Methuselah’s Daughters

As an article in the DailyMail recently reported, Women are getting increasingly older before having children. The number of women in their 50s having children has doubled over the last 5 years in the U.K.; three children are born to mothers in their 50s every week in England and the number of mothers younger than 25 has plummeted by half since the early 1970s.[1] The trend is widespread in the West. What is the reason for this? The length of academic studies and the time it takes to climb the career ladder makes it difficult for many women to have babies before 35. Generally, they want children, but only as the cherry on the cake after they have achieved what they have worked for so hard. Perhaps it’s not their careers, but simply infertility or the fact that they have not found a spouse that is the reason for their childlessness. In the latter case, the heartache of childlessness is added to the sorrow of loneliness. Either way, women can find themselves suffering tremendously from their barrenness, whether it is self-inflicted or not.

The solution to all of this seems to be IVF, which makes it possible for the barren to become the mother of many (to misapply Scripture here). Single women can become mothers through gamete-donation; they no longer depend on finding Mr. Right. Menopausal women, having put their careers first, can have babies through egg-donation and IVF. There is, it seems, finally an end to all this heartache, and the pictures of Carole Hobson, Britain’s oldest mother, with her twins show a happy, though somewhat elderly woman.

methuselahYet, the happy-ending is not for everyone, and the question is whether a happy end is ever possible with IVF. IVF often does not work out. Despite three attempts per cycle, women only have a 30% chance of bringing a child to term; the older they are, the more difficult it becomes. In most Western countries, there is an age-limit to IVF, but not, for example, in India or Cyprus. Carole Hobson had undergone four failed IVF-attempts in Cyprus and the Ukraine (and probably much sorrow), before having some donor-embryos implanted in Mumbai. IVF-tourism makes it possible for the well-to-do, if they are lucky, to get their long-desired child.

But at what cost? Many children are sacrificed to bring forth a healthy IVF-child: children who didn’t meet the norm were discarded; others were frozen for future use and then forgotten; some were miscarried whilst others were aborted, because of real or imagined handicaps or simply because the parents didn’t want twins or triplets. If any other medical treatment had such a high death rate, it would be banned.

This makes one wonder at the mentality behind seeking a child at any cost. What kind of a love is this, if I’m willing, as a mother, to countenance the deaths of many children? When children are used to fulfill a need, to “cure” our suffering, this is not love. It may be done unconsciously, but the parents have de facto instrumentalized another human being to fulfill their longing, which is contrary to love. For love means putting the good of the other first, not seeking foremost what he can give me; it’s about gift-of-self rather than taking for myself; it’s about giving up my  desires, if called for, even if it hurts Couples who use IVF may in all other respects be very good parents, but at the origin of their child’s existence stands a utilitarian mentality, which is at loggerheads with the infinite dignity of the human person. It constitutes, therefore, a grave violation. We understand this easily in other scenarios: if I force somebody to marry me, stalk or rape her, then this is not love. I’ve used somebody to satisfy my longing for love or my lust. Though lust is not at the source of IVF, I’ve still turned another into an object to cater to my needs. There is some benefit to the child (which is not the case in stalking, rape or forced marriage), namely her existence, which is of infinite value. But it is precisely because of her incredible dignity that I may never use another as a means – NEVER. No matter what my pain, my longing, my need tells me; no matter what real or imaginary goods come out of this. This is a hard truth, for it means embracing the cross of sterility, and of childlessness, which, for some, might feel like a life hardly worthwhile living. Yet the fruits which come from using another turn out to be bitter and fall to ashes in one’s mouth; perhaps not immediately, but eventually. Some children, who were conceived through gamete donors and IVF, express this, like Lynne Spencer who states: “If my life is for other people’s purposes, and not my own, then what is the purpose of my life?”

What does it mean for a child to have a mother who could be her grandmother, leaving aside the medical problems, which the MailOnline-article mentions? In terms of energy-levels, capacity to adapt and bridging the generational gap, it is much better to be a younger rather than an older mother. Yes, there are problems too, when parents are very young. Older mothers can be great caretakers and probably have more wisdom than younger ones. But are ageing mothers something we should strive for? Young children whose mothers are in their 60s are much more likely to become orphans. If their mother lives into their own adulthood, then they will have to spend their early twenties taking care of their aging and dying parent(s). This is the time when they should go to college, have their first job, fall in love, and start their own family. Instead, they are housebound or at least greatly challenged with taking care of their old parent(s). If the generational order is respected, then generally one’s parents need help when we, their children, are in our 40s. At that point, we have probably established ourselves, our children are no longer small (or the older ones can help with the younger), and it is easier to take care of our parents. If I look at the generational gap, which existed between my grandmother and myself (though we both shared the faith and loved each other dearly), I would have found it very hard had she been my main caretaker. To know what is going on in current culture, be able to talk to one’s children about it, protect them, means being engaged with it to a certain extent – something which decreases with age. Yes, there are exceptions; some mothers get children very late naturally, grandparents can be excellent caretakers of their grandchildren, when the parents die young or can’t do so themselves. If this can be achieved successfully, all the better. But to desire this to be a more wide-spread phenomenon means causing much grief for children.

Methuselah is mentioned for his old age in the Old Testament; for good reasons God didn’t allow such longevity after the flood. Should we have our own female Methuselahs, who have children in their old age? The same will happen to us as did to those who thought they could be like God by building the tower of Babel: confusion, mayhem, chaos. I can only imagine the challenges for these children, when noticing their mothers’ old age, their having to take care of them early on, and wondering about their own origins, since they’ve probably been conceived through gamete-donation (see the effects of this in the study “My Daddy’s Name is Donor”).

Of course, there are Biblical examples of old parents: Abraham and Sarah were over one hundred years old when they had Isaac, and Elisabeth had John the Baptist late in life. But these are exceptions, even miracles. Some women, it is true, can conceive naturally into their 50s, but this is rare. There is a reason why nature has set a limit to women’s biological clock.

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However, this is of little consolation to the woman who sees the years go by, hoping for children, but who doesn’t have any. What can one tell her? There is no easy answer. Certain pains never disappear; they break one’s heart and no closure seems possible. They age with us as we age. This kind of suffering brands us for life; it breaks, shapes, molds us. Yet acceptance, serenity and even experiencing other joys are still possible. We have the choice to find a solution at all costs, which means letting our IVF-children shoulder the burden of the pain we refused, or to accept the cross ourselves. Am I willing to carry this cross, however crushing it is and however much it seems to make happiness impossible, or will I place it on somebody else? This is the question I need to ask myself.

We have two paths in front of us: that of life and that of death, as God says in Deuteronomy (30:15). The choice is between giving and taking, receiving and grasping, accepting life as a gift or seeing it as something to which one is entitled. In the first case, children are received as a gift, in the second they are not. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and perhaps not receiving the gift of children means speaking the language of love, even if heartbreaking. Whilst “producing” a child at all costs, no matter what the consequences, is ultimately a path of death, since need and not love is its source.

Yes, children are a great good; they often bring great happiness and life without them may seem dreary and empty. But even they, being finite, cannot fulfill the infinite longing of the human heart. Only God can do so, and only He can console us for our losses, and mend our broken hearts. Then we will realize that Golgotha initiates the new Eden: the Cross becomes the new Tree of Life.


[1] Interestingly, the fertility experts attending the Academy of Life’s conference in the Vatican in 2012 agreed that most infertility could be avoided, if people started having children in their 20s.

Marie Meaney, Ph.D. is the author of the booklet “Embracing the Cross of Infertility” which has also come out in Spanish, Hungarian, Croatian and German.  She is furthermore a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and her book Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Ancient Greek Texts appeared with OUP in 2007. She was an Arthur J. Ennis teaching fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia before moving to Italy due to her husband’s work in 2010. Dr. Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She also obtained an M. Phil. in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and a D.E.U.G. from the Sorbonne in Paris.
Articles by Marie:

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Such an insightful article! In a luminous way it shows God’s great wisdom and Mother’s beautiful plan for the family. The distinction between having children by way of sharing the goodness of life as self-donation and gift and conceiving children out of loneliness and emotional need captures the essence of true love–putting the other first and the self last. Man’s technology solves one kind of problem but produces new problems. It never sees the whole. Mother Nature’s plan and God’s design thinks of everything from beginning to end and from one generatkion to another. Thank you for such a sensitive exposition of a complex subject.