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Elizabeth Edwards: Heroine or Cautionary Tale?

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: Reaction to Elizabeth Edwards' death this week at age 61 has mostly been reverential. Tributes have poured in from admirers who eulogized Edwards for her strength after the loss of her older son; her grace under pressure after finding out that her politician husband had not only cheated on her, but fathered a child outside their marriage. Many have lauded her political acumen and powerful charisma on the stump, saying they wished she had been a candidate herself.

Elizabeth Edwards
I agree with all of this, but one thing I haven't seen mentioned as much is her status as a role model for older mothers. She had her older son and daughter in her early 30s while working as an attorney, but after the death of her son Wade at age 16, she stepped back from her career, focusing her energies on the domestic sphere. Within four years, she had two more children: Emma Claire and Jack, born when she was 48 and 50, respectively.

It used to be quite rare for women to have kids that late in life (although it has always happened; my stepmother's mother gave birth to her last child at 47, in the years before any kind of reproductive technology). These days, it's usually due to IVF and egg donation that such motherhood is possible. Although those processes are a blessing for those who use them, sometimes this kind of older motherhood makes people uncomfortable. Maybe it's because scientifically assisted motherhood seems to violate the laws of nature (even more than octogenarian daddies!), or maybe it's just because we tend to judge women more harshly than men. But like it or not, older motherhood is with us to stay.

In "Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood," scholar Elizabeth Gregory writes about how longer life spans make later motherhood more possible and enjoyable for women. "In the past," she writes, "you basically had to have your children early because the likelihood was you'd be dead before you were 50." She also points out that while Elizabeth was nearing and in her 50s when her kids were born, her husband, John Edwards, fathered his youngest child at 55 -- and nobody commented on that aspect of the story.

The double standard that judges older mothers far more harshly than older fathers may always be with us, but we can at least point it out, examine it and ask if it's truly fair. As Gregory writes in a Time Magazine article about the Edwards children, "It's always a gamble, but it's like that for people at all ages."

The big worry, as stated in the article, is what happens to the kids (even though Elizabeth Edwards stated clearly for years that they would be raised by their father after her death). There's always the fear that we'll die when our children are young, and statistically, it is slightly more likely that our kids might lose us too soon if we have them later in life. Yet there's nothing predictable about life, with or without kids. All we can do is be the best possible parents we can be, both as caregivers and role models.

From what I can see, Elizabeth Edwards did that. And if she learned anything in her life, so full of highs and lows, it is this: You can't predict the future; you can only prepare. As much as we worry about leaving our children behind when we die, sometimes they leave us first. Elizabeth Edwards will be buried next to her late son, Wade, where I hope she will rest in great peace.


next: Why It's OK to Discipline Other People's Kids
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
KS December 10, 2010, 10:27 AM

You can die of breast or other cancers in your twenties too. There is no reason to judge the age at which she had her children. She was a great mother who loved her children. Your age isn’t what matters when it comes to parenthood.

zandhmom December 10, 2010, 11:36 AM

I don’t think of her as either a heroine or a cautionary tale…she was a women who lived her life. period. When are people going to understand that every person on this earth is just tyring to live their lives. Some make a difference to many and some make a differnence to few but in the end of our lives, I hope each person lived their lives in ways that brought them peace and happiness.

Anonymous December 10, 2010, 12:24 PM

Most of us live past age 61 nowadays. I think it’s reasonable to have kids up to about age 53 since the average life expectancy is in your 70s.

And I think nobody bothered commenting that Edwards fathered a kid at age 55 because it was so obviously terrible that he had fathered it in the first place. That kind of swamped the story.


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