I don’t know about you, but being described as an “older couple” always makes me squirm a bit. It’s not necessarily how I think of myself. Yet, when it comes to being a parent, my husband and I definitely fall into the older category, even with the rising age at which parents have their first child.
When I had my first biological child, I was 25. Not being one to ever really fit in, I found that most of the other parents I knew who also had their first child were just a little older than I was. I always kind of felt like the baby of any group. I’m afraid that this is still how I think of myself almost thirty years later. Since this is certainly not the case anymore, I find it jarring each time I discover how old the other parents of my 10-year-old daughters’ friends are. I am now, in fact, the old mom.
This shouldn’t actually come as news to me. I’ve been an older mom for a while now. I was 40 when we traveled to adopt our first son, who was 3, from Vietnam. I didn’t feel old then, particularly since I had another 3-year-old child at home as well. Old hadn’t really entered my head until I was “talking” with one of the ayis in the orphanage. She had about as much English as I had Vietnamese; it was hardly a conversation, really just a lot of smiling and nodding on each of our parts. She managed to ask me how old I was. I used my hands to say 40. She stopped, stared, confirmed with her hands that she had understood, and then was quite able to convey her amazement at my age without any common language. It was my first clue that I had passed some invisible marker.
My next clue was when I become pregnant with twins who are now 10. Let’s just say that the medical community does not have kind and complimentary phrases for mothers of advanced maternal age.
So here I am, a 53-year-old parent of 12 children, ranging in age from 10 to 26 with five of those being adopted. It’s not the life I imagined for myself when I was younger and is far, far different from the four children my husband and I had planned on having. Yet I wouldn’t change it. It is a grand and glorious ride, though there have been some terrifying parts to go along with the exhilarating ones.
I’m not the only one to embrace parenting at an older age as an older couple. There are actually more than a few parents who either started their parenting careers by adopting at older ages or who are raising a second generation of children after their biological children are grown. I think one of the biggest questions people have is why? Why would you do this? Why would you start parenting, either for the first time or again, when your peers are preparing for their empty nest years?
For us, we just didn’t feel done. Okay, back up, that’s not quite the truth. We’ve been done quite a few times, but each of our last three adoptions was precipitated by seeing a child who needed a family and not being able to shake the feeling that we were that family. We didn’t seek to continue adopting, but it just sort of happened.
Others have similar experiences.
“We felt the Lord prompting us to adopt. It made sense as we weren’t crazy about having an empty nest.”
“For us, it was a recurring dream about a little girl with DS [Downs’ Syndrome] calling us Mommy and Daddy.”
Of course, there are many reasons why people choose adoption at older ages.
“I met the man I married when I was 40. He didn’t have any kids. He also considered adopting before we met. We wanted to experience parenting together…”
“My husband wasn’t on board to adopt. His heart and mind changed once we were older.”
I asked a group of mothers, who were older when they adopted their children, a series of questions. I want to share their responses as well as my own.
1. What has been hard about choosing to adopt at an older age?
Some mothers said there really wasn’t anything hard about their decision. I fall into this group in some ways because the children we adopted were older as well. They were similar ages to the children we were already parenting, so we didn’t really extend our parenting years. The trauma some of them brought with them was by far more difficult than any other part of it.
Money also plays a part: “We’ve taken huge financial hits with starting over and now I stay home, so we lost that income, and my husband left a very good job because he was never home… our youngest has many special needs with many medical bills.”
We joke around here that we have given up on retirement. It’s difficult to see so far in the future to a time when most of our children will be grown. We are not the only ones.
It was hard “giving up on early retirement for my husband, coming up with the money which meant extending our mortgage by five years, and being comfortable with starting over while our friends are becoming empty nesters,” writes another mother.
While our adult children have also been fantastic and accepting of their new siblings, this is not a universal experience. One mother writes, “Some of our bio adult children have been a little less than accepting” of their parents’ decision to adopt.
And sometimes the thing that is hard is the fact that we are older and our bodies are not 20 anymore. Another mother notes, “My energy level is different than [when] my bios were this age. It’s hard to keep up with my AD [adopted daughter] who was 3 shortly after we got home.”
2. What have been the positives?
As one mother writes, “The positives are so numerous!” I happen to agree with her. Our children bring us great joy. We feel privileged to be their parents and have these children be a part of our family. No matter how many children you have, adding a child is an amazing thing. That child is such a unique individual that they hold a special spot in the family dynamic. You find that each child becomes so integral to how the family works and interacts that you cannot imagine how you ever lived without them there. Joy is a theme among other parents as well.
One mother writes, “We love our girls and the joy they bring to our lives every single day.” Another mother writes, “We have totally enjoyed our daughter.”
There are other positives as well. Just as finances can be a challenge, adopting later in life can also mean more financial security. One mother says, “We are definitely in a different financial position at this stage in our lives. We can give our AD [adopted daughter] a lot of things the other didn’t have access to at her age. It is also awesome to have bios that are grown up enough to help with her and bond with her in such an amazing way. They are close to her in a way they were not close to each other when they were all young.”
It is interesting that in the list of positives, a theme is how the new child has changed existing family members for the better. “The positive impact our newly adopted son has had on our other son is amazing,” one mother comments. She adds another positive is “watching my husband grow into such a kind and caring father.” Another mother writes, “The way our extended family grew and changed has been a blessing to watch.”
Another positive is that with age comes experience. I know I am a far, far better parent now than when I was first starting out. I have experienced a lot more and realize that the things I thought were a big deal really aren’t. I am more relaxed. I have a bigger picture. As one mother says, “I have more experience and understanding.”
3. What has been surprising?
I don’t know about you, but so very often, how I imagine things will work out is often very different from the way real life ends up. Probably nothing is truer of this than in parenting of any sort, but even more so in adoption.
My own surprises? The biggest one is probably how very difficult it is to make friends. The friends I knew when my first children were young are done with their parenting journey. They all live very different lives from mine, with a level of freedom I do not have. We still enjoy each other’s company when we see each other, but our differences make it difficult to pursue deep friendships with each other.
Mothers of children my younger children’s ages are all at least 10 or more years younger than I am. I don’t mind this, but I find I have a different perspective having raised more than a couple of children to adulthood. Our worries and difficulties are just very different. Once again, I have people I enjoy spending time with, but I’m often viewed more as a mentor than a friend. So where does that leave me? Kind of stuck in between. The people I’m closest to are the ones who have grown children and still have younger ones at home. There just aren’t a huge amount of those people around. And, because we are parenting all ends of the spectrum, our free time for getting together is rather limited.
My other surprise is how I don’t feel old the majority of the time. Instead of the old joke about children making you old before your time, I think the opposite is actually true. Children keep you young. They force you to be active, they expose you to things you might not come across, they laugh, and they are often seeing things for the first time. Children stop you from becoming set in your ways and forgetting the wonders of the world that surround you.
Other mothers’ surprises are also a mixed bag. One mom writes, “We were pleasantly surprised by how great our two boys get along. One not so great surprise was the amount of time it took to get to our new normal.”
Another mom said, “It was so much harder than I expected, but also so much better and richer.”
I was surprised by “how tired we are [and] just how draining all the emotions are,” commented one of the responders.
A mom replied for her husband that “the most surprising thing about being parents is that it’s really a lot of fun!”
Another summed up her surprise by stating, “The whole thing was unexpected bliss.”
As with much of life, each older adoptive parent will have a unique experience. There is no way someone can say that if you adopt at an older age, you will have this particular experience. It just doesn’t work that way. But of the many parents I’ve talked with over the years, I can tell you that parents who adopt when they are on the older end of things tend to have positive experiences.
Why is that? I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, older couples have to be pretty intentional about choosing to adopt. They are past the age when family members and random people in the grocery store commonly quiz people about their reproductive plans. Once you get to a certain age, generally people assume you are done having children or won’t be having children. The focus is instead on approaching retirement and what to do with yourself now that the older children are grown. To buck societal trends means that you have thought deeply about what you are doing. A decision such as that is often not made lightly. Most likely you will have to spend quite a bit of time defending that decision from various family members and acquaintances. By answering their objections and concerns, you have done some significant research and self-exploration. All of this helps to make a more positive outcome. You are prepared. Well, as much as you can be.
Second, I think a broader life experience is really helpful in parenting. It makes you more relaxed. You see the world differently. You have perspective, both of what is truly important and exactly how short life is. Chances are you have lost more than a couple of loved ones and understand how precious the time with your family is. The older I get, the more I want to focus on finding the joy in the moments of daily life. I worry less about what other people think. I just don’t have time for that. There is too much else to spend my time appreciating. My parenting reflects that.
Life doesn’t end at 50. Why would I want to spend my time focusing on how to spend my retirement when I can spend my time pouring love into children who would otherwise not get a chance to experience family? I may always be a little concerned about money, but I don’t ever need to worry that I wasted my life. Instead, my husband and I have front row seats to the miracle of watching our daughters heal from past trauma and blossom into beloved, healthy children. That doesn’t get old no matter how old I am.
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