One day not too long ago, 10-year-old Jules Douglas "J. D." Laneuville Leal looked at the back of his mother's hands and took a pinch of the soft, loose skin between his fingers.
"You have hands like Nana," he told her.
It wasn't exactly a compliment, although J. D. certainly meant no disrespect. Nana is a close friend of the family. She lives in New Orleans. And she is 90 years old.
J. D.'s mother, Carol Leal, a child psychiatrist at University Hospital, wasn't surprised by her son's innocent observation, or at a loss for a response.
"I said, 'You're right, and with that comes a lot of wisdom.' "
She is, after all, 40 years older than J. D., and one of a rapidly growing number of parents who are choosing in the autumn of their childbearing years to have, or adopt, children.
Aided by advances in the treatment of fertility problems and the detection of birth defects that become more common with age, more and more couples -- and single people like Dr. Leal -- are deciding to take the plunge that so many of their friends took 10, 15 or 20 years earlier.
The good news for older couples on the brink of parenthood is that psychologists seem convinced that graying Moms and Dads can do the job just as well -- maybe better -- than couples who start in their 20s. Even more encouraging, parents who are already warming bottles, schlepping kids to the dentist or trying to communicate with teen-agers from the creaky perch of their 40s, 50s or even 60s would agree with Dr. Leal. They say they're having a ball. They can't ignore their age, and may even be self-conscious about it. But they insist it's no handicap.
While J. D. has challenged her and reordered the priorities of her life, Dr. Leal says the experience has held "all the joys I anticipated and more than I thought could be."
Not that women in their 30s and 40s have never had children before now. Until effective methods of birth control became widely available, women often continued to have babies into their 40s. And the job of raising young children still frequently falls to grandparents when the parents are unable or unwilling to do the job themselves.
What's different today are the numbers. Millions of women in the 1970s and 1980s put their childbearing on hold while they pursued professional training and career tracks previously closed to them.
Now these babies are starting to be born by the hundreds of thousands as these couples, now in their late 30s and 40s, decide it's now or never. The scale of the trend is swollen by the sheer numbers of people in this baby boom generation.
Women in their early 40s had more than 44,000 babies in 1989, a 33 percent jump in the birth rate for that age bracket since 1980, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. Women aged 35 to 39 had almost 294,000 babies in 1989, a birth rate 50 percent higher than for women in that age group in 1980.
Only teen-agers showed a faster-rising birth rate.
The census data also confirm that a large proportion of these late bloomers are college-educated, higher-income women. It is a phenomenon particularly visible in the health-care professions, where specialized training can easily stretch into the fourth decade of life.
But for these professionals, too, there comes a time when life's priorities shift.
"I wanted to be a parent," says Dr. Leal, who was born into a large extended family and always felt parenthood would be as natural for her "as having to wear glasses, which I've worn since I was 3." But through college, medical school, six years of training in child psychology and nine more in psychiatry, the opportunities were scarce.
Finally, 10 years ago at 40, she knew she was running out of time. With no marriage prospects at hand, she decided to adopt. J. D. came into her life when he was 3 months old.
For those who started their families more conventionally, in their 20s, and who look forward to some breathing room between college tuition and retirement, this idea of having to cope with spit-up and diapers at 40, or with the hormones of teen-agers at 55, is enough to bring on the shakes. But the older parents are prepared for the challenge.
"I know I have my work cut out for me," says Dr. Leal. Parenting at any age "is not an easy road, and that's a given. And I'm not sure people recognize that." But it has been no more difficult than she expected.
Parenting is no picnic at 53, says Dr. James Dasinger, a clinical psychologist in Baltimore and the father of Sarah, 12, and Matt, 7.
"Being older, I am probably more accepting," he says, but "some of the hassles that come up, I say, wow, do I need this? Like the head lice alert. I don't need this at my age. I've got better things to do. But I don't know that it's any easier at a younger age."
From his sunny office at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Dr. James McGee, director of psychology, says middle age need be no barrier to parenthood.
"My general bias is that older parents generally make better parents," he says. Older parents are "further along in their careers . . . their marriage has a track record, and some stability," he says. Best of all, "as you get older, you get smarter. You wise up and make better social judgments."
Youth may grant a libido, but it confers no wisdom, he believes. "We've got voting ages and drinking ages and driving ages. . . . But all you've got to do to have children is take your pants off," he says. "Raising children is far more complicated, and the stakes are higher."
Dr. Dasinger agrees. "After 40, I think I'm a much better parent that I could have been in my 20s. I'm much more tolerant . . . more flexible, more accepting of other people's behavior. My level of security is much better well into my practice, and that allows me to be more mature, less stressed-out generally from other parts of my life. I think the kids are better off."
Had they arrived earlier in his career, he says, "I'd never have seen these children."
That's another advantage to age, says Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "When you're older there's a nice economic change. You're usually not as poor. It's a hassle to have kids when you're poor."
That's not to say there are no pitfalls out there for some older couples, both material and psychological. Take money. For these late starters, college tuition bills may arrive just before retirement.
"Julius Westheimer keeps scaring me about how much it's gonna cost," says Dr. Dasinger who, like financial columnist Westheimer, moonlights as a talk-show guest on WBAL Radio.
After procrastinating for several years, Dr. Dasinger and his wife, Elizabeth, have added college savings to their retirement savings efforts, "but it's a real juggling act."
Because they've had more years to succeed, or fail, in life, Dr. Rosenberg says, older people may be more apt to want children to carry on the family name, to take over the family business, or as a way of correcting their own past mistakes.
If they enter parenthood with those attitudes, Dr. Rosenberg says, they are "putting expectations on a kid that will not allow him to develop along his own guidelines. . . . With children, you don't get a duplicate you. If you start forcing it, you're in difficulty."
But as for simply being older, he says, "I don't think that predicts anything. Certainly not anything negative."
Older couples are on the right track, he says, if they can say: "We had reasons for waiting, but those reasons are over with now, and now I want to do the next thing to complete myself as a human being. I know there are going to be aggravations. I know there are going to be problems, but I don't want to be alone."
Even so, aren't there more gritty realities to consider? What about those 3 a.m. feedings, the ear infections, the soccer games and PTA meetings, and the long, anxious nights waiting for a teen-ager to get home with the car? Aren't young people by definition better equipped to cope with the physical and emotional stresses of having children?
The experts again are relentlessly upbeat.
At 3 a.m., "I really don't think the 35-year-old mother is any more exhausted than the 24-year-old," Dr. Rosenberg says. "If you have enough energy to watch the [11 p.m.] news, then get up and go to work, you've got enough energy to have a baby."
For Carol Leal, the physical demands of a baby were not an issue. "I guess I was so invested in what I was doing, and being, I didn't think much about it," she says, although she did make herself less available for committee work, which no longer seemed important.
In some cases, a 3 a.m. feeding may even be a gift.
"Actually, getting up at 3 a.m. with Annie was kind of neat for me," says Annette Glotzbach of Lutherville. "It gave us private time." Such moments were rare during the day for Mrs. Glotzbach. She and her husband, George, were in their 40s and already the parents of three teen-agers when Anne, their youngest child, was born in 1975.
Energy, after all, is not exclusive to the young. Mental-health professionals confronted with a 50-year-old parent worn down by kids in the house "would treat that as pathological." It can't be just age, Dr. Rosenberg says. "A lot else is wrong with them."
In fact, says Dr. McGee, "Children are very energizing." To them, "everything is a big deal, and that in itself can have a very positive stimulating effect on a family. It can sometimes inspire parents to get involved in physical fitness, and do things they've never done before."
For Dr. Dasinger, having young children means "you can't be so sedentary."
Sarah has taken to horseback riding, so "my wife and I are now taking riding lessons." Matt is into baseball, so "my interest in baseball came back. I'm even getting into [baseball] card
Energy has never been a problem for nuclear engineer Robert Sanders of Columbia and his wife, Roberta, a former high school teacher. They're both in their late 40s. A stretch in the Navy and a lot of moving around delayed their family, but they now have a 9-year-old, Carline, and 21-month-old Melinda, adopted in Romania.
"I have a lot of energy," Mrs. Sanders says, balancing Melinda on her hip while negotiating around toys and two dogs in her kitchen. "I've enjoyed every minute with Carline, and there wasn't anything I didn't have her into."
"A lot of our friends have kids in college, and they're totally bored at home with nothing to do," she says. "I don't feel I have nothing to do."
All right, so maybe healthy older couples can't claim they're too tired to start a family. But won't their kids some day be, like, you know, really embarrassed by parents who look, like, older than Methuselah?
"Teen-agers always think their parents look like hell," Dr. McGee says. And "parents are magnificent at humiliating their teen-agers no matter what they do." But it's rarely fatal.
Here's what Anne Glotzbach, now 17 and a junior at Notre Dame Preparatory School, remembers: "I went through a period when I was 12 or 13 when I would not be seen with either of my parents. I didn't want anyone to see my parents were so old."
Four years later she is no longer embarrassed to be seen with her folks, or to be mistaken for their granddaughter, "although I'm embarrassed by some things he [her father] says when my friends are over, like, 'When I was young I had to walk two miles to school in rain and snow. . . . ' "
Being mistaken for their children's grandparents seems to be an occupational hazard for older parents.
But mostly they laugh it off. And increasingly, there's comfort in numbers.
"One thing I've noticed is that the people around where I live and hang out, we all seem to be these older parents. It sort of levels itself out. It's very nice," Dr. Dasinger says.
Staying fit is very important, these older parents all agree.
Anne Glotzbach says she was never really envious of friends who had younger parents, because her own mother and father always kept fit and active with biking and jogging. "My parents are not, like, out of it," she conceded.
But what about the gulf of years between parent and child? Surely a 40-year-old will have an easier time than a 60-year-old in understanding and coping with what a 15-year-old is going through.
Wrong again, says Dr. Rosenberg. "Anybody can understand a youngster. All you have to do is listen." Maybe that's why grandparents are sometimes closer to their grandkids than the parents. They have less ego at stake, they are less hassled and more experienced. "A grandparent has the ability to look back and say, 'These things can work out. I've seen them work out.' "
Besides, he says, "Parents are parents and children are children, and there's always going to be a gap. And thank goodness. It belongs there." The fact is, "We are much more concerned, as kids, with the fact that different parents have different values."
Kids have always complained that their parents won't let them do what their friends get away with. And perhaps that is a special problem for older parents.
"We find some of the parents of our daughters' friends don't share our value system," says George Glotzbach. Several of those families have single parents or working mothers, either by choice or necessity, and their kids are making choices about sex, drugs and drinking without the kind of close parental guidance the Glotzbachs have insisted on.
"Does [Anne] disagree with our standards? The answer is yes. Not always, but we certainly have disagreements on what is acceptable to us," he says.
This is how Anne sees it: "They [her parents] lived in a time when everything was peaches and cream. They don't have to deal with the stuff we do, like drugs and alcohol and sex. I don't think they understand the responsibilities I have. I don't think they can relate to me. But they try."
But in the end, she admitted, "I have come to realize that most of their values and habits have rubbed off on me. A lot of people tell me I'm exactly like my father. I'm pleased they raised me to be the person I am now. At the time, I was annoyed, but now I'm kind of glad they did what they did."
Music to a parent's ears.
But what about a couple of other inescapable realities of becoming parents in your late 30s or 40s? Young parents may have more of a struggle in the beginning, but they'll likely live to see their children grown and to enjoy their grandchildren longer.
Older parents do have a legitimate concern about the financial well-being of their family, should one of them die, Dr. Rosenberg says. And the cost of adequate life insurance is higher for older couples, especially if they have developed health problems. Couples will need to make room for insurance in their budget, but they should "probably make the decision to have the baby."
After all, he says, "Youngsters lose 20-year-old fathers in car accidents. . . . They can handle it."
In the final analysis, says Annette Glotzbach, "There is no guarantee." She and her husband had their first three children in their late 20s and 30s, and they're still waiting for them to marry and have kids.
"They'll all come along at their own speed and their own natural fashion," says Mr. Glotzbach. Who knows? "[Anne] might be the first one to be married at the rate we're going."
The important thing is, "They're all healthy, happy, employed and out of jail. What more could a parent ask in this day and age?"