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.