Sandwich generation - it's no picnic

Last updated 08:22 01/07/2012

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Women are choosing to have children much later in life. Michelle Robinson asks why and what it means for the economy.

Raiding the pension to find pocket money for the kids is becoming a reality for New Zealand mothers, with more women in their 50s having children.

A 55-year-old Aucklander - one of the growing Sandwich Generation (see sidebar) - was the oldest woman to give birth in the past year, joining a 54-year-old Waikato woman, a 52-year-old Cantabrian and a 51-year-old from Manukau - all of whom will reach retirement age with teenagers.

The number of women who gave birth aged over 44 is double what it was a decade ago. Statistics NZ figures show 123 women over 44 gave birth in the year ended March 2012, compared with 66 in 2002.

New Zealand's "oldest mother", Hamilton woman Lyn Mason, says there are benefits to having children later. She had Dean, 9, at age 53, and Celine, 7, at 55.

"I think we've done the tricky stuff. Our challenges are behind us," said Mason, who turns 63 today. "People are coping with mortgages but we're more settled in that area."

Mason and husband Ian, 64, have no qualms about being the same age as the grandparents of their children's friends.

The Masons decided to undergo IVF following the death of their 11-year-old daughter Kylie, who was killed in a car crash in 2000.

Kylie's birth followed numerous miscarriages for the Masons, and Kylie was born just before Lyn's 40th birthday.

The Masons' desire for children was still strong, and age proved no barrier.

"It's never too late to look at the options. It's each to their own, as long as you're healthy," Lyn said.

The Masons make sure they keep active, cycling with their children and taking an interest in their school activities. "Everybody knows us, we walk in like everyone else. There's no differentiation. Sometimes there's a bit of tongue- in-cheek from the other parents."

Like many parents, they say the biggest challenge is keeping up with technology.

"They use iPads in the classrooms. We don't have one so we always ask 'How do you do that?'."

They also stuck to no-nonsense, old-fashioned parenting. "We've taught them to have respect for their elders. I'm sure a lot of other kids don't show respect for their parents, they rule the roost."

The reasons for couples leaving children until later in life include increasing living costs, better access to contraception and relationship breakdowns, the Families Commission says.

Aiming for late-life parenting comes with a warning from Dr John Peek, of Fertility Associates in Auckland.

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Encouraging women to push the boundaries with claims like "40 being the new 30" doesn't work for fertility.

"What people don't realise is that IVF doesn't reverse or overcome the effects of ageing," Peek said. "Once you're past your early 40s, the chance of success with IVF using your own eggs is very small. Our doctors are asking people to have their families by their mid- 30s, and if you haven't then get a move on."

The chance of falling pregnant naturally drops dramatically from 22 per cent at age 30, to 13 per cent at 36 and just 1 per cent for 46-year-olds, Fertility Association figures show.

But the trend towards older mothers it's not simply a case of working women putting off having children - men are also to blame.

Australian research into women's fertility shows many men are reluctant to commit to fatherhood, Auckland gynaecology professor and fertility specialist Neil Johnson said.

"As a society we've let down women. We're not allowing women to have their children when they biologically should be, which is in their 20s," Johnson said.

"That's a big challenge for society for the next decade or two, to create structures where women can have their career and their family - like men can."

Late parenting is almost exclusively the domain of tertiary- educated, white middle-class women.

"There's a group in New Zealand that seems to be delaying having babies," NZ College of Midwives midwifery adviser Lesley Dixon said. "There's also people delaying until they are feeling more comfortable about someone taking time off work to care for a baby."

Parents are also limiting themselves to fewer children than they were before the global financial crisis hit. In 2006 there was an increase in the number of families opting to have three children, but the trend has since dropped back, with the standard preference of two children again dominant. The crisis has also resulted in a 5 per cent drop in birth numbers since 2009. There were 64,159 babies born in the year to March 2009, compared with 60,860 babies as of March this year - a difference of 3299 babies, Statistics NZ figures show.

Youth of Today

While the oldest women to give birth in the past year were aged in their 50s, the youngest were barely teenagers. Among the youngest to give birth was a 13-year-old from Hawke's Bay and a 13-year-old from Manukau. The youngest girls to have abortions throughout the country in the past year were 14, although the abortion rate dropped last year, with 15,863 terminations performed - the lowest number since 1999. That has a lot to do with more women using long-term reversible contraception, NZ College of Midwives midwifery adviser Lesley Dixon said. The government recently proposed to fund the implants for beneficiaries.

Flexible work options crucial

STUCK BETWEEN raising young children and caring for elderly parents – say hello to the Sandwich Generation.

The economy will suffer unless policy-makers and businesses make changes to support this cohort of working parents, a business and management lecturer says.

The median age of women giving birth to their first child has risen from 26 in the 1970s to 30 today, with many more women giving birth into their 40s and 50s.

Tertiary-educated Pakeha women, in particular, are having children later.

It's not a bad thing, with research showing older, educated women make good mothers, Victoria University econometrics senior lecturer Stefanie Schurer says.

"Some research even shows that older women have better parenting skills, which leads to lower rates of mental-health problems among children."

While the children may benefit, the workforce will suffer from losing highly skilled staff, Victoria University management lecturer Sarah Proctor-Thomson says.

The good news is that employees offered flexible working arrangements are more likely to return.

"Women will come back happier, healthier and they will actually return," she says.

The provision of quality, affordable childcare onsite or nearby also goes a long way towards retaining staff. Positive steps are being made in legislation supporting flexible working situations.

Labour MP Sue Moroney's private member's bill to extend paid parental leave is one of them, although National says it will veto that bill if it comes up in the ballot.

The Employment Relations Amendment Act 2007 also gives employees the statutory right to request flexible work, but employers can still refuse.

It's not only parents who would benefit from flexible working arrangements, Proctor-Thomson says. Options such as varying start and finish times to suit employees, job-sharing, and allowing staff to work from home part time are all viable.

Experience shows that employees who job share tend to go beyond their call of duty, she says.

"We need to become more innovative in looking after a shifting cohort of parents."

A tertiary education system supporting older first-time students is also necessary, she says.

Government policy favours young students, with funding for the support of mature or second-chance students having been cut, she said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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