Pregnancy pioneer: She had twins at 53 and the world trolled her for it
By Keith Sharon
The Orange County Register
Feb. 16–She laughs when her husband says, “She is so old … she babysat Abraham Lincoln.”
Wait, there’s a better one, her husband says, before recounting the time a relative told his wife: “You’re not a cougar. You’re a saber-toothed tiger.”
“Can I flip him off?” she asks, jokingly threatening to use her middle finger, referring to her husband.
Mary Shearing is 78 now; still lean and vibrant and fun. Her husband, Don Shearing, is 57, and looks like Matt Damon will look someday.
“I’m a bottle blonde,” she says laughing.
Shearing still occasionally gets phone calls from around the world. When a 70-year-old woman gives birth in India, or when a 57-year-old “new mum” gives birth in England, the phone rings. “Do you have a comment?” some far flung reporter asks.
Does she have a comment? Are you kidding? Shearing will talk your ear off about her life and what she went through about a quarter century ago.
Mary Shearing was a phenomenon.
In 1992, a fertility doctor used a donated egg, her husband’s sperm, a petri dish and chemical injections — the basic ingredients of what is now unremarkably known as in vitro fertilization — to help Shearing become a 53-year-old pregnant grandmother.
Soon after that, the world went crazy.
Shearing was defying nature and God. She was evil; insane; a health risk; an embarrassment to her family; a bad example to other women. Her offspring, she was told, would never be accepted by the Catholic Church which, given that they weren’t Catholic, wasn’t the worst of it.
“It was a bunch of (bull)!” Shearing said.
She was featured on television talk shows from Southern California to New York: Phil Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, Leeza Gibbons, Marilu Henner and others. Mary would wear her “hussy clothes,” a wrap around, form-fitting top and a short, short skirt.
“This isn’t some 53-year-old grandmother,” she would tell them (though, technically, that’s exactly what she was). Shearing went through pregnancy and menopause at the same time. Wrap your head around that for a second.
Today, a question remains: Would a pregnant 53-year-old grandmother still attract so much scorn?
“I’ve got one thing to say about that …” Shearing began.
Then she said so much more than one thing.
She was raised in bowling alleys.
“No mom would let their kid go to a bowling alley,” Shearing said. “Mine did.”
Her father owned bowling alley after bowling alley in Pasadena, Riverside, San Bernardino. His final alley was Monterey Park Lanes.
After she graduated from Montebello High, she went to Fullerton College. Her course of study? “Party time,” she said.
“I had no drive, and no dream,” she said. “Women in the 1950s weren’t as focused on careers. The average woman stayed home and raised kids.”
She married Richard Johnson when she was 19, and the kids followed shortly — Mark (1960), Cynthia (1961) and Elissa (1963). The Johnsons were a nuclear family until 1982, when Mary and Richard divorced.
She was 42 years old, and she felt free.
She got a job as a secretary in Newport Beach. She started working out and joined a water skiing club. She was in such good shape that she competed in three bodybuilding competitions in Orange County. She loved to show off the muscles in her back.
“If I could have walked backward, I would have won,” Shearing said.
She got a job as a fitness instructor at the Adam and Eve Gym in Anaheim.
“I was re-inventing myself.”
Then she met a guy.
Actually, there was another guy hitting on her at a party, but that’s when the guy who would become her husband stepped in. She barely knew him, but, to save her, he pretended to be her boyfriend. That second guy was Don Shearing.
He was a graduate of Pacifica High in Garden Grove. He first met Mary in the ski club.
On the night he pretended to be her boyfriend, he was 23. She was 42. The numbers in their family tree read — then and now — like a math word problem: If two trains left the station going in opposite directions, how can a woman’s children be younger than her grandchildren?
Don is three months younger than Shearing’s son, Mark, who simply laughed the day Don asked him to call him “Dad.”
“I was kind of appalled at his age,” Shearing said of her first date with Don. “First, I was in the ‘Oh-God-what-am-I-doing phase.’ Then I kind of backed off.
“Then I said, ‘Ah, what the hell?'”
Don’s first thought? “She’s going to be a dead before I am.”
Mary’s retort: “No, I will kill you.”
Her parents got hung up on the math. They told her not to marry Don.
She didn’t listen. On July 20, 1985, they were married in Garden Grove.
A relative added to the awkwardness by telling Don’s mother, “Don’t think of it as you’re losing a son, you’re gaining a sister.”
The newlyweds water skied and had fun while everyone else worried about the math.
“Why the hell would anybody care?” Don said.
When Mary and Don started trying to have a family, people started to care more. They went to a fertility clinic at UC Irvine. But that didn’t work. Mary got pregnant the old-fashioned way in 1989, but miscarried.
Their effort to have children was so emotionally fraught that, in 1991, they briefly split up. Don really wanted to have a family.
Then she read an article in the Orange County Register about a egg donor program operated by Dr. David Diaz in Anaheim. She talked to Don. They got back together to give conception one last try.
“We said, ‘Giddy up. Let’s go,'” she said. “I knew I was mentally and physically able to do this.”
Diaz still remembers what he thought the first time he saw Shearing. “This is not a rocking chair grandma.”
“She was unique,” he said.
She was 13 years older than any of his previous oldest clients. He took her case to the ethics committee at Martin Luther Hospital and was given the green light.
Diaz placed four fertilized embryos in Shearing’s womb. One month later she got the word she was officially pregnant with quadruplets.
Two of those four heartbeats stopped early in the pregnancy. But two didn’t; they stayed strong.
She was about six months pregnant when a public relations man from the fertility clinic asked if Shearing wanted to “go public” with the story.
That story was rare. It is difficult to find statistics showing how many birth mothers are over 50 years old. One study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that in 1997, in all of the United States, only 144 mothers were 50 or older. Another CDC study showed that in 2013 the number of 50-something mothers 677, and that number since then has grown to 786. Bottom line: Shearing was, and is, an outlier.
“Hard Copy” sent a reporter to her house. Shearing refused to answer the door. “I didn’t like ‘Hard Copy,'” she said.
But she did go on other shows, where she was challenged by medical ethicists and religious leaders and people who simply didn’t like older women having kids. People predicted she wouldn’t live to see the day her children graduated from high school.
“What happened to her was unfair,” Diaz said.
Shearing didn’t seem to mind.
“I like to fight,” she said. “I chewed them up and spit them out. If I was going against God, then why did God give these doctors the brains to figure out the technology to get me pregnant?
“I was doing what was right for me, right for Don, and right for my babies.”
Better than OK
Amy and Kelly Shearing were born Nov. 10, 1992 at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim. Kelly was 2 pounds, 12 ounces. Amy was 2 pounds, 2 ounces.
Shearing had to endure people who thought they were her grandchildren. In typical fashion, she laughed off those comments.
Here’s the thing that happened to the 53-year-old grandmother who gave birth to twins.
Everything pretty much came out OK. Actually, better than OK.
Both girls grew up healthy and happy. They graduated from Fullerton High. The twins are now both in the Air Force.
“We had a gosh darn good adventure,” Shearing said.
These days, Mary and Don live in Goodyear, Arizona. They travel the country. They visit their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. (Gavin, the 6-month-old son of Mary’s grandson, is the newest member of the family.)
They laugh as much as possible.
If they had it to do over?
“Absolutely, we would do it again,” she said.
“We don’t give a (care) about what people say,” Don said, using a saltier phrase.
Should other 50-something women be inspired by Mary Shearing?
“If you stay in good physical condition and listen to your doctor and believe you can do it, then why not get pregnant at 53? It is between you and your doctor,” Shearing said.
“And make sure you have a young husband.”
Has the world changed since the media firestorm of 1992 and 1993?
She has one (more) thing to say …
“Things haven’t changed,” she said. “Meanness in the United States has gotten to a critical point. With social media, meanness is more out in the open. People appear to be less tolerant. People feel freer to say these nasty things. They hide behind anonymity.”
She suggests a certain frustration that has nothing to do with the words.
“On social media, you can’t punch somebody in the nose.”
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