In most areas of our personal and professional lives, we understand that with age comes experience and wisdom. Yet, in parenting, “advanced age” has been viewed as a liability. That’s why, when a recent study from Aarhus University in Denmark found that older mothers have a more positive experience of parenting and that their children are less likely to experience socio-emotional behavioral problems, popular “mommy blogs” ate it up.
In the United States, where many women are waiting longer to have their first child, and where reproductive technologies are pushing the boundaries of motherhood into even older age, the study’s findings were an exciting complement to warnings about the health risks associated with “advanced maternal age.”
But for some older women who want to become parents through international adoption, the good news falls flat. Age is still considered an official liability.
A 2010 United Nations study shows that most countries place specific limits on adoptive parents’ ages and these limits can be absolute. For instance, prospective parents must be between 25 and 44 years old to adopt from South Korea – one of the top three countries sending children to the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department. Or, they can be relative limits – like Ethiopia’s, where a parent can be no more than 40 years older than the child.
By contrast, for domestic adoption within the United States, the legal framework offers only a minimum age. While the rules vary by state, there is often either a minimum age (18, 21, or 25) or a minimum age difference (a parent should be 10 to 15 years older than the child). Many states have no age-related limits at all.
When I was 25, I lived in Peru as an anthropologist researching adoption and families. I met a funny and clever nine-year-old named Camila at the local orphanage. When I asked an adoption office staff member how old the girl was, the staffer automatically told me I was too young to adopt her – as if that were the subtext of my question. I was told that at my age, I would have been assigned a child aged 0-3.
The adoption worker’s response demonstrated a more general truism: while the upper age limit placed by child’s country of birth is usually generous enough to include most prospective parents, the age restrictions on potential parents are tied to the age of the child to be adopted. What that means is prospective parents who would like to adopt an infant or toddler must submit their application before they reach a certain age. Older parenthood is not seen as a plus or a possibility in international adoption.
While living in Peru, I met a U.S. missionary who had been given a baby by the baby’s father, after the mother had died in childbirth. Though the initial “gift” was illegal since it had been done directly, instead of through authorized channels, the missionary was in the process of formalizing the illicit placement retroactively.
The 50-year-old explained that because of her age, “If I wanted to adopt an infant they would not let me,” through legal channels.
The age minimums, maximums, and relative age ranges for adoption internationally convey the idea that there is a “sweet spot” for the range of age difference between parent and child. What these numbers hint at is the idea that being a parent is a mid-life activity and that teen parents or parents over 50 are not suitable caregivers. The age limits also seem to unnecessarily tie adoption to a biological model by suggesting that parenthood over 50 is impossible.
This is not accidental. Adoption laws in many countries today can trace their origins to Roman law, where a man had to be at least 18 years older than the son he would adopt, a rule justified by its grounding in “nature.” More recent policies about adoption have also been premised on ideas about what is “natural.” Twentieth-century U.S. adoptions followed the philosophy of “matching,” prioritizing physical and social resemblance, particularly in terms of race and religion. The 1994 Multiethnic Placement Act made federal funding contingent on ending such practices.
However, if becoming a mother in one’s 40s or even 50s is biologically possible, available through domestic adoption, and potentially good for both parent and child, it begs the question of why, for international adoptions, parents and children would be denied that possibility? Adoption professionals don’t have clear answers for why this is.
While attending adoption orientations in Peru in 2003, prospective parents repeatedly asked the social worker at the front of the room why someone over 40 couldn’t receive a child younger than 3. “These are established criteria,” the social worker responded.
This rote answer is echoed in the various age guidelines that tie the recommended age difference to words like “appropriate,” “suitable,” and “best interests” without further discussion.
The implication is that parents in their 40s are less “suitable” or “appropriate.” Yet new research suggests it may be just the opposite.
Perhaps now is the time to jettison age limits for prospective adopters. And to understand that good parenting has no expiration date.
Jessaca Leinaweaver directs the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University’s Watson Institute and is a Public Voices Greenhouse participant with The OpEd Project.