacuum.
Studies show grandparents take care of more children than nursery schools and day care centers combined, and the newest government data shows this reliance on grandparents is increasing. This lack of support may be why in response to every question in the Parentless Parents Survey regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and emotions about children entering school and celebrating important milestones, respondents of every age report having felt more isolated than supported. Indeed, 57 percent say they didn't have enough parenting support when their children were young.
Our parents also can't pass on family traditions, or share stories about living relatives or ancestors. If we had even one parent, there would at least be the possibility that some of that information could be passed along directly.
We also have fewer people to brag to about our kids. This may sound irrelevant, but it compounds an already heightened sense of isolation many of us feel. When my son, Jake, got to be a starting pitcher in Little League, who, after my husband, do you think I wanted to call? I wasn't about to sit on the bleachers and crow to my friends. And I hesitated to call my brother; sometimes sharing good news about our kids just feels like sibling rivalry all over again.
Impact on Marriage
My husband and I met at summer camp and have now spent more than half our lives together. In every sense, Mark is still the love of my life and we are still best friends. That said, nothing has challenged our marriage more than the fact that his parents are alive, and mine are gone.
We're fortunate that Mark's parents can come to nearly every birthday party, music recital, and basketball game our children have. And while I can certainly tell stories about my parents and show our kids pictures, my children's sense of family is entirely off-balance. It's not surprising, then, that the relationships we have with our in-laws are delicate and conflicted. While nearly half of all respondents who took the Parentless Parents Survey report being jealous of the time their in-laws spend with their children, 68 percent say they're grateful their children have them as grandparents. Despite welcoming their presence, 29 percent resent their in-laws' disproportionate influence over their children.
Because loss informs the way we raise our children, we often develop different parenting styles from our spouses, and this can also be a source of conflict. One mom told me that because her in-laws are alive, she and her husband often approach parenting from very different perspectives. "That's been a huge issue for us," she told me. "He's not trained to think of the worst case scenario. Whereas, when I see a situation, my mind goes immediately to what could happen." This mom of two says her husband has called her "paranoid" and "neurotic." Another mom reflected that she often pushes her children to be far more independent than her husband would prefer. "I actually parent with the idea that I could be gone tomorrow," she said.
Fear of Dying Young
Nearly 58 percent of respondents to the Parentless Parents Survey fear they'll die young and leave their children without a mother or father. This anxiety is fueled by having lived through the deaths of their own parents and by imagining how their death would impact their own children. This gnawing sense of mortality influences the way we parent our children and the decisions we make for ourselves along the way.
My mother's death, in particular, has colored my vision of the future. Because she died of ovarian cancer, there was no doubt in my mind that I would die of ovarian cancer too. I eventually had genetic testing and was told I was BRCA1 positive, assuring me that my fatalistic expectations were grounded in scientific truth. Ultimately, I decided to remove my ovaries and have a hysterectomy -- an operation that thrust me into menopause and night sweats at 37. (You can read my near-daily diary about my surgery and the events leading up to it here.) The decision, though, wasn't just about me. It was a Mommy decision, and clearly a choice I never would have made if I weren't a parentless parent.
Strikingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a new report a few weeks ago that says while the number of births in the United States has fallen overall for the third year in a row, the only age group having more children is women over 40. If you're still not convinced this is a society-changing shift, consider the following: In 1972, 180,000 children were born to mothers 35 and older. Nearly 40 years later, that number soared to 603,113 -- a 235 percent increase. The jump is so significant it can't be explained away by increasing population size.
50-year-old Robin Gorman Newman launched motherhoodlater.com in 2005 because she felt isolated being a new and older mother. "If you have a child later in life, like I did, it only increases the likelihood that you will be parenting without your parents. For me, not having my mother has been a huge loss. I never had that maternal advice, and my son doesn't have my mom as a grandmother. Later moms need to think about who will be their go-to person when their parents die. You can't foresee all the questions you're going to have as a parent, and not being able to get your own mother and father's advice and guidance is a void we don't talk about nearly enough."
Unquestionably, a revolution is happening in the way generations are connected in America. While I would never tell another woman when to have a child, I think doctors should add the "I" Factor and "The Grandparent Gap" to the list of dangers they regularly discuss with patients who are embarking on a later path to motherhood.