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Last Chance Kids : Are Children Born to Older Parents Better Off? The Kids Themselves Aren't So Sure, Says a New Book

July 20, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

When they were kids, some of them feared they would awaken to find that one of their parents had died in the night. One woman was so afraid her parents would die in their sleep, she visited their bedroom to check that they were still breathing.

More commonly, these adults cite such standard childhood embarrassments as hearing a waiter in a restaurant say to their parents, "Oh, I see you brought your grandchildren."

And for some offspring of older parents, the pressures only intensified with time.

Debra McKee, 33, a hairdresser-graduate student from Whittier who has lost touch with her father and whose mother died a year ago, recalled: "My mom was 39 when I was born and my father was 50. They were already grandparents by the time they had me.

"When I was 20, my mother was on Social Security and becoming more dependent on me. I thought I'd have to hurry up and have my kids so they could have time with her and she could enjoy them before she died."

Yet other children of older parents cherish the reality that their parents differed from the norm. "They had their act together," David Wilson, a 38-year-old actor and television host, said of his mother (39 when he was born) and recently deceased father (50 at his birth).

"They were very healthy and fairly fit. Their wiseness and stability were real advantages. It really helped me have a more settled feeling in growing up, especially in the flaky business that I'm in."

Controversial New Book

Sociologist Monica Morris calls individuals like Wilson and McKee "last-chance children." And in her controversial new book ("Last-Chance Children, Growing Up With Older Parents": Columbia University Press), the author describes research that may rock the bassinets of couples who are deferring parenting until their late 30s and beyond. Already, she acknowledged, she has been accused by some older parents of stirring up trouble where none exists.

Among Morris' findings: While there are many benefits to being the child of older parents, about half the grown children in her survey also perceived painful disadvantages.

And while the subject of late-parenting has been explored repeatedly in social research and the popular press, Morris claims her book offers one of the first investigations of children's perceptions of what it means to live with older parents.

A sociology professor at Cal State Los Angeles, Morris was intrigued at the numbers of women postponing childbirth and talking only of how wonderful this would be for their offspring. How nice it would be, this view held, that these babies would be born into households that were ready for them, economically and emotionally. What a boon that parents would have a chance to know who they were before having to help a clone of themselves deal with the same discovery.

The only time Morris encountered people exploring the disadvantages of late-parenting was on a television situation comedy, "The Cosby Show." In one episode, she recalled Clair Huxtable's consideration of having another child before the last seconds on her biological clock ticked away, and Cliff Huxtable's response: "By the time that child leaves home, we'll be ready to go to one."

The Huxtables finally nixed the idea of another baby. But increasing numbers of Americans have decided in favor of the option; the U.S. Census Bureau has charted a dramatic increase in mothers bearing children at age 35 or later.

Martin O'Connell, chief of the Bureau's fertility statistics branch, said there was a 71% increase in births to women 35 and older between 1975 and 1985. (Though such births are still in the minority, they grew from about 4.6% or 143,356 of the recorded births in 1975 to about 6.5% or 243,832 of the births in 1985.)

Although no official vital statistics exist for the years since, O'Connell said unofficial "survey data" collected by the Census Bureau suggests the trend continues. More births to mothers 35 and older also are being predicted, in part because the number of women in that age group also is expected to increase in the next few years, he said.

Because Morris felt it would be extremely hard to gather a truly random sample of children born to older parents ("birth records are just not kept this way,") she decided on "a phenomenological approach." She told people she was looking to interview children of older parents (one of her students posted a sign soliciting volunteers in a large Los Angeles corporation), and wound up interviewing 22 children whose parents were at least age 35 when they were born.

The result was not traditional "survey research," but data similar to that sometimes collected by anthropologists. "In this type of research one draws patterns from the findings. It isn't the standard view of what science is," she explained, "but it's still respected science."

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