A 60-year-old single Japanese woman impregnated in the United States via in-vitro fertilization made headlines last month, rekindling a bioethics debate over how and when women should become mothers.
The issue was a hot topic in January 2005, when a 66-year-old Romanian woman became the oldest to give birth, after getting pregnant through donor eggs and in-vitro fertilization.
There's no question that women today are pushing their limits, biologically and otherwise, when it comes to motherhood. It's now not only medically possible, but culturally acceptable, to have it all _ career, kids, marriage _ and in any order we please.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, childbearing by unmarried women in the United States increased to record levels in 2005, and in 2003, the number of births to women older than 40 exceeded 100,000 for the first time.
These trends raise some difficult questions: How old is too old to become a mom? Should fertility clinics implement age limits for their patients? Is it fair to bring a child into the world when you're old, single or both? Who decides?
Around the world, there are all kinds of government rules and medical guidelines dictating when, how and how often women may give birth _ from China, where families are permitted only one child; to Brazil, where only close relatives are allowed to serve as surrogate mothers; to Japan, where medical association guidelines limit births from donated eggs to married couples.
So how old is too old to be a parent? There is no easy answer, because it's different for everyone. I can't imagine chasing a toddler at 50, or even 40, but that's just me. Every woman and every situation is different.
And what of the double standard? Nobody blinks an eye when 60- or even 70-year-old men with younger wives become parents, but when a woman in her late 40s or early 50s does it, she's accused of being selfish or irresponsible.
I admit that my own first thought upon hearing about the 60-year-old Japanese mom-to-be was, "That's crazy!" But looking past the knee-jerk reaction, I had to wonder: If 60 is the new 40, what's the problem?
Is it really a selfish act for a woman to give birth at 50, knowing the odds are against her being able to recover quickly from middle-of-the-night feedings, keep up on the soccer field or attend her child's college graduation?
I say no. There are plenty of 50-something women who are fitter, wiser, more financially stable and more emotionally prepared for parenting than their younger counterparts. Critics argue that it's not fair to put a child at higher risk of having to suffer the loss of a parent, but the truth is, none of us knows when our time will be up. Life is too uncertain to plan by the odds.
As for the idea of older moms having kids to fulfill their own selfish needs, the process of giving birth through in-vitro fertilization is neither easy nor cheap, and I suspect that most women who are willing to pay the financial, physical and emotional price will put their children's best interests first all the way down the line.
The fact that it has become more socially acceptable for a woman to have her first child in her 40s is good for families, because it means women are free to balance careers and kids in whatever way works best for them.
Women today are told they can (and should) have it all, and for many, that means spending a huge chunk of their lives as chronic multi-taskers, juggling a full-time career with the equally demanding work of maintaining a marriage, running a household and raising children.
For some women, this is doable and even preferable. Others, however, are choosing to do one thing at a time, launching careers first and then taking time off or down-shifting to part-time work so they can devote more energy to child-rearing.
Bringing a child into the world is a huge and scary undertaking; a lifelong commitment that comes with no instructions and many surprises. Any woman truly willing to honor that commitment should be able to do so, on her own terms and without being judged.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at email@example.com.