Wednesday, January 13, 2010

World's Oldest Mother -- Age and Adoption

Some days I feel like the World's Oldest Mother.

Sometimes the feeling is internal, like when I can't get up without making those old people noises, or when my knee aches and my shoulder twinges and my . . . well, you get the picture. Other times it's external, like when people ask if I'm my kids' grandmother (7 times in the first year I was home with Zoe (not that I'm counting or anything!)). Sometimes its the inadvertent things friends say -- like the friend who complained that her elderly parents couldn't possibly understand something going on in her life, and I realized that her mom was 40 when she was born, just like I was 40 when I adopted Zoe (I take a perverse pleasure in the fact that I was 39 when Zoe was born, even though I turned 40 just 5 days after she was born!All bets are off with Maya, of course -- I was 43 when she was born, and 45 when I adopted her, officially older than dirt). I can just see Zoe and Maya in future years complaining to a friend that I'm too old to understand! Oh, yes, and sometimes the reminder that I'm the World's Oldest Mom comes in something my kids say, like when Zoe wrote, "I hope you enjoy your grandkids," on my last birthday card. Or when Zoe realized I was exactly 40 years older than her: ". . . when I'm 7, you'll be 47; and when I'm 8, you'll be 48; and when I'm 9, you'll be 49; and when I'm 10, you'll be 40-10. . . . "

With 40-10 staring me in the face, I want to talk about parental age and adoption. It's an issue I cover in Adoption Law, together with other adoptive-parent "qualifications" like religion, race and sexual orientation. The legal standard, of course, is best interest of the child, when we look at parental qualifications in adoption placements. The arguments against older parents are pretty well known -- they may not live to raise the child into adulthood, they may not have the physical energy needed to parent, they may not have the mental flexibility necessary to understand "today's youth," the child might be stigmatized with peers and others for having older parents.

With many of these arguments, age is really serving as a proxy for health. We can all name 70-year-olds with more energy than some 30-year-olds we can name, and same goes for life expectancy and mental flexibility. (I have a sneaking suspicion, for example, that Jean Smart, though older than me, is much more physically fit than I am!) Certainly, in the grand scheme of things, the younger you are the more energy you have and the longer your life expectancy is. But we always know some exceptions. Why, you can even take a test to see if your REAL age is the same as your calendar age!

Sometimes when it's hard to get information about an issue, when we don't know if someone fits within the norm or is an exception, we use proxies -- like we use "race" as a proxy for "lower socio-economic status" and "lower socio-economic status" as a proxy for "poor education" in making decisions about admission to college. It may be that you are African-American and the child of an ambassador who attended private schools, or you grew up in a poor area, but went to the only excellent high school in the vicinity, but we can't know the socio-economic status of each applicant, or how good the thousands of high schools in America are, so we use race and/or area poverty as a proxy.

But in adoption, do we need to use age as a proxy? We already gather tons of information about prospective adoptive parents, including health and mental outlook and energy -- the things we really want to know, that we sometimes assume age will tell us. But we can figure out whether someone fits within the norm for their age, or is an exception to the rule. Health can even tell us something about life expectancy, though there are no absolutes on that front. Still, life expectancy is increasing -- life expectancy for women at birth in 1900 was 50.7 years, and in 1997 it was 79.4 years. A 58 year-old-woman can expect to live an additional 24.6 years, long enough to usher a child into adulthood. And we know that even very young adoptive parents can die before their time. Because of that, what we typically want to know of all prospective adoptive parents, regardless of age, is what plans they have for the care and custody of their child if they were to die before the child reached adulthood.

So that leaves us with the stigma, embarrassment, etc., of a child with older parents. It hasn't seemed to occur to my kids yet that I'm older than the average bear, though I'm sure it will eventually. I admit, I sometimes feel weird as the menopausal mother of a kindergartner, but I can also say I'm not the only "golden oldie" on the pickup line! And that stigma argument is the same one used to deny adoption on the basis of sexual orientation -- after all, won't Johnny be embarrassed to have gay parents? It's also one of the arguments against transracial adoption.

Yes, there's this long-held belief that adoption should try to replicate the "natural family." The adoptive family should look just like a biological family -- that was the motivation behind the old "matching" rules, where child and adoptive parents were matched not just by race, but by hair color and texture, skin tone, eye color, even height and weight. Replicating the natural family would also mean only couples capable of procreating "naturally" would be suitable adoptive parents. Gay couples wouldn't fit in this requirement, neither would transracial adoption. And being too old to reproduce would also disqualify a family from adopting under this rubric. I'm not sure I'd want to limit adoption to what "nature" could create -- as a single mom, I wouldn't qualify, either, not having experienced any visits from God or gods to impregnate me!

The "nature" argument comes up with assisted reproduction as well. Take a look at this interesting article, Monstrous Mothers: Media Representations of Post-Menopausal Pregnancy. The world's real oldest mother, who gave birth at age 66 with the help of donor eggs, died at the age of 69 last summer. That's kind of the poster child for "too old," right? She left her 3-year-old twins orphaned. Yes, she might have lived to the ripe old age of 101, as her mother did, but the odds were against it, right? Just like the odds would be against a 66-year-old adoptive parent, right? What she did, and what older adoptive parents do, is "unnatural."

My problem with this argument is that it disproportionally affects women. Nature allows the World's Oldest Father to procreate at age 90, and media representations of older fathers wouldn't dub them "Monstrous Fathers," hmm? What we buy instead is the meme, "I'm a much better father now than before, because I'm older, more settled, and have more patience," usually said while the child is in the background jumping on the couch (I always think it's exhaustion, not patience, that allows him to ignore the bouncing kid!). I know a man who had a child with his (of course much younger) wife at age 66, the same age as the World's Oldest Mother, and no one even blinked. It certainly wasn't a cause celebre in the media, with people screaming, "There oughtta be a law!"

"So? Nature is unfair," I hear you cry. But who says adoption has to follow nature? Interestingly enough, the Evan B. Donaldson Institute has a recent report out suggesting that nature -- at least when assisted -- should follow adoption: Old Lessons for a New World: Applying Adoption Research & Experience to Assisted Reproductive Technology. But in adoption, we've moved beyond matching, beyond the idea of replicating the "natural" family, haven't we?

Most courts that have looked at the age factor in adoption have said that the age of prospective adoptive parents is relevant in a best interest of the child analysis, but that it cannot be a SOLE or DETERMINATIVE factor in adoption placement. In the case we study in class (registration required to view case), the prospective adoptive parents were selected by the birth mom, had parented the child placed with them as a newborn for 2.5 years at the time of the adoption, and were aged 54 (adoptive mom) and 70 (adoptive dad) at the time of the adoption. The trial court denied the adoption based solely on age, and the appellate court reversed, and directed the trial court to enter an order approving the adoption.

I'm not willing to accept categorical statements -- "you're too old to parent a child," said to adoptive parents, or "you're too young to parent a child," said to a birth mom to induce relinquishment. Adoption, more than just about any other endeavor in human life, is about SCREENING. We have doctors, social workers, government officials and judges all judging the fitness of adoptive parents. We don't need proxies, we don't need single-factor tests. We can carefully examine on a case-by-case basis the suitability of a particular adoptive parent. We might get it wrong, I don't doubt that, but I can't help but believe that individualized assessments are better than absolute rules.


Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree. The truth of the matter is that the current mode of "reviewing" parents is insufficient. There are some social workers that actually look at the family and evaluate people on a case by case basis; however, I don't think it is the norm. How many times have you read on forums within the China adoption community alone what a joke the whole home study process is? My own post-placement social worker (not our original social worker)--very respected agency in our area for domestic adoption--said that she didn't really see the need for "all of this. A home is better than no home." Uh no.
Look at the foster care system, how many times must children be shuttled from one home to the next being "tried on" by PAP's or become too much work for the family to handle--they all passed home studies. Of course this does not occur in every situation, BUT it is not out of the norm either.

Age does matter. It matters as much as health, as much as finances, as much as resources. Adoption is NOT the same as biology, but what is important for children IS the same.

Social stigma of older parents is not the issue--there are many bio kids in the same boat (mom or dad remarries and has a second family or a late baby after the first set are grown--typically 40's).

How many grandparents do we see raising their children's children? Too many. Are the children parented the same, no. Are some of those children healthy, of course, but how many are not? I know too many children who live in the "older parent" (and I am not talking 40's) home and who have far more duties than should be expected of a child due to aging parental figures.

In a biological situation it can not be helped, we do not have laws governing such a thing. We (as a nation) are too busy trying not to step on reproductive rights for those seeking fertility treatment--although we don't seem to mind squashing the young/poor parent--to look to the best interest of children; however, we can do that in adoption. We can say you shouldn't ask IF you can adopt, should you? If you do choose to adopt and are approved, not to mention truly just want to parent, you will adopt a child that does not have such a huge age gap.

Of course I don't know why this particular celebrity chose China, I am not her and I don't really care, but could it be that she was looking for ayap? As we know five years ago was the boom for China's nsn ayap adoption program. Knowing her age at the time, 50 or so, what was the draw for a child so young? Yes, she could live to be 100, but what of her at 70/20, 80/30, 90/40?
If China feels those with facial disfigurement are unqualified regardless of age or 55 as a cutoff, what of 54?

I did go back in my paperwork from years ago, it said someone of her age must adopt an older child.

Many factors are individual, as they should be. However, there are rules for AP's for a reason, they look at norms--health, weight, divorce, etc. It is our duty to the children to get it right. Any home is not always better.

Anonymous said...

Oh ny goodness! I just spent 15 minutes writing a very eloquent comment, only to have the system fail and it not publish!

What I said was some version of this: Hey! I resemble one of those remarks! :) I wish my mom was here to tell my good news to now, but if she had been 10 years younger or 20 years younger when I was born, she wouldn't have been the mother I had--she would have been my sisters' mother, who was a very different person. My mom understood all the important things that I told her and she would have understood that ONE thing too, but I didn't give her the chance. That was my shortcoming, not hers! You are a fabulous mom and your girls are lucky to have you as their mom--the you you are right now, not the you you were 10 or 20 years ago.


Joanne said...

Interesting post...I am also 40 yrs older than Mia. I had my first son when I was 32 and I feel I have really grown as a mother and I'm not as smothering as I was back then...more relaxed, etc. I also know that I would not want to adopt again at this point feeling that I would be too old.
P.S. your girls are truly blessed by their smart, good humored, loving mother that you are :)

a Tonggu Momma said...

This one is interesting for me because I have four friends who became first-time moms over the age of 40 (two through adoption, two biologically). Still... I think, as with other issues (health, financial stability, stable relationships - whether single or married, commitment to the child), age matters in adoption.

Adopted children experience loss from a very young age. I believe we should try to minimize the risk of a second loss as much as possible. And there is no getting around statistics. People who are older are more likely to die than people who are younger. Is that the case with everyone? No... but statistics are often all we have to go on.

And yet... I know LOTS of excellent mommas who are older. So where is the line? Everyone has a line - you might say that you don't, but would you allow a 60-year-old to adopt an infant? What about a 65-year-old? How about 70? There's always a line... it's just different for different people. For many, that line is 50.

Anyways, interesting post, Malinda, as always.

malinda said...

Thanks for the kind comments, and thanks for the respectful disagreement! I always appreciate hearing different opinions.

Tonggu Mamma, what I'm saying is that there should not be some absolute line -- it may be the rare 60-65-70-year-old that should be approved for adoption, but I'm not willing to say that there are no circumstances where I would allow it. What about a relative adoption? Stepparent adoption? One much younger spouse? Legalizing an already existing care-taking arrangement? I think there are too many variables to use any one factor -- including age -- as a determinative factor.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Wendy. Agencies are often an ineffectve tool as screeners in the adoption industry. A 50 year old gap is huge, and statistically speaking, these parents will not be around as long. Children, espeically ones that have already lost one family, desire more than just being ushered into adulthood. And you're right-- any home is not necessarily better.

LilySea said...

I was 35 and 37 when my daughters were adopted. My partner was 47 and 50. Our agency takes zero interest in age of adoptive parents as long as they are over 21.

The agency director is 72 and has 11 (adopted) kids. The youngest three are 4 now. The older ones help a lot with the younger ones--you know, like people do in cultures all over the world and in our own culture a generation or two ago.

I don't think her HIV+ 4-year olds would be better off in a foreign orphanage without access to HIV drugs, no I do not. I think they are very well off in their large family with a grandmother-aged parent and some fabulous older siblings and a huge community of people around them in similar circumstances.

Yep, they've had losses. They are now blessed to have a family that understands those losses very well, having shared some of them, and being with a mom who knows more about adoption than 90% of the U.S. population. And if she dies next year, she will be leaving them in good hands, full of understanding and comfort and support.

Screen all you want, but don't draw arbitrary lines in the sand. If your kid had a baby when you were 65 and dropped dead, would you want someone telling you you were too old to raise that child? These things depend on the circumstances of each individual case.

Anything else is just tyranny of the majority.

Meia said...

I like your thoughtful post, Malinda. And if we're talking numbers, my mom was around 46 when she adopted me as a single mother. (I had really rambling thoughts on single motherhood awhile ago...

Not sure if you mention this, but LilySea mentions the importance of a community of people around the person, and I think this is an important factor to consider as part of the entire context. My mom and I have a close network of family and friends, or friends-family as we call them.

Also, just as a side-thought, I appreciate my mom's age, experience, and general attitude towards life. Whether the latter two are a result of the former I don't know, but nevertheless she has been and is a great mother and I'm glad she was allowed to adopt me!