Midlife babies: Older parents of younger children weigh in

For women older than age 45, egg donation is possible but not subsidized in Israel.

 Sarah Kaye, 51, enjoys time with Shylee, 7 (photo credit: Sarah Kaye)
Sarah Kaye, 51, enjoys time with Shylee, 7
(photo credit: Sarah Kaye)

“Are you their ima or their savta?” asked a little boy from gan while pointing at my twins, who were age four at the time. When I assured him that I was indeed their mother, the boy looked a bit skeptical.

He wasn’t the first one who didn’t get it. It started before they were born. I recall going into the maternity clothes shop at age 52, before we made aliyah. “Lots of women choose to wear maternity clothing when they put on a bit of weight,” the saleswoman whispered conspiratorially.

“I’m pregnant with twins,” I explained dryly, watching her jaw drop to the ground. I selected my new maternity dresses and lollipops to ease my morning sickness.

Apparently, I am not the only older parent to be mistaken as the savta of her own children and some people get pretty upset by it.

This is just one of many commonalities that binds mid-life parents in an interesting society. We’ve left behind in our 20s our days of running, jumping, and skipping after high-energy children and are getting on the floor for Mommy and Me. It takes a village, some great mother’s helpers when the kids are young and chugim (afterschool activities) as they grow to provide everyone what they need.

 Jack and Meira Golbert with twins Zohar and Sophia at 3, now 21. Jack has since passed away. (credit: MEIR ZAROVSKY) Jack and Meira Golbert with twins Zohar and Sophia at 3, now 21. Jack has since passed away. (credit: MEIR ZAROVSKY)

I will not say it is easy and sometimes it isn’t fun. It can be difficult dropping off this one, picking up that one, dealing with school boards, speech therapy and orthodontics, trying somehow to eke out a few hours of work, and keeping the house in a reasonably kid-friendly and organized condition – when did laundry become a reproductive entity? – while at the same time juggling caring for aging parents. We go from babysitting to bubby-sitting and chisel ourselves into more facets than a finely cut gem. Like any parent, we face an endless flood of activity from the time we wake up until the time we finally help our children brush their teeth and go to bed; but unlike most parents, parents in our age range can’t hand the children back at the end of the day to their parents because we are their parents.

Two things every parent I interviewed agreed upon were that having children later in life keeps us young and that those teeny preschool chairs are terribly uncomfortable for most middle-aged backsides. 

They all agreed that we had our children for the same reason anyone at any age would want to have children: It’s a mitzvah, an honor and a joy to raise Jewish children, particularly here in Israel. 

I put out queries on social media in order to find like-minded older moms in Israel who had children later in life and are now raising them while their friends are planning their retirements, travel plans, children’s weddings, etc. I asked them about their challenges, their parenting experiences and their expectations. Sadly, several moms refused to share their names and faces publicly out of a fear of “ageism” in their social and work lives.

Most of the women I interviewed had babies in their forties and some in their early fifties. Their reasons were myriad; some got married later in life while others had children while they were young, got divorced and remarried, and wanted children with their new husband. Some hadn’t found a partner and decided to take matters into their own hands, such as using a surrogate or donor eggs. Some who had teenagers ended up with a perimenopause surprise! Whatever the reason, we all found themselves in our fifties and some in their sixties parenting small children.

“My doctor laughs until this day and says I skewed the statistics,” explained Juliana (Joolz) Brown. After having two girls in her first marriage, divorcing and remarrying, Joolz had two more girls after making aliyah.

She related that a couple of years after having her youngest daughter, she was cooking a brisket for Rosh Hashanah, and when she smelled it, she burst into tears. 

“I was certain that the meat had gone off and I’d ruined it,” she explained.

“My husband said the meat was fine,” she laughed. “‘You’re expecting,’ my husband said. But I thought that was crazy. My doctor said that even though it was unlikely because of my age she did a test and I was pregnant. I gave birth to my first and only boy – a redhead – at age 47.”

I asked her where does she find her energy. She replied, “I’m not sure if we have the energy or we are faking it.”

Choosing the right place to live

Choosing where to live and finding a community with friends that can accommodate for a wide range of children and adults takes careful attention when you are parenting later in life. Frequently, considerations include finding a home in a community that can accommodate frail elderly parents. While many experience the “sandwich generation,” middle-agers with small children find themselves in the “Big Mac” realm. In addition to the considerations for young children, there are older children’s lives and schedules and friends to consider.

In Israel, some communities are garinim communities (young communities) where 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds lay down roots for their lives and grow families. There are older communities where the savtas and sabas age in their homes, occasionally hosting their still-growing families. As well, in some areas younger families live in one area and older families live in another.

People interviewed for this article chose their neighborhoods carefully in order to find a place that was not solidly seeded predominantly with couples in their twenties. They looked for places with many preschools, plenty of small children, parks and active older parents. Places like Zayit, Pardes Chana, Efrat, Netanya and Karnei Shomron are excellent examples of mixed communities. Some moved from Jerusalem to give their children a more suburban upbringing.

It is easily for children to find friends in preschool and elementary school but parents sometimes feel alienated and lonely being among 20-year-old parents.

Sarah Kaye, age 51, of Kiryat Hasharon, Netanya, has children ages 22, 19, 12 and 7, and said after having her youngest child at age 44 she became unsure of her place in society.

“I feel like ‘where do I fit in anymore?’” she explained. “I felt like I was stuck in between two types of friends. My old friends didn’t want to go on a tiyul (trip) with me and a baby, and have to wait for me while I nursed and changed nappies. But when I looked to socialize with younger parents they didn’t accept me as one of them. I felt like I was stuck in between two categories of friends.”

“I am allergic to playdates,” she elaborated. “We are in the religious demographic with women in their 20s. I will make a reference to something or a time and they look at me like I’m out of my mind. I tried inviting younger people with children the same age as my youngest and they didn’t invite us back because they didn’t see us as friends but as older established people who happen to have a child the same age as theirs.”

No Camp Savta, building your support networks

A mom from Efrat pointed out that, unlike other preschool moms who have youngish parents as backup care, being in your 50s means when you need a pinch hitter you really have to scramble.

“I don’t have the option of having my parents do the pick-up or help me after school,” she said. “The savta experience for my daughter is very different than for her friends. I have to build my own support system.”

Joolz recalls that when raising her older children she had her parents, two sisters, aunts and uncles. “Anytime I had a sniffle, I could call someone, even my grandmother, and have them watch the babies so I could have a nap.

“Since I’ve been here, I have one cousin who is a huge help – but she has family of her own and doesn’t really have time,” she explained. “There is no backup. I am lucky that most of my friends who are younger than me have kids of their own in a huge range of ages – so lots of babysitters. But we haven’t been away without children since the eight-year-old was born. Even if I can find babysitters or ask my older kids, they have lives of their own – bagruyot (matriculation), army – so I don’t like to make them do ‘work.’”

Indeed, building a support system is key to raising children later in life. Unless you have relatives or very close friends to come over when you need them and help you manage, you can end up in a bind. For single moms finding a backup is even more of a problem.

Two of the moms I interviewed live in Tel Aviv and chose to have their children in their late 40s. One said the median age at their gan in Tel Aviv is skewed older, usually around age 35+ with quite a few parents in their 50s.

“I have some really close friends and a great support system,” she said. “I’m on my own for sure but there are friends nearby I can call if I need help.”

Yifat, age 56, had her 11-year-old twins using donor eggs and is fortunate to have two sisters living nearby, who give her some respite when she needs it. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she wanted Jewish children. At age 45 she decided to make that dream happen.

“There was no way on earth that I was not going to have a child. Babies were the outcome I wanted and I was going to do whatever it took to have them. I know I am exceptionally lucky. I have a very supportive family. My siblings adore my children. As well, when the children were babies, I was able to pay people to come and help.”

One of the advantages for some of having children later in life is being more established financially, after working for many years, particularly when there are two parents sharing the responsibilities. Another advantage is that children tend to get more time and mindshare as their parents approach retirement age. As well, if schools call in an emergency, the senior parent lifestyle allows them to drop everything and go running.

“We were at a very special stage in our lives. We no longer needed to be centered on our careers,” said Meira Rice Golbert, a life coach who had her twins at age 49. “I worked part-time and we were much more patient than our younger counterparts.”

Meira’s fraternal twins are now age 21 and have almost finished their army service. The children were born as uncle and aunt to their three-year-old niece. It is years later and they all enjoy a close relationship. Unfortunately, Meira’s husband passed away at age 80 when the children were 19 years old. Meira pointed out that estate planning is a serious reality when parenting at an older age, and they (like most families I spoke to) have prepared in advance for contingencies and guardianship.

Simple pleasures, like negotiating a Shabbat nap becomes a unique challenge for golden-age parents. Gone are the days of enjoying unfettered shut-eye in a hammock on the balcony or stretched out on a couch. 

“Shabbat naps are what I live for all week,” laughs Sarah. “I say to my 12-year-old daughter that I’ll give her a million shekels if she please lets me nap. When she is busy, my husband and I do shifts.”

While shifts are a popular way to get some rest, particularly after sleepless nights, Joolz said she frequently wakes up from her Shabbat nap to find her husband sound asleep on the sofa, kids playing around him.

So what is the upside of turning your life upside down when you are supposed to be traveling, enjoying time with your significant other, developing hobbies, and trying out new restaurants and recipes for two instead of restocking refrigerators for hungry teenagers?

Joolz aptly offered an answer when she said, “I never got past age 23 in my mind. I don’t know any other way to be age 50 – this is our life. We are living the life of 20-year-olds in our 50s.”

Meira agrees, citing her own journey. “I came so close to not having the experience of having children.” she said. “I feel so blessed. The children are the most precious people in my life. Hashem has given me this opportunity – a partnership – to raise these children that He has gifted to me. I still ask Him to bless my children every day.”

So, the next time you see that young looking “savta” playing with her grandchildren in the park, think twice before you tell her she has cute grandchildren!

Hope for older singles 

Tamara Okun, from Toronto, came to Israel as a single young woman, and attended and organized events for singles for many years. She met her husband in her 30s and had four children, her youngest born just two days from her 42nd birthday. 

“When I was organizing events, the first questions men would ask me is can she still have children and how old she is,” Tamara recalls sadly. “I felt it was wrong. You are looking for a companion for the rest of your life. Nowadays, there are so many options available, such as fertility treatments and adoption, so why reject someone because of their age – before you even meet someone?”

She points out that there is no guarantee that even a younger person will have children; yet, being in Israel offers unique opportunities.

“Because government-funded IVF treatments in Israel are available until age 45, women here are fortunate,” says Daniella Gilboa, embryologist and CEO of AIVF, a start-up that develops technology to optimize the fertility journey. “Pregnancy rates decrease with age. Even at age 38 you can see a real drop in fertility. Once you’re age 40, the chances of getting pregnant using your own eggs is low. With assisted reproductive technology, your own eggs can be frozen or you can implant donor eggs.”

For women older than age 45, egg donation is possible but not subsidized in Israel. Assuta Medical Centers has a program that matches hopeful women with egg donors; however, in order to ensure a Jewish donor a woman would need to go to an agency that works with Jewish donors, usually in the US.