Musings on entering motherhood after "Elderly Primigravida," the medical establishment's term for a woman who's over 35 and pregnant for the first time

28 July

The Numbers Game: Why I’m not sure whether or not we’re done

by Beth Freedman

I barely made it into the primigravida club – I gave birth to my first son shortly after turning thirty-five. But I’m a primagravida all the same, in all the ways that count. And there is one issue directly related to the age at which we started our family that continues to haunt me. 

Baby One and Baby Two. Is it possible to stop thinking about the viability of Baby Three?

Baby One and Baby Two. Is it possible to stop thinking about the viability of Baby Three?

Before my husband and I got married, we talked about how many children we wanted, and we both agreed that three was a nice number. We knew, of course, that since we were older than many, it might not be that simple. But then I got pregnant very easily with number one, so it seemed we were blessed in that respect. But then week six of the pregnancy arrived, and I got really, really, really sick. I never knew just how long nine months was, until I had to endure nine months of pregnancy, throwing up every day for well over half of that time, and feeling constantly, severely nauseated every moment I was awake. During that first pregnancy, I honestly didn’t know how I could bear to put myself through that again to have another. After the pregnancy, I felt like I had PTSD – not for the labor, which was actually wonderful, but for the pregnancy. But I knew that I would have to go through it again. Having an only child just didn’t seem like an option for either of us, for a whole slew of reasons.

Then things got more complicated. When I felt I was as ready as I was going to be, and I couldn’t wait that much longer, since I was already 37, we started trying for number two. Since number one had been so simple, I fully expected to be pregnant within a couple of months. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Every month I would be on an emotional rollercoaster — sad that it hadn’t worked, but also relieved that I didn’t have to go through the hell of pregnancy yet.

After five months or so I was ready to go to the gynecologist to get help. We did every test there was to be done, but the results all came back normal. After a year without conceiving, we were diagnosed with “unexplained secondary infertility.” I had to begin to face the idea that my son might be an only child, and something about that just broke my heart, no matter how much I was dreading being pregnant again. We were about to start fertility treatments when, on our nineteenth month of trying, I got pregnant naturally.

There is an age gap of four years and three months between our children. My second pregnancy was even worse than the first, and in the end, we were actually lucky that it took that long to work, because having a three-and-a-half-year-old at home while you are so sick you can’t lift your head off the pillow is infinitely better than having a two-year-old at home. He was just able to deal with it more than a toddler would have been.

An interesting thing happened to me, though, as soon as I got pregnant with number two. I immediately started thinking about the viability of number three. Despite the amount of time it took us to get pregnant with number two, despite the fact that it was clear now that I’d have to wait until baby number two was also not a toddler anymore if we wanted another, I immediately started thinking of it as though having (or not having) a third was purely a matter of choice.

Our second son was born six weeks before I turned forty. He is now five months old, and the question will not leave my head. There are many, many reasons why I think we have had all the children we are going to have. I am forty already. I can’t risk trying to conceive again for another for three years because we wouldn’t cope otherwise — if we could even cope then. To start trying at forty-three, knowing it could take years… well, I don’t want to be that much of an older parent. We are so tired right now. It is almost all I can do to look after a newborn and a four year old. I’ve never been particularly energetic and it is taking all of my strength to get through this year, with its associated sleep deprivation. I also don’t think I can put my body through another pregnancy. My husband doesn’t think he would be able to look after two children on his own through the first four months of another pregnancy ; looking after one on his own last year, while I was bedridden, was hard enough. We keep talking about all the advantages to having two children; that we’d have more time for them, the ‘neatness’ of it, the fact that we’d still fit into our relatively small living space and our car, and so many other things. And there is the simple physical fact that if I could get pregnant again, which in itself is doubtful, the physical strain of that pregnancy and of another newborn year is just more than either of us can take.

And yet, there is something that I just can’t let go of. My baby has grown out of his newborn clothes, but something is preventing me from selling them or giving them away. I think it is the difficulty of accepting the reality, as opposed to the ideal. If we had been just five years younger, we’d still be thinking of having number three. It’s still the number of children we want. And there is a part of me that feels like I am cheating my sons out of another sibling, one whom they are “supposed” to have. This feeling hits even harder as I watch our four-year-old express his utter delight at having a baby brother.

In a way, it would be easier for me if I knew that I absolutely could not have another child (which might well be true, given how long it took us to conceive number two). But in the end, I did conceive, so I feel like I am still capable. And because I feel that we are making a choice, I am plagued by that choice. Ever since I got pregnant with number two, the issue has been going round and round in my head. We go through a particularly hard day (or night, or both) and I know that I am right, that we have been blessed with all the children that we can manage. But then I think I am being selfish, that I am not doing what is best for my kids. But then I think — what is best for them is not biting off more than we can chew, and ending up so exhausted and overwhelmed that we can’t care for any of them well. And then I end up full of self-recriminations — why can’t I be strong enough to have three? Is there another soul out there who is supposed to be part of our family?

So how do I do it? How do I give up the ideal, for the reality? It is a wonderful reality, after all. I have two healthy, beautiful boys, and a wonderful husband. I’m so looking forward to our baby growing up and becoming a person in his own right; to watching the siblings play together. I know that this is right for us, by every logical measure, but my emotions won’t quite come into line. My biggest ‘issue’, in truth, is not the “ideal” as we saw it — I am content with two children, as is my husband — but the worry that I am shortchanging the two kids I do have by not giving them another sibling.

It is possible that I might feel this way less if I did not live in a society where having two kids is unusual, and most families have three or more. A while back I read a blog post written by a woman in America, asking advice on how she could “know” whether it was right or not to have number three. Again and again, along with the very sage advice she was given by other mothers, came the caution that she would have to deal with the “inevitable” questions/comments on why she had had another. It seems that the default in secular America is two children, and more is considered… odd. Even selfish. But I’m not sure that it’s the society I’m surrounded by. I’m one of five, but I didn’t ever want five. I grew up with a lot of friends who had only one sibling and didn’t think of them as different, or lacking.

I wonder if I can work this through and come to a place where I have accepted that our family is complete. I look forward to hearing other mothers’ experiences – I imagine I’m not the only one losing sleep trying to figure it out.

– Beth Freedman is a writer who uses a pseudonym when including personal information she’d rather keep private.
27 January

Does she or doesn’t she? Or, how I got here.

Oh, go ahead, just ask already.

When you give birth at 40 for the first time, the question on many people’s minds is whether you got pregnant with the help of fertility treatments.

Those who don’t know me often assume I’d been trying for ages, because they think having a first baby at 40 is “late.” And those who do know we got married just two years ago might wonder as well.

So, just to put my own experience out there, because I don’t see the point in a blog that doesn’t, I suppose you can say I got lucky – but it wasn’t quite as easy as that. We returned from a long weekend on our first anniversary and learned I was pregnant – exactly one year after we’d begun trying to conceive.

Six months after trying to get pregnant, I hit 39 and marched myself into a fertility clinic for the usual workup: blood tests, the monitoring of my ovulation and hormone levels, a sperm count for my husband. Six months isn’t long, but I was impatient – and worried.

Everything looked fine, but I still wasn’t getting pregnant, and the ticking of my biological clock was deafening. “You’d better hurry up,” one of my aunties said a month after the wedding, “you don’t have much time.” (Hey, thanks, I didn’t realize!) I saw a naturopath to assess my diet. I gave up most caffeine. And I tolerated a lot of unsolicited advice.

“Don’t eat garlic.” “Stay away from ginger.” “Avoid all dairy products based on cow’s milk.” “Give up sugar and white flour.” “Just don’t think about it.” “Don’t stress.” The list was endless, and occasionally, ridiculous. Read more…

17 January

Elderly Primigravida

Women in an advanced state of elderly primigravida

Cheryl tilted her head to the side and squinted, as she often does when she’s curious about something.

“Do you feel intimidated by young mothers?”

I hesitated. “What do you mean? You mean, like, the 22-year-olds who are also having kids and are probably going to have five or six more?”

Cheryl, my acupuncturist’s wife and receptionist, nodded eagerly.

“Well, I have heard from friends that when my kid gets to kindergarten,” I said, “I’ll start noticing how much younger most of the mothers are and I’ll bond with the older ones.”

When Cheryl posed this question, I was nine months pregnant, garnering comments like “You’re sure it’s not twins?” and coming in for treatments in attempt to induce me to go into labor.

Three months earlier, when I’d run into said friends, well into their 40s, they made the prediction that soon I’d be in the “old mommies club” like them. Their suggestion that I was going to be an old mommy irked me. At the time, I was not yet 40 and still holding on to my 30s, even if only by a thread.

Considering the unusual trajectory that my life had taken, I felt I wasn’t starting late, but was pulling into the first-time mommy station right on time. I’d spent the second half of my 20s in a relationship with the wrong guy, and had survived a rocky marriage and divorce, all of which occurred before my 30th birthday. I spent the first half of my thirties traipsing around warzones including Iraq and Afghanistan, enjoying my career as a foreign correspondent. Relationships were on the back burner, save the occasional romances that inevitably didn’t work out – probably because I wasn’t quite ready to settle down. It wasn’t until I hit 35 that I got real again about finding the right man. It wasn’t until age 37 that I met him, 38 when we got married, 39 when I got pregnant, and presto, I found myself giving birth at the age of 40.

FORTY USED TO seem incredibly old to have a child. My own mother was born when her mother was 40. But my grandmother  had already had two children who were by then 11 and 14, and my  mother’s conception came as a “surprise.” A late-in-life child, was how my mother described herself when I was growing up. She viewed her childhood as having been shaped by parents who first and foremost seemed old. But the hallmarks of them being “old” really had very little to do with their age, and much more to do with their archaic status in my mother’s eyes: they were from the “old country,” spoke Yiddish alongside their broken English, and  never drove a car.

By comparison, having a child at 40 today seems not only completely normal, but even ideal. I’ve had my adventures, I’ve established myself professionally, I’ve been there and done that. I’ve lost track of how many women I know who have had a first child at or after 40, and some have gone on to have one or two more.

The medical establishment begs to differ. On my release papers from the hospital in September, which I recently read with great interest, one of their main findings is “elderly primigravida.” That’s doctorese for a woman having her first pregnancy and/or birth after the age of 35. Apparently, in physicians’ terms, I ought to be retiring, not gestating.

It’s not just the doctors who took note when I was asked, for the trillionth time since becoming pregnant, how old I am and which pregnancy this is. When I read a late-90s version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, one Q&A (meant to mimic the typical questions we preggo-people have) began like this: “I’m 38 and pregnant for the first – and presumably last – time.” The message: At or near 40, you’re already washed  up. (The latest version of the book, unsurprisingly, dropped this very dated question.)

This isn’t to deny the very real difficulties that arise around fertility and pregnancy for those of us who’ve been menstruating for a good 20 years before even trying to conceive. The statistics show that there is a drop-off in viable egg production after 40 and an increase in birth defects. But those are just averages, and we, in contrast, are real women. Human beings. People who want to be parents.

This blog will be dedicated to motherhood after 40. There appears to be a need for it.  When I googled around for “motherhood” and “40,” all I could find were the websites of people trying to sell me their fertility enhancement systems, and a disturbing website put out by Focus on the Family that lists all the dangers of giving birth “later.” Presumably James Dobson, whose fundamentalist writings have been known to get my blood pressure percolating before, doesn’t like the proliferation women like me. That is, women who put off having children because they wanted to do a few things in life before becoming mothers. Women like me, who had trouble finding a suitable partner for many years, and in some cases, made the courageous decision to enter motherhood as a single parent, with the hope of finding love and companionship later down the line. Or not.

In this blog, I plan to thoroughly bash FOF’s ideas, examine the ups and downs of starting motherhood in what society labels “later” in life, share a few amusing observations, and just put some of this wild, life-changing experience into words, because that’s what I know how to do.

And no, I am not intimidated.