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Local women who became mothers later in life

Since the beginning of their relationship, Charlotte Capogna-Amias, 43, of Florence, and her spouse, Cat MacDonald-Amias, knew they wanted kids.

“We decided that she was going to be the first to try to have a child,” Capogna-Amias said, noting that when the pair married, MacDonald-Amias was 37. Soon after, MacDonald-Amias gave birth to their daughter.

“I say, I first became a parent at 34. But I became a biological gestational parent at 41,” Capogna-Amias said.

Becoming a first-time mother in one’s thirties isn’t unusual, although it’s older than average. Around here, however, it’s more common than in the rest of the country — Hampshire County has among the highest maternal age of first-time mothers in the nation, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2000, Massachusetts had the highest average age of first time mothers in the nation, at 27.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That has risen to 29.1 years, according to 2016 data from the Massachusetts Department of Health.

In Hampshire County, the average age of a first time mother is 233 days older than the state average, placing the county fourth statewide and first in western Massachusetts in regards to average first maternal age.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes that a woman’s fertility declines starting at 32 years old and decreases rapidly starting at 37. Additionally, women who are in their mid-thirties or later have greater risks associated with pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Delay after delay

Many mothers interviewed for this story, both on and off the record, tried to get pregnant in their late thirties. They encountered delays, including trouble conceiving and miscarriage, which meant becoming mothers took longer than they planned.

For Capogna-Amias, multiple factors contributed to having children later in life, she said.

As first-time parents, Capogna-Amias said, “We (felt) like we had our hands really full.”

Then came daycare costs.

The couple, who both work in education, said to themselves, “We cannot have our second child until our daughter is out of daycare. It would be financially impossible.”

When their daughter was 5, Capogna-Amias began trying for a child. It took two arduous years for Capogna-Amias to become pregnant.

“It really took me knowing solidly that I wanted to have a child through my own body to have the stamina to continue through (trying for a child) because just emotionally and physically, it was really hard,” Capogna-Amias said. “I feel like it was really one of the hardest periods of my life.”

She started with home inseminations and moved onto intrauterine insemination, where she and their sperm donor — a good friend and biological parent to both of Capogna-Amias’s children — went to Holyoke Medical Center for the procedure to place donated sperm into Capogna-Amias’s uterus. She became pregnant on the fourth try but miscarried.

Capogna-Amias started a months-long in vitro fertilization, or IVF, treatment at Baystate Reproductive Medicine — a process by which mature eggs are collected from the mother and are fertilized using sperm in a laboratory, before the fertilized egg is transferred to the uterus.

Before the medical team could retrieve her eggs, Capogna-Amias became sick with ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a hormonal response which can occur when a woman takes medication to stimulate ovulation, and needed weeks of recovery.

“I hate to admit this, but I think it can be harder when you have an older body. It took me longer to bounce back than when I was in my twenties,” Capogna-Amias said.

Capogna-Amias went through IVF twice — the first time resulted in a miscarriage and the second in the birth of her son.

“It was a pretty emotional and pretty anxiety provoking situation. I was terrified that I was going to have (another) pregnancy loss,” Capogna-Amias said. “Physically, I felt really great, I had a pretty smooth pregnancy. My anxiety was off the charts. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, really until the end.”

Capogna-Amias noted how two parts of her journey to motherhood, miscarriage and IVF, are fairly common.

“I connected with Empty Arms Bereavement and they were just so instrumental to my healing and getting through all the emotional pieces of dealing with pregnancy losses that were so intertwined with my fertility,” Capogna-Amias said. She now leads groups for Empty Arms Bereavement.

‘Never in any rush’

For Meghan Armstrong-Abrami, she and her husband, David, had two unplanned pregnancies, each of which resulted in a miscarriage.

“After (the first) miscarriage, we both really realized how much we wanted a child,” Armstrong-Abrami said, but she added that miscarriage has made them temper their excitement.

“We never have gotten that stereotypical excited and surprised because the first (pregnancy) was super unplanned and by the third (pregnancy), although we definitely wanted a child, we had learned to not get excited (and) to keep ourselves from getting excited,” Armstrong-Abrami said.

The biggest factor that led Armstrong-Abrami to later motherhood was finding a partner later in life.

“I always knew I wanted children but I always felt so young that I was never in any rush. I heard people talking about advanced maternal age, but I didn’t really take it seriously just because I had always been able to do what I really wanted to do in life, I thought (motherhood) would follow suit,” she said.

At 37, Armstrong-Abrami moved to western Massachusetts to start a job at UMass, where she is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguists, and met her husband. In 2016, months after their marriage, she became pregnant and her son, Tristan, was born when Armstrong-Abrami was 39.

Having children late, after having progressed in her career, had advantages for Armstrong-Abrami. Throughout graduate school, Amstrong-Abrami did research in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Barcelona, Spain, while also traveling to Costa Rica and Mexico.

“I feel that I was really able to get my passion for travel quite satiated before having a child. When before I really used to love packing up for the next place, I now appreciate routine and predictability,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “I am really grateful for having so many life experiences before becoming a mom because I think those experiences have really shaped my parenting style.”

The couple hasn’t accepted some common American practices for child rearing, specifically related to feeding and sleeping, which they attribute to having spent time in different cultures before becoming parents.

The Northampton couple is trying to conceive again, Armstrong-Abrami said, adding that she now knows how high the stakes are — unlike her first time getting pregnant. At 41, she isn’t worried about being perceived as “too old” locally.

“This place has older moms. It’s definitely something that you feel when you leave here. When I go back to Connecticut where I grew up, I definitely feel out of place because most people my age have older children,” Armstrong-Abrami said.

A change of plans

For Sally Rubenstone, 68, motherhood wasn’t in her plan, but she became pregnant at age 44.

Rubenstone and her husband, Chris Petrides, of Northampton, had thought about having children and ultimately decided that they didn’t want to. The couple wouldn’t cross the street to look at a cute baby as they would for a dog, Rubenstone said, and when acquaintances would show her baby clothes, she didn’t feel a strong emotional response.

“I used to tell people that I didn’t have the baby gene,” said Rubenstone, a college admissions advisor and writer.

Then, early one morning, Rubenstone found herself rummaging around her bedroom for her reading glasses, so she could read her at-home pregnancy test. At 44, she had been careful about birth control for decades, but to avoid a blood test at her upcoming gynecological exam, she took a pregnancy test. The results shocked the couple.

“We were really flummoxed by it. We tried to map out what our life would be like for the next several decades… and how we’d feel about it,” Rubenstone said.

While Rubenstone underwent “the testing that senior citizen mothers go through,” like a chorionic villus sampling followed by genetic testing, an aspect to the pregnancy was different.

“We really felt that we weren’t going to make an emotional commitment to the pregnancy until we knew (everything would be fine),” Rubenstone said. Once they knew that it was a viable pregnancy and that they seemed to be having a healthy boy, “it just became really real to us,” she said. “As unplanned as it was, we certainly were excited that we were going forward.”

Throughout the pregnancy, Rubenstone and Petrides wrestled with questions about how their lives and their friendships would change.

“All of our friends around here had kids (who) were in high school and college. We felt that we were just starting to get them back,” Rubenstone said. “Suddenly, we were the ones without flexibility. How are our friends going to accept us?”

While they maintained old friendships, they found a new community at the Northampton Parent Center after their son, Jack, was born when Rubenstone was 45. Now 68, Rubenstone reflected on her motherhood journey.

“Being an older mother allowed many of us to bring patience and wisdom to the (parenting) process that we don’t have when we’re younger. And, that in turn helps mediate that we’re older and slower,” she said. “At 45, I was much less anxious… I tended to look at (parenting) with a ‘One way or another, this will all work out’ attitude.”

Rubenstone is grateful that she is a mother.

“It scares me to think that I almost missed this,” she said. “Which tends to suggest that we don’t know what we want when we think we do.”

Healing from trauma

Rythea Lee, of Florence, said she was “absolutely, completely desperate to have a child” before she gave birth to her daughter, Torielle, eight years ago.

“I was 39 when I got married. We tried to have a baby for three years and I kept having miscarriages (before) the third (pregnancy) stuck,” she said.

Lee gave birth to her daughter at age 42. Intuition played a role in Lee’s journey to motherhood and has also shaped her parenting style. Although she always wanted to be a mother, Lee said she needed to heal herself first.

“I had a very, very traumatic childhood, and so I spent many years healing my trauma. It took so much of my life that I really wasn’t ready to have a kid until I was older,” Lee said.

Lee had two miscarriages from natural pregnancies, which were both devastating and blindsided her, in part because it wasn’t a risk that crossed her mind or that anyone she knows had talked about.

Trying to become a mother, Lee said, “was the hardest three years (of my life), especially because I was in so much fear the whole time that I wasn’t going to have babies.”

Lee, who is a performing artist and a therapist, speaks openly about art and healing from trauma on her YouTube series.

“I’m a dancer, that’s a big part of my healing process,” Lee said, adding that the art form was her childhood love and is a passion she shares with her daughter. “Me and (Torielle’s) dad are both dancers, so she’s around dancing all the time.”

A self-described “radical parent,” Lee home schools Torielle and ascribes to a non-coercive parenting philosophy, where the two create boundaries together, Lee said, adding that this parenting style reduces power struggles, rewards systems and bribery.

After years of healing, “I (am) able to parent from a loving, adult place and not a reactive, wounded place,” Lee said.

Parenting, Lee said, “It’s the most wonderful, hardest thing that I’ve ever done… Trying to keep this precious person safe and give them what they need — It’s very intense and wonderful.”

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