Language Needs To Change Around Terms Used To Describe People Who Get Pregnant Later in Life

New research supports the idea that how we talk about older pregnant people is outdated and reflects ageism and ableism.

When I was pregnant with my fifth child at the age of 41, I might as well have been 81—at least that is how I felt I was treated by some (very well-meaning) medical staff. Case in point: A nurse who was about 81 (for real), said to me while discussing my upcoming gestational diabetes test, "You know, as we get older this can happen."

Um, we? While this nurse was caring and helpful in so many ways, her comment is indicative of outdated attitudes toward parents who are over 35—and over 40. And in fact, now there's new research to back up the idea that language around older pregnant people is outdated and needs to change to reflect current trends.

First, some statistics. The rate of first births among people ages 35 to 39 rose in almost every state in the country between 2002 and 2012 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And, tellingly, the first birth rates among 40- to 44-year-olds rose as much as 60% in certain states, including South Carolina, and 59.9% in a large swath of the Midwest.

Still, there's no doubt that certain pregnancy-related risks increase with age, including having a baby with Down Syndrome and being diagnosed with gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as losing a pregnancy. But to be fair, these risks exist to some extent no matter how old you are when you get pregnant.

With all of this in mind, Francesca Scala, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada, authored an article published in the journal Health, Risk and Society that asserts how older pregnant people are talked about reflects undue ageism and ableism—as in, people over a certain age are somehow less capable of being pregnant and taking care of a baby due to their so-called geriatric status—something I know a lot about. Scala argues that although pregnancy rates among older people are rising, inexplicably, nothing has changed with how official documents refer to this group of would-be parents.

If you're a pregnant person over 35, think about how many times you've heard terms like "advanced maternal age" or have been called "older." According to Scala and her co-author, Michael Orsini, and as discussed in Science Daily, when they looked at professional statements and other official documents published between 1993 and 2020, this language was used in abundance. It's important to note that the researchers acknowledge the risks associated with a pregnancy after 35, but as Scala says, "Our goal as social scientists was not to challenge statistics around biomedical risks, but to see if older mothers themselves were being problematized in these discussions."

Indeed, according to Scala, dated social constructs of moms and people who are capable of becoming pregnant inform how they're talked about in an official capacity as they age. As she notes, the person who gives birth is not always the primary caregiver any longer, with statistics showing the COVID-19 pandemic has paved the path for more equal sharing of child-rearing responsibilities between partners—a trend that was on the rise anyway.

Expectant mother touches abdomen while listening to unrecognizable doctor

The research supports another fact I live daily: Older parents can be better-positioned to care for a family. Although everyone is different, given that I've welcomed babies in my twenties, thirties and forties, I can tell you that now, many aspects of parenthood are simply less stressful. My husband and I have more money and confidence in our decision-making than we did when our first child was born 14 years ago—I would describe myself then as "clueless" and "overwhelmed." I'm also less stressed at each stage of my children's growth since I know behaviors like tantrums, and saying "no" 600 times before breakfast, will eventually end.

The bottom line is that as Scala says, it's about time that older parents are given a little respect in how we are talked about and treated. "Instead of putting the onus on women to adhere to their 'biological clock,' I would like to see more discussion about how broader social and economic forces shape women's path to motherhood," she said.

She concluded with an important question: "How can we, as a society, support [people] having children at their ideal time, for example, with accessible daycare, so they are not penalized for having children too early or too late?"

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