(Credit: Gewanda Parker)

The invisible experiences of first-time Generation X mothers

The number of first-time mothers aged 40-plus around the globe is growing. Creating a support system for these mums is not merely ethical – it's good for society and the economy, too.

The month after she turned 40, Jenny Glancy-Potter gave birth to twins. Their births marked the end of an excruciating struggle to become a mother, and the joyous beginning of a new life stage. Motherhood, though, had come far later than Glancy-Potter had ever imagined.

“In a lot of ways, I have less energy than I did when I was younger,” she says. “But in terms of my outlook, I think this is a beautiful time to become a mum. I’ve got a lot more patience, I’m a lot wiser, and I’ve done so much in my life.” She would know by now – her children have since turned five.

The number of women beginning families in their 40s and older is rising, while the number who do so in their 20s and 30s declines

Glancy-Potter, now aged 45, from Lancashire in the UK, is part of a growing community of Generation X women around the world for whom motherhood has begun at 40-plus.

The number of women beginning families in their 40s and older is rising, while the number who do so in their 20s and 30s declines. In the UK, the pregnancy rate is falling for all age groups – except for the over-40s. In 2016, the conception rate among women of 40 and above grew by 2% on the previous year, and it has more than doubled throughout the previous 25 years.

Birth patterns are the same in the US, where in 2017 the birth rate was its lowest for 30 years, but it nevertheless rose for women over 40, who are having more children than ever.

Caring for two generations

Starting a family after 40 brings a unique set of opportunities and challenges.

Forty-three-year-old Bhavna Thakur, who has a one-year-old daughter, also understands what is it like to be the “oldest mother in the toddler park”.

After the birth of her child, Thakur returned to her full-time job in Mumbai, where she works for an investment firm as a managing director. She has found that having a child in her 40s meant she had time to work her way up to a senior position.

“Because I’m senior enough I can be master of my own time, whereas if I was junior there would be someone else dictating where I had to be and when. I’ve had a lot of flexibility to go home early and work from home when I need to.”

Although she has found it challenging not being able to travel as much, she has a very understanding manager, she says. “My boss told me, ‘This is a 10-year-game, it’s a marathon not a sprint, you’ll get back to doing what you can do’.”

Thakur has encountered a different, unexpected struggle as a Gen-X mum. It is difficult, she says, to balance the three most time-intensive obligations in her life: care for two generations of family and cultivating a career.

I’m split between my mother and my daughter, and right now, my daughter is more dependent on me – Bhavna Thakur

“Because we are old parents, our parents are now quite old. They have ailments and issues and they need looking after as well,” she says. “My parents live in Delhi, and I’m not able to go and spend as much time as I would like because I have a small child to take care of. I’m split between my mother and my daughter, and right now, my daughter is more dependent on me.”

Thakur’s struggle is indicative of a broader worldwide juggling act. Many women who start families in their 40s the world over find themselves spread between caring for two generations at once.

Some companies in New Zealand and the UK are trialling innovative measures, such as the four-day working week at full-time pay, which have the potential to make home-life and work-life balance more sustainable. Although some have proven successful, these programmes are the exception, and far from becoming the norm.

A fork in the road

In general, a mother’s decision to return to work after childbirth is a difficult one with many considerations – especially financial ones. The UK has the most expensive childcare in the world, unlike Sweden where it is heavily subsidised. These costs have implications for any first-time mother, regardless of age.

Glancy-Potter believes the financial strain of childcare is particularly acute for women in their 40s, many of whom cannot rely on grandparents to help.

“Childcare is more pertinent to older mothers because it tends to be that our family are older as well. My mum has helped out an awful lot, but by the time I had my children, she was already in her 70s. Had I had my kids in my 20s, my husband and I probably could have relied less on formal paid childcare.”

There is little-to-no formal support from state programmes to ensure mothers like Glancy-Potter can afford childcare and return to work again. She was not able to make the numbers of keeping her job add up; the costs of childcare would have absorbed her entire salary.

But measures that make it easier for the growing population of Generation X mothers to continue working will benefit the economy, says Myra Strober, professor emerita of education and economics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and Graduate School of Business. There is no country that has gotten the practice quite right yet.

Strober says if that mothers in particular choose to sacrifice their career, their inability to continue working has a larger impact on the national income than if younger and less experienced, lower-paid workers leave the workforce. Women aged 40 and older are generally “more educated and have positions of greater responsibility and higher earnings than younger women”.

“Making sure that experienced women in their forties can return to work and continue to be productive in the labour force is not only socially progressive,” she says, “it is also economically prudent.”

I get to see life all over again’

While attitudes toward working mothers in general slowly change, social assumptions about older mothers do persist. Some women who begin families in their 40s can find themselves cast in the isolating role of “older mother”.

Gewanda Parker, 49, lives with her two daughters, aged seven months and three years, in the US state of Florida. When she takes her daughters out, she is often addressed as their grandmother or aunt, while other, younger women are assumed to be mothers.

Perhaps as a result, Parker has found herself increasingly concerned with her appearance, always making sure she is well-put together, smartly dressed and with perfect hair and make-up. Whereas other new mothers might be forgiven for making their looks less of a priority, Parker feels she is working harder to combat any assumptions outside observers might make about her age based on what she looks like. “I find myself subconsciously making sure that my appearance is the best it can be – I’m always thinking, ‘I don’t want to create a situation where my child feels strange about it’.” 

Yes, I may be older, but the things I am doing with my kids are keeping me young – Gewanda Parker

The truth is that Parker does not feel like an older mother. Having children at her age is, she says, “the most rewarding and refreshing thing. I get to see life all over again as exciting and fun. Yes, I may be older, but the things I am doing with my kids are keeping me young.”

Global societal structures and stereotypes may not be keeping up with the pace of reality, but change will come, Parker says. “Even if society is not willing, there is a demand for society to support older mothers.” As first-time Gen X mothers like her become more common, she says that society bears the responsibility to become more accepting and make adjustments.

“We have to change the common language around what a mother looks like, around the image we have of motherhood,” she says.

“We have to learn how to be inclusive without being awkward, and we have to learn how to refrain from judging and stereotyping, instead approaching the subject [of older mothers] with an open mind.”

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