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Last Chance Moms

In recent years, Friday pau hanas for my group of 40-something friends have somehow morphed into Friday playdates for our toddlers. Discussions about careers and dream vacations have given way to talk about birthday parties, the best baby gear and childcare. Even the playful competitive one-upmanship among the dads no longer involves football or golf scores, but rather baby milestones.


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Photo by Mark Arbeit

Michelle Doo Van Rafelghem, 43, with her son, Luke.
My friends are part of a growing number of women who have delayed motherhood until they are well educated, well established and well traveled. Dubbed “last-chance moms” by the media, this label describes the increase in first-time mothers over the age of 35 in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of first-time birth rates for women ages 35 to 39 more than doubled in the 1980s, while birth rates among women ages 20 to 29 declined.

Hawaii mirrors this national trend. According to the 2006 edition of Health Trends in Hawaii, which uses source data from Hawaii’s state Department of Health, the greatest increase in birth rates since 1980 to 2003 was among mothers 40 and older, followed by mothers ages 35 to 39. For women in these two older age groups, the birth rate increased by more than 100 percent (approximately 36,000 to 75,000 births a year). During this same time period, the birth rates for women ages 20 to 29 have either dropped or remained stable.

Much that is written about this group of moms characterizes them as women who have postponed family until they have accomplished personal goals. But “last-chance moms” are notable in that they also give motherhood a lot of thought. Few older mothers get pregnant by chance, nor does one casually adopt, or accidentally undergo fertility treatment. Here, we profile four Island women who embody the reasons more and more women are becoming older mothers.

A Struggle to Conceive

“I got married at 27 and started trying to get pregnant at 33,” says Jessica Perez-Mesa, a pharmaceutical representative. When Perez-Mesa finally got pregnant at 36, she miscarried. She says she was sad, but also relieved because “we knew everything worked and that I was at least able to get pregnant.”

She and her husband, Carlos, an attorney, kept trying, unsuccessfully. When a close friend got pregnant after trying for one month, Perez-Mesa remembers, “I was really, really upset. I kept thinking something was wrong with me. I started infertility treatments when I was 37.”

Although the couple was assessed to be an “easy case,” heartache and disappointment ensued. Over the next couple of years, they did numerous testing, 20 intrauterine insemination procedures, surgery to correct endometriosis and three invitro fertilization attempts. “It was the worst time in my life,” recalls Jessica, “We were supposed to be ‘easy,’ but nothing was working. We even started doing acupuncture and herbs. It got to be crazy.”

Photo by Mark Arbeit

Jessica Perez-Mesa struggled for nearly a decade to have children.

“Even more horrible,” adds Perez-Mesa, “was people assuming we didn’t want kids and making hurtful remarks.” She dreaded meeting new people because they would inevitably ask her why they were childless (“I would in my mind think, ‘because I’m sterile,’” says Perez-Mesa). She was often told to hurry up because “time was ticking,” or that she was selfish because she didn’t want to adopt.

In 2004, they decided to do one last procedure, then consider other options, including remaining childless. But it worked, and after 13 years of marriage, the couple, then in their 40s, welcomed Carlos Jr. Soon after her son was born, life unexpectedly blessed them a second time and Jessica, at 42, gave birth in March to a baby girl, Ava.

Jessica feels fortunate to have her family and has learned the importance of being balanced. “I used to want to climb up the corporate ladder. But given what we went through, I realize that a high-powered job isn’t everything.” She also makes her marriage top priority. “We feel that our marriage, and not the kids, should be the center. It makes for a happier mom and dad and we think that’s better for the children.”


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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