After years of helping people talk through their emotional problems as a professional life coach, Aleta St. James's thoughts finally turned to her own needs. "I thought, I've done everything I wanted to do. I've taken clients to swim with dolphins in Mexico and meditated with shamans in Machu Picchu," she says. "I thought, You know what? It's time to have children."

One problem: Aleta St. James was already 52.

But these days that problem is not always insurmountable. The never-married St. James endured three miscarriages and spent two years working with a fertility doctor—and on Nov. 9, at age 56, she became a first-time mom, welcoming twins Gian and Francesca. "I'm ecstatic," says St. James, who used in vitro fertilization with donor eggs and sperm from an old boyfriend and delivered her children via cesarean section. "They looked into my eyes and it was like they knew me," she says. St. James, who turned 57 on Nov. 12, is one of the oldest women on record to give birth (see box). "As she took each one of them in her arms, she looked into their eyes and said, 'You're a miracle—I love you,'" says Art Cohan, a friend who was present for the delivery at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center.

During her pregnancy, marked by bouts of morning sickness and 24 weeks of half-day doctor-prescribed bed rest at her Manhattan apartment, St. James had plenty of time to reflect on those who disapprove of her decision. "People have said, 'Who does she think she is? Those kids will be going to high school and she'll be 70,'" says St. James. "My attitude is, if you don't want to have children at 56, you don't have to. I'm young and vital." Yet even her own doctor, reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Jane Miller, had misgivings. "In general I do not recommend people this age get pregnant. Just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be done," says Miller, who cites the risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension and kidney problems. Indeed, many fertility clinics turn away patients after menopause, and births among women over 50 number only about 250 a year in the U.S. But in St. James's case, says Miller, "there was no medical reason" to stop her.

Originally from Brooklyn, St. James, who plans to raise her kids on her own, learned her nurturing skills early. "I always was the one who healed the animals and the bird that fell out of the tree," says St. James. The oldest of three children—her brother Curtis Sliwa, 50, is the founder of the Guardian Angels, a squadron of volunteer peace officers—she acted (adopting the stage name St. James) and played in a rock band before realizing in her mid-20s that she liked to help others tap into their spiritual side. "The basis for my healing work is to allow clients to access and release what they're feeling," she says, "so they're truthful to themselves."

Over time, St. James's emotional healing practice flourished—a good thing when it came to financing her fertility treatments, which cost a total of $25,000. Winning over her mother, Fran Sliwa, 80, also took work. "I told her, 'Aleta, reflect on what you're wishing for—that's a big order!'" Now that they've arrived, however, the final results are already a delight. "The twins will be strong physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually," says their grandmother. "With Aleta as their guide, they can't miss."

Kyle Smith. Debbie Seaman in New York City, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Jean Macfarlane in New Delhi and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome

  • Contributors:
  • Debbie Seaman,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Jean Macfarlane,
  • Praxilla Trabattoni.