I Had My First Child at 45. Here’s What I Learned.
A little empathy goes a long way, and people are going to judge.,
The first time a stranger mistook me for the grandmother of my own child, I was in an airport, hauling my 2-year-old to a connecting flight. I was purchasing a bottle of water; the baby was having a tantrum. I put her on the floor to let her shriek and calmly made my purchase. The clerk gave me a sororal smile and said: “Grandchildren are a handful, that’s for sure. I’ve got four of my own!”
I smiled and said, “Yep, a real handful!” Then I picked up my daughter, who arched her back and shrieked, “No!” again and again as we walked out. I’m fairly certain the clerk’s misunderstanding of my relationship to my kid is one that will be repeated for the rest of my life. This is one of the consequences of having my first child at 45, and my second at 49.
You can be a grandma at 30, but saying that I have small children makes me seem younger to people. Because I’ve never been a younger mother, I can’t say what is different about being an older one. I can say that I did not seriously consider having children until my early 30s. I had the privilege of easy access to birth control and abortion, had I needed it. This childless time allowed me to focus on the things I wanted to do then: a doctoral degree, traveling, communal living and touring as a musician.
My initial plans for children with my then-girlfriend were disrupted by breast cancer at 35. Getting a form of cancer that doesn’t hurt except when excised has a different impact than other, more sudden and exhilarating brushes with death. It exacerbated what felt impossible — that I would live long enough to parent children successfully in a loving partnership.
Dependent on my partner’s health insurance for treatment at the time, my approach to mortality was shot through with trade-offs; I could stay with her, keep the insurance, disregard her dalliances with other people, drink myself to sleep and pretend I’d had a healing night’s rest. Instead of being compelled to live each moment with a cleareyed zest for life, I was a lackluster cancer-battler.
My alcohol dependence increased as friends and family tried to rally me from a deep depression. My drunkenness was an inarticulate demand: Recognize my suffering! See me! But no one could see my cancer, and my physical debilitation and drinking were read as a moral failing. I had radiation treatment on one cancerous breast and five years of an estrogen-suppressant drug to cut the likelihood of a recurrence. Eventually, at 40, I was in remission and I quit drinking.
My children are the result of a partnership I never thought I would be so lucky to have, with a man whose commitment to family matched my own. On our third date, when I was 41, we determined we’d have children. The reality is that even between 41 and 42, a woman’s reproductive odds drop sharply, and her egg supply is likely low.
We optimistically started our fertility project with intrauterine insemination, which saves the sperm part of the trip to the fallopian tubes. After this failed, we ratcheted up quickly to in vitro fertilization, hoping that I would be the miracle person whose eggs just needed a little prodding. I learned I am no miracle person: After two I.V.F. rounds, we decided to pay someone young for her eggs, a process gently mislabeled as “donation.”
As a 54-year-old mother of two young children, I am more patient and tolerant of both my own foibles and the shortcomings of others than I was when I was young — a useful trait as both a parent and a person. I care a great deal less now about what others think of me, but care very deeply about the needs and opinions of my family. I am more concerned with regular practices related to health and well- being; I have very limited time to myself, but that time is exceedingly well-spent.
How others gauge my fitness for parenting is really their concern, based on their own biases. If they choose to look upon my choice to become an older mother as unfair to my children, who will eventually (as we all will) become parentless, they need only look to the experiences of people whose parents are already out of the picture because of fundamental disagreements, addictions or tragic circumstances. How we lose and gain family is never ordinary.
Motherhood for me has ushered in an unexpected connection to younger women with kids. As a college professor who also works in public high schools, I am in regular contact with younger mothers. I try to use my role as their teacher to help them value the work they are doing as moms, and to let them know I see that work, and I see them, too. Maybe this identification is something like what the shop clerk felt when she treated me kindly at the airport.
Sometimes when I tell that story, friends remark that I should have gotten angry about the clerk’s assumption. “How rude!” they say. Other times, my friends will reassure me that I don’t look at all like a grandmother. But what, really, does a grandmother look like after all?
I came to understand the airport incident as a consequence of my unique path: I will be misread and my experiences will be assumed, unseen, unknown. Contained within this path is an opportunity to experience deep empathy and connection. For her part, the clerk’s comments suggested to the other people in the shop (who were likely uncomfortable or irritated by my daughter’s outburst) that it is difficult to care for a screaming child, and that a screaming child is not out of the ordinary. She signaled that she knew this was a challenging situation for any person, and that she saw my work. Grandmother or not, I was seen.
This essay was adapted from “Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40,” publishing Sept. 21 from Dottir Press.