Joan Lunden addresses double standard women face after having kids in her 50s: ‘Why is it OK for [men] and not for me?’
Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.
When Joan Lunden started her now-legendary stint as a Good Morning America co-anchor, she raised the work-life balance bar for moms everywhere. Just eight weeks out from the birth of her first child —already expecting when she got the job offer, luckily protected by the new Pregnancy Discrimination Act — she had told ABC, "'Well, I'm going to be breastfeeding,'" she recalls, telling Yahoo Life, "This was a time, by the way, that you couldn't say 'breastfeeding' on television."
She was given an extra dressing room next to her own — with a little sign on the door that said "Baby Jamie" — for her daughter and a baby nurse. "I would come in with this little baby in my arms and put her down in the crib, get my hair done and my makeup done and be reading my script," she says.
"It turned out to be [network executives] were just taking a risk," Lunden says. "But what they got was a person sitting in that chair on that show who America could really relate to, because they knew that I was getting up in the middle of the night breastfeeding, changing diapers and, you know, going home and figuring out how to peel carrots while holding a baby. And I was doing all the things they were doing — and that almost broke down … the third wall."
She went on to have two more daughters with her first husband before they divorced — and then wanted to have more babies with her second husband, summer-camp operator Jeff Konigsberg, who is 10 years her junior. But she was already 48 years old, and though she was able to conceive with the aid of a fertility doctor, she kept miscarrying.
That's when Lunden would become yet another sort of role-model mom — by helping to lessen the stigma of both older motherhood and the practice of surrogacy.
"My husband basically said, 'This is not a contest to see if you can get pregnant. This is about building a family.' So, we looked into surrogacy," following Konigsberg's advice that they find a someone who is centered and mature "because when the press finds out that Joan Lunden is having babies by a surrogate at 49 years old," he warned, "this is not going to stay under the radar."
They landed on a "wonderful woman," Deborah McCoy (née Bolig), who had three daughters of her own, close in age to Lunden's girls, and who had already been a surrogate to twins for another couple. She was doing it, says Lunden, "for the most altruistic, right reason. It wasn't because she needed money."
Lunden says there are many misconceptions about surrogacy, including that the baby is the surrogate's, rather than the intended parents’ child.
"I think people wonder, well, aren't they her kids? No, she just had our embryos implanted in her," she says. "I mean it's basically like, 'my oven's broken, may I use your oven?' She says, 'yeah, you can use my oven,' and we put our cake in her oven until it's done and then we take it out."
Further, she says, "A lot of people think it's just done for the money … and sometimes it is, I'm not here to say it isn't. But if you go through a reputable agency where they really vet these surrogates," they typically require, as was the case with Lunden, that a potential surrogate be financial stable and already a parent to their own children, she explains.
Word of the surrogacy did get out, and Lunden decided that she would do one sit-down interview about the process, with Larry King — who would not only give her enough airtime to go deep into the topic, but who had had children through the same surrogacy agency.
"I knew I would get one hour of quiet, serious, no exploitation opportunity to talk about surrogacy," she recalls about her decision. But within 24 hours, some reporters had somehow hacked into the agency's online chat room and identified Lunden's surrogate, who called her to say, "There's a whole lot of press on my lawn. What do I do?"
Lunden jumped into action and returned a call from People magazine — which had asked for an interview already, though she declined because of wanting to only do Larry King — and said she'd reconsidered. The magazine flew her to Cincinnati, where the McCoy lived, and they met in a photography studio.
"And as we were walking out the door, I put my arm around her and I said to the reporter from People, 'she's having my baby.' And that was the title on the magazine cover: 'She's having my baby,'" she says. And have her babies she did — a set of twins who were named Kate and Max, followed by yet another set of twins, Kim and Jack, not quite two years later. ("I feel like I’m living on Noah's Ark — they’re coming two by two," she told People magazine at the time. "We weren't actually trying for twins again, but of course that's always in the cards when you implant more than one embryo.")
Today, Lunden and McCoy are still "very, very much" friends, with Lunden just recently sharing with her the college commitment photo of her youngest, Jack, a high school senior, who will play football for University of Michigan in the fall.
"You decide up front how much contact you want to have after the child is born," Lunden explains of the surrogate-intended parent relationship. "And she said, 'send me a card every year, and let me know when they graduate from high school.' Of course, we've done way more — we've flown her into New York and we've flown her up to [Jeff’s summer camp], the whole family … We've kept her in our life. We want our kids, as they grow up, to know that this woman facilitated them being born, and they're very well aware of her."
Each time the twins were born, in fact, her three teenage daughters and the surrogate's teenage daughters hung out together at the hospital. "They were all there over these two little bassinets, saying, 'What should we change them into next?' and they're changing their clothes," Lunden recalls. "And those girls, my daughters and her daughters, are great friends to this day."
Of course, while many moms would shudder at the thought of having a newborn — let alone four of them — with kids already in their teens and early 20s, Lunden took it stride. She quickly settled into the role of being an "older parent," but says nothing felt so different than the first time around, with the exception of a couple of interesting situations.
"When we went to the first [high school] parent night for the older twins, who are now 19, my husband leaned over and whispered in my ear, 'Don't look now, but the guy sitting directly across from us was [my older daughter] Jamie's boyfriend in high school," attending as the father of a high school student.
"And I see him all the time now, because our Jack is a football player for Greenwich High School and his daughter is a cheerleader. And we're all, 'Hi, hi!' And this is the kid that I caught climbing out the window in the middle of the night [as a kid]," she says, laughing. "But when I'm in those stands at the high school, or when I'm in the stands in the gym with my daughter, who just finished her volleyball season, I don't feel like I look that much different than the rest of the women. I don't really see myself, and I don't see Jeff and me, as being particularly older."
Whenever anyone questions her decision to have kids at an older age than usual, in fact, she says she responds, "You know, for decades, for eons, men have divorced their wives and married younger women — and had kids when they were in their 60s, 70s. I remarried at 49 and had the kids. Why is it OK for them? And it's not OK for me? I understand that I'm older, and I'm not gonna lie, I do the math. Everybody got on Hoda Kotb’s case when she started doing the math of how old she was going to be when the kids were 20."
But Lunden — who is also a grandmother, with two grandkids who call her "JoJo" — is active, still has a full career in media between broadcasting on public television and writing books, is healthy and cancer-free after a 2014 bout with breast cancer, and appears to have good genes on her side. "My mom did zero exercise, ate sauce on everything, never owned a pair of sneakers — and she was almost 95 when she died," she says. "You know? We will never know about my dad, because he was killed in the plane [in an accident when he was 51], but his parents lived till 95 and 96. And they didn't take care of themselves in those days!"
In fact, the biggest difference Lunden notices between raising her first three kids and her younger four, she says, is the "whole new world" around them.
"With this younger set, they have to live with the internet and TikTok and Snapchat and taking their picture every three seconds. And they're never alone," she says of her younger girls, who have "a lot more anxiety" than the older ones because of facing "all the stuff" going on in the world.
"They're in their room. But that doesn't mean they're alone. They're on the phone with, like, 15 people … I say sometimes to them, 'You don't know how to be alone. You’re never ever really alone,'" she says. "And I worry about that."
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