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.