Neal Duncan's first clear memory that his mother was different was when his junior high friends told him that she looked more like a grandmother. He was 13, and she was the 54-year-old secretary of his school.
"She was the same age as a lot of their grandmothers," said Duncan, 30, who grew up in a coal mining town in West Virginia. "My mother had gray hair my whole life; she had gray hair when I was born."
Unlike some children of older parents who feel isolation and anger about coping with aging mothers and fathers when they themselves are still young, Duncan "enjoyed the freedom" the two-generation gap created.
His three much older brothers--the nearest is 13 years his senior--bore the brunt instead.
"My brothers told me what a difficult man dad was when they were growing up, he was very strict. And I never experienced that. By the time I came along, he had mellowed out a lot. They had already been through the traumas three times, so with me they were really relaxed as parents."
Washington artist Duncan calls himself "an accident," the fourth child born to a 42-year-old mother (who died four years ago) and a 45-year-old father whose other three sons were in high school. Both parents worked, and he was cared for by a baby-sitter.
Thirty years later, belated pregnancy is no accident and dealing with day care is no rarity. These are common themes for increasing numbers of couples who put domesticity on hold while careers soar ahead. Older parenthood is now glamorized in films such as "A New Life," in which Alan Alda becomes a papa after 50. Pick up People and see Sally Field and Farrah Fawcett with their 40th birthdays behind them and cooing at pudgy babies.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, 9.25% of births in 1975 to women ages 35 to 39 was to first-time mothers. The latest statistic available is for 1985 when first-time mothers represented 18.4% of total births to women in that age bracket.
"Based on the trends we've been seeing for the last five years, I would say that the figure has gone up one or two points since 1985," said Martin O'Connell, chief of fertility statistics for the U.S. Bureau of Census.
Whereas first-time mothers accounted for 6.3% of total births to women 40 and over in 1975, by 1985 that figure held at 13.2%. A statistical average on fathers' ages at the time of their first born is difficult to determine because about 14% of birth certificates do not list paternity information.
"Everyone I know has had children in their 30s or early 40s, and they are all career types who just didn't have time before," said poet Susan Polis Schultz, who lives in the mountains outside Boulder, Colo. Schultz, 44, and her artist husband had their third child four years ago.
"When we had our children, we were well into our careers, and most of the hectic pace climbing up the ladder was behind us. We are now able to spend enormous amounts of time with our kids," she added.
Schultz and her husband are in professions that can be carried on from home, but most people operate out of offices and can't give children "enormous amounts of time," unless one working parent eases up. While a hard-fought for, fast-paced job is difficult to slow down, mid-career parents are realizing that along with having children must come sacrifice in the work place.
'A Good Choice'
"You only get that time with the kids once, and as trying as it is sometimes, it's a good choice," said Tom Weinberg, 44, an independent television producer in Chicago. Weinberg's second child, Anna, was born when he was 40 and his wife was 42.
"I will say that it requires a certain tightness of the tether. You can't stray very far for very long if you want to have the kind of close relationship we've got at home," said Weinberg. "You can't go and make a television show for six weeks in Europe. I can't even think about doing certain kinds of work anymore. Does that mean I'm giving something up? Well, maybe. But I wouldn't trade it."
Added 45-year-old architect David Jones, co-partner in a Washington firm: "I never realized there was going to be so much time involved with having children." His two boys are 8 and 2.
It may pinch freedom and professional ascent, but time is the most essential gift you can give to a child who comes late in life, says Monica Morris, author of "Last Chance Children" (Columbia University Press). She's not talking about quality time; she means "quantities of time."
When sociologist Morris wrote an article on the subject for the Los Angeles Times, she received a barrage of letters from children of older parents that ultimately led to extensive interviews and the compiling of her book.
"I was overwhelmed by the passion of the people who wrote to me, and it fell fairly evenly," said Morris, who married early and is the mother of three grown children. "Half of them were very strongly opposed to having older parents. The other half didn't feel particularly negatively at all."