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The biological clock tolls for grandparents

Ruth Pennebaker's biological clock roared back to life at age 49.

Her daughter left for college, and suddenly she was noticing babies everywhere - on Facebook, in the park. After that, it only got worse.

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"I was practically stalking babies in the supermarket," says Ms. Pennebaker, an author and columnist living in Texas.

Her "grandparent hunger," as she called it, made no sense: Her two children were both busy with university studies and didn't have steady partners. Yet, she'd watch her quirky and curious university professor husband and see ideal grandpa material. Bald-headed babies that reminded her of her own children were particularly attractive. "I swear it was something hormonal," she says.

Hormonal, perhaps. But her feelings speak for a whole generation of wannabe grandparents.

Canadians of childbearing age are delaying parenthood longer than any generation in history. Ten years ago, the highest fertility rate was among people between the ages of 25 and 29. Now that rate is found in the 30 to 34 age group, according to Statistics Canada data released last fall.

Reproductive technologies are helping modern couples delay their biological clocks. But their parents know there's no magic pill for aging. Some fear they'll be too old and feeble to dote on their grandkids when they finally show up.

"I don't want to be completely senile by the time they get here," Ms. Pennebaker says.

Georgia Witkin, a New York psychiatrist and obstetrician, has seen those fears among her own friends. Some bemoan their freewheeling sons who seem like they're never going to settle down. "They're saying things like, 'I don't know what he's waiting for.' Or, 'Oh my God I have to wait till he finds somebody.' "

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In many ways they're just craving a little playmate to spoil and take to Disney movies, said Dr. Witkin, founder of But their anxiety also stems from a real fear that the grandbabies will never come. "There's a real worry that fertility starts dropping after 35," she said.

At the fertility clinic at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Witkin has counselled hundreds of women in their late 20s, 30s or 40s who want an egg-freezing procedure that will allow them to have babies at a future date. They do it for practical reasons, she says: In competitive job markets, women want to establish their careers before carving out time for motherhood. Many couples need two incomes to pay their mortgage. Some haven't yet found "the one."

Egg freezing is baby insurance for these women. But it means something else to their parents. "I'm finding that a huge number say their parents are either paying or helping them pay for it. Because they want to ensure that they're going to have grandchildren," Dr. Witkin says.

While much of the debate surrounding delayed childbirth has focused on parents in recent years, only a handful of researchers have looked at what impact this might have on grandparents.

In a 1995 British Medical Journal editorial that cited statistics showing the trend toward postponed parenthood in the United Kingdom, Tony Smith wrote that young grandfathers are being threatened with "extinction."

He argued that society has been rash in accepting the economic arguments for postponement of pregnancy. Babysitting, caretaking and emotional support are all vital functions filled by grandparents, he wrote.

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"The younger we are when we become grandparents the more we are likely to enjoy it - and the more practical use we shall be to our children and grandchildren, too."

With their active lifestyles and large bank accounts, boomers may be more physically and financially prepared to dote on their grandkids than previous generations. Ironically, however, the way they raised their own children helped to ensure the grandparent delay. Many raised their children to pursue their own goals and didn't burden them with the same pressures a previous generation faced to marry and have children.

Ms. Pennebaker, who waited until her 30s to have children and faced the wrath of her parents as a result, said she would never pester her daughter or son about having kids. "I don't think it's fair to bring it up."

Indeed, in many households, the subject is taboo.

Amy Brown, 35, knows her parents would be "over the moon" if she or her brother, who's working in Hong Kong, had children. But she's still focused on developing her yoga studio in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood. She's grateful her parents have never pressured her and her husband to have children.

"It's not my decision to make," explains her mother, Joann Brown, who's in her 60s. For now, she says she's happy keeping busy with her own pursuits.

"You can be a lot more selfish, and that's fun. And then some of your own friends might start needing care, and you get involved in that. So maybe some of the maternalistic feelings that you might use on grandchildren you start using on your friends."

And her friends' grandkids are also fun to visit. "Buying presents for them is fun," she said.

Still, she expects her own grandmothering abilities might be hampered by the aging process when the children do arrive. "I can see I won't have the energy to run in a three-legged race with them or train for a marathon," she said.

But there's a positive side, she added.

"I won't find it frustrating to sit and play Lego."

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