ADRIENNE BARBEAU THOUGHT SHE WAS IN REAL trouble. At age 51, the star of the 1970s sitcom Maude and such 1980s cult flicks as Escape from New York and Swamp Thing had just given birth to the second of her identical twins, a 5-lb., 2-oz. boy named William Dalton. A few feet away, the proud father—her husband, TV writer-producer Billy Van Zandt—was already helping cut the umbilical cords of William and his older brother (by six minutes) 5-lb., 9-oz. Walker Steven. But for Barbeau there was no relishing the moment; she had suddenly lost all feeling in the lower part of her body. “I read once about a woman who had a baby late in life, and right after she gave birth, she had a stroke,” Barbeau later recalled. “I was shaking with fear. I thought that was what had happened to me.”
The good news: there was no stroke, just a muscle spasm that caused a few moments of numbness. The astounding news: that Barbeau—in her second year of eligibility for the American Association of Retired Persons and already the mother of 12-year-old Cody from her first marriage to horror-film director John Carpenter—is reembarking on the dirty-diaper, sleepless-night adventure. On the whole, nature seems to warn against such late-in-life pregnancies. The chances of conceiving after age 50 are less than 1 percent, though that number increases by 20 to 40 percent if a woman uses a donor egg. That was how 63-year-old Californian Arceli Keh recently gave birth—setting an age record and making worldwide headlines. “Each case is individual,” says Barbeau’s obstetrician Dr. Paul Crane of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills. “Adrienne was lucky, but she was also healthy and hormonally well-balanced.”
Barbeau won’t say exactly which fertility method worked for her. But however she became pregnant, for Barbeau there is no better time for motherhood than the present. “She has ferocious energy,” says her good friend Wyatt Harlan, a Manhattan novelist. “And when that gives out, her bravery kicks in.” No argument from Barbeau, who is enjoying a 1 p.m. break from breast feeding in her four-bedroom, Spanish-style L.A. home as Walker, having finished his fifth meal of the day, lies quietly at her side. Upstairs, William is napping in the bassinet that Barbeau herself slept in as an infant back in San Jose, Calif. “I do have a lot of energy now,” she says. “And being older, I’m calmer and more relaxed.”
Indeed, the only bad news, as far as Barbeau and Van Zandt see it, is that they won’t be tooling around in their sports cars so much anymore. “There’s no way we can fit two adults, two car seats, Cody and our two cocker spaniels” in either her Mercedes-Benz or his Jaguar, says Barbeau. They settled on a $52,000 Lexus LX 450 sports utility model as the family car, since Van Zandt nixed the idea of a station wagon or minivan. “Driving one of those,” he says with a laugh, “is the sign that you are an old person.”
Of course, as he is the first to say, old is in the eye of the beholder. Van Zandt, now 39, was a lifelong bachelor and writer of such sitcoms as Fox’s Martin and Bob Newhart’s ’80s hit Newhart when he met Barbeau in 1991. He had cowritten a play called Drop Dead, about an aging TV star, and Barbeau came to audition for the local L.A. production. The actress, who for the past decade has earned her living mostly by doing a lounge act in clubs and voice-overs for commercials and TV cartoons (she is Cat-woman on Fox’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin), got the lead part—and the author. Immediately smitten, Van Zandt asked her out, unaware she was 11 years his senior. By the time he found out, he says, “I was already in love. There was nothing I could do.”
Except marry her. Even before the two wed in January 1992, Van Zandt and Barbeau (who has shared custody of Cody with Carpenter since their 1985 separation) talked about having a child of their own. “Family has always been the most important thing to me,” says Van Zandt, who grew up in New Monmouth, N.J., along with his brother Steven, formerly a guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Under the care of Dr. Crane, the couple tried their best to conceive. But when nothing happened after four years, Van Zandt says he had to reconcile himself to the probability that they would not have the child they longed for. “After a while, I thought, ‘You know what? I am perfectly happy with my life now,’ ” he recalls, ” ‘so if it happens, it’s great. And if it doesn’t…’ ”
To the elation of both, “it” happened in July 1996. At first the expectant mother felt an exhaustion she’d never known. “There were days when I thought, ‘This is what people feel like when they have a terminal illness,’ ” she says. But the fatigue passed after a week, and then it was all anyone could do to get Barbeau to slow down. “She would tell the doctor, ‘I’ve been sitting at home for five hours,’ and she really had been at the gym,” says Van Zandt. “I ratted on her a few times.”
Aside from some easily treated preterm labor around week 30, the pregnancy went smoothly. Having decided early on that they wanted to try for natural childbirth, Barbeau and Van Zandt set about discussing large issues—like the grand piano they were planning to put in their living room. Barbeau told her husband, “I think we should wait because there will be a lot of other things in the living room.”
“Like what?” Van Zandt asked.
“Like toys,” she said.
“No, they will be in the babies’ room,” Van Zandt said.
“He is stricter than I am,” says Barbeau with a laugh. “But that’s okay.”
Van Zandt had just finished filming a TV sitcom pilot, tentatively named Alive and Kicking, based on the British comedy Waiting for God, when, on Saturday, March 15, Barbeau started feeling very mild contractions. With Dr. Crane’s okay, she spent the rest of the day and Sunday puttering around the house, undisturbed by the still-faint ripples of labor. Then, just before midnight on Sunday, she awoke with a hard contraction. She called Dr. Crane and woke up Van Zandt.
Three hours after arriving at Cedars-Sinai, but still not ready to deliver, Barbeau was weak, exhausted and in pain. When the anesthesiologist began to prepare a pain-blocking epidural, however, Dr. Crane said no. “He knew I wanted to do this naturally if I could,” says Barbeau.
She could—and did. At 9:18 a.m. on Monday, March 17, little Walker pushed his way into a new world—and his parents’ life changed forever. Van Zandt worries about every little thing: his sons’ weight, the occasional pimple and especially the father-son bond. “The first day I left [for the office], I felt like a deadbeat dad,” he says. Barbeau is adjusting in her own way. She no longer worries she won’t be able to tell her identical sons apart. “There’s a major difference in personality,” she says. “Walker is a screamer. William is much calmer.” What does worry her is a possible change in her own personality. “My energy is pretty good now,” she says, “but when they are 10 and I’m 61, will I really want to be on Rollerblades?”
That depends, Adrienne. Certainly not if you’re pregnant.
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles