How old is too old for children?
With the news that Robert De Niro, 68, and his 56-year-old wife have just had a baby via a surrogate, Patricia Carswell looks at the continuing trend to have babies later in life and the effects this can have on the children and parents
There comes a time in every actor's life when he moves from playing the hero to playing the grandfather. For Robert De Niro it came in 2000, when he played the crazy, flashcard-wielding grandpa in Meet the Parents. Yet just last month, De Niro, now 68, and his 56-year-old wife, Grace Hightower, became not grandparents, but parents, with the help of a surrogate mother.
The past decade has seen an increasing trend towards older parents, with some countries allowing mothers well into their 60s to engage in fertility treatments. Since fertilisation with donor eggs and sperm is forbidden in the UAE, there is little chance of anyone here becoming a parent at such an advanced age.
Nevertheless, according to Dr Samia Saafan, the medical director of the British Clinic in Abu Dhabi, the demand for such treatments has risen.
"People tend to have their education and qualifications and get married late in life," says Saafan. "They think there is no problem but when they start to [try to have a family] they discover there is one."
From a medical point of view, there is an ideal age to have a baby, Saafan says: "We usually say that between 20 and 30 is the best age. All women are born with a certain number of eggs. As time passes, the number of eggs goes down, and the age of their eggs goes up. The risk of Down syndrome rises, too. At the age of 30 it is one in 1,000; at 35 it becomes one in 400 and at 41 it is one in 100."
Medical issues aside, many believe that from a social perspective, there is also an ideal age to bear a child.
"To a great extent it has a lot to do with the individual circumstances and personalities of the parents," says Kitty Hagenbach, a pre and perinatal therapist and a co-founder of the parenting courses institution BabiesKnow. "But I also do think there is a best age. In the western world, I think the best age to have a child is late 20s to late 30s. This, in my view, allows people to mature, having had time to discover who they are and what's important to them."
There are, of course, some advantages to having your children at a young age.
Mariam, a 53-year-old mother of five, an Emirati who was born in the UK, was married at 16 and had her first child at 18.
"In the 1970s it was normal for girls to marry after high school, as that time life was not as developed as it is now. Society was much closer, thus family and neighbours were close. Neighbours would look after each other's kids if one had an appointment at the hospital," she says.
"Having children early is better. You can do more things while you are still young. You can really run behind them to catch them! You have the energy to play physical games with them."
Hagenbach points out, however, that nowadays life as a young mother can be rather different.
"My experience of working with adults who have had children very young is that those parents have by and large not been ready," she says. "They haven't got the support they need in place; they don't have the maturity to understand themselves and then their child. In the western world we've become very isolated from the extended family, so young people can end up incredibly isolated with their child." What, then, of the opposite end of the scale? Is it better to wait and have your children later in life?
Certainly the desire to have children can become overwhelming as the years pass. Anita, 45, an Abu Dhabi-based expatriate, knows this. When she turned 30 she became concerned that if she were to have a family, she needed to act soon. Having had several unsuccessful relationships in the past, she went so far as to marry an old friend whom she knew would make a good father, even though she was not passionately in love with him. Initially the couple had difficulties conceiving, so did not have their children until Anita was in her late 30s.
She believes there were some advantages to having her children relatively late.
"I do appreciate them more," she says. "I had more time for myself, so now I feel more selfless and am ready to sacrifice more for them."
As far as Saafan is concerned, the decision whether to encourage a patient in her 40s to have fertility treatment partly depends on whether she already has any kids.
"If somebody has never had children and they are 40-something, they are desperate to have children. If the desire is very strong, you tend to treat them. But if they have three or four children and want more at the age of 45, I think it's ridiculous," she says. "I always say to them, can you imagine when you are 55; your child will only be 10 years old? It's unreasonable."
The issue of the parents' age as the children grow up is, of course, exacerbated for parents 50 and above.
"I really feel that people who decide to have kids very late in life through surrogacy or IVF are a bit selfish," says Anita. "It cannot be good for a child to have such old parents. I am not that old and I still find running after them hard. How much energy can a 55 or 60-year-old have?"
Hagenbach goes further: "I think this is completely contrary to the natural law," she says. "Why have a child at this stage in life? Is it to give meaning to life or to have someone to love you, or is it to fulfil some unmet need? To me it smacks of a world where we think we should be able to have whatever we want whenever we want it."
It remains to be seen what the children of these elderly parents will feel when they grow up. Perhaps De Niro's daughter will make a film about it.