During my first year of being a mother, I have frequently been asked when I am out with my son whether he is my first and only child. The person asking the question will sometimes look at us with a twinkle in the eye and wonder out loud whether a second child might be considered. To be polite, I might say, “Maybe!” Usually the unsuspecting person might not know that they are facing a 42 year old and that I feel blessed enough to have the one.
Such is the reality of being a first time mom post 40. In my last post, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”, I shared my personal journey with deciding to become a parent. I suspect from sharing experiences with other parents and almost-parents, many of the quandaries and questions I encountered were universal, no matter one’s age. However, the decision to become a parent after the age of 40 had additional implications that weighed on me considerably (and still do after having become a mother).
While I am lucky to have my parents and parent-in-laws, who are in their early 70s, in good health, I am aware of peers who might be in the “sandwich years”, whereby they are caring for both their children and their parents. I am also fortunate enough to have sisters who live relatively close to my parents and have close relationships with them, while I live out my family adventure on the other side of the globe in New Zealand. I like to think that there will still be several years to come of wonderful opportunities for my son and all his grandparents to bond. Nevertheless, as my planning and goals have now been shifted to include the future of my son as well as our life post retirement, I want to know that my own parents will be comfortable and in good hands as time goes by. During my late 20’s and early 30’s, I witnessed my mother’s parents graduate into their 10th decade in good health and frame of mind. I naively thought they would live forever and never for a second considered the behind-the-scenes plotting and planning they undertook with my mother and aunt to ensure they had good quality of life in their remaining years. It wasn’t until my grandmother’s decline in health in her last year and then her eventual passing at 99, that I realized how much my mother had committed to her parents’ happiness, health and well-being in their last years. This was a final act of love, which I too would like to pass on some day. It’s not to say I was heartless in my late 20’s and unwilling to think of my own parents’ needs. Nevertheless, it wasn’t on my radar during that time. Having become a parent later in life, I’ve taken on a different perspective of being a caregiver since I have been able to witness the full arc of life, from the birth and early years of my now 30 year old sister and adolescent nieces and nephews, to the decline and passing of my grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Just as I would like to be able to provide for my parents in some form as they age, I would also like to ensure my son has a happy childhood. Yet, I am sometimes wracked with guilt knowing what could lie ahead for him as we, his parents, age. Will both of us be in good health for many decades to come or could we be stricken with cancer or Alzheimer’s when he is still relatively young? I know it’s a horrible thought, but I sometimes silently despair to think of his prime adventure and self-discovery years being robbed of him as he worries about us or the timing of starting his own family. While recently sharing my anxiety of this with my sister Rachel and her husband Craig, their 12 year old son Nick overheard the conversation, piped up and offered to be there to help and support our son, if the need was ever there. I am grateful and comforted by this.
A few weeks after our son was born last year, I attended a large breastfeeding event. My eyes quickly scanned the sign-in sheet in which mothers wrote their names and ages, only to realize the next oldest mother was 13 years my junior at 28! I luckily have never ever felt judged for becoming a mom later in life. I have read the odd gossip column in local papers in which people judge older pregnant mothers, who are deemed selfish and irresponsible for putting a future child at risk (as statistically, older mothers’ babies have higher risks of being born with birth defects or Down Syndrome). I also cringed while reading a Facebook post a couple of years ago from a contact who had guffawed at the ridiculous notion of being a parent of a small child in her early 40’s. “I’m so done with all of that!”, she wrote, her peers clicking “likes” to show their agreement. In that particular instance, I held my tongue (or my finger away from the keyboard), but I wanted to lash out and say, “Well, I could never ever imagine having spent my 20’s changing diapers!!!” Yet her comment brought to my attention that in your early 40’s, you find yourself in the unique situation whereby you could be a new parent of a baby while also having same-aged peers who have grown up children in university or even with children of their own.
And here’s the thing. While I myself love and relish every moment of motherhood right now, I recognize that I am a late bloomer. I would have been in no position to bring a child into this world at 20, 30 or even 35 for that matter. I was too busy focusing on my own needs and discovering myself. As I reflected in my earlier piece that the desire to become a mother suddenly hit me like a freight train at 36, I can also empathize that that some people know this at a younger age or they may just have different life experiences. While I was pregnant, I downloaded a pregnancy app on my phone, which included discussion forums. Eager to not feel alone and find other mature pregnant women, I caught a glimpse of a discussion forum from expectant teenage moms. Some of the very issues I imagined society to judge me on as an older mother were in actuality being directed more at these young women. They lamented how so many older adults had warned them that they were throwing their lives away or that they would not be able to provide a good start of life for their children. It saddened me that these young women had to join online forums to get support and commiserate with strangers for encouragement.
With that also came the upsetting realization that pregnant women will be judged no matter their age. If you’re 20 or younger, you’re considered too young in many societies. In some corners of the world though, you may be expected to have a child and have no say in the matter. If you’re 25-30, you may be expected to have a child or at least be considering it. Meanwhile, I have witnessed in China that you are practically over the hill at 30 and if you’re considering a family at that age, you’re coming into the game a bit late. And in most parts of the world, even progressive countries, 35 is considered very mature. Many societies are also quick to point their fingers at women who become pregnant unplanned or bring a child into this world on their own. Politicians, community members and strangers all think they know what’s best for said women and her children. This is when I realized my perceived sense of awkwardness about being an older mother was just that. The real issue was so much bigger than me and my son. There will always be others to judge. I realized I had a good plan in place for our son and that I would have a good support network. Knowing that was enough.
31 years ago, my mother became pregnant with my little sister at 42. At the time, I was mortified with the idea of being the only kid in sixth grade with a pregnant mother (yes, I am ashamed to say this was true). Growing up, my little sister Cristin was in some ways an only child at home, as my older sister Rachel and I were off in college by the time Cris started school. Cris’s friends’ parents were all 10-15 years younger than my mom. Through the years, I have seen my mom sustain these friendships with these other mothers in the community. She’s been a role model of sorts as they experience what she experienced already- sending children off to college, preparing for becoming grandparents, and also caring for aging parents. Having become a parent in my early 40’s myself, I am reassured from my mother’s experiences with Cristin that raising my son will perhaps bring me into a community of other parents and children that will grow and last for decades. Similarly, the power of social media has allowed me to learn that I am far from being alone as a post-40’s new mom. There are many of us out there.
Last month, my son and I were lucky enough to celebrate Cristin’s 30th birthday with her, her husband Ned, and my mom. With the big 3-0 looming before her, several people had made hints to Cristin about getting on with planning a family. The thing is, she and Ned are really happy right now, enjoying their life as it is, hiking on weekends, hanging out with their friends, traveling to Iceland or Montana to take photos, and then just enjoying time with both their parents and Ned’s grandfather. Having both a mom and an older sister give birth in their 40’s has reassured her that there’s no rush.
I share my experience because I want there to be more positive stories about becoming a parent after 40, or for that matter doing it when the time feels right for you. Whether you’re a single woman, a single man, a hetero married or unmarried couple, or two women or two men, and whether you plan to have children naturally or plan to adopt, find the support from those who will offer it to you and ignore the naysayers in your life.
Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends who are mothers, fathers, grandparents and aunts and uncles of all ages!
How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?