The Truth About Late-In-Life Motherhood

I recently got a request from a well known publication to write a short piece on older motherhood.  I have responded to enough of these kinds of requests in the past to know they aren’t really looking for illumination. They are looking for inflammation. They are looking to stir up women who have (for whatever reason) delayed motherhood against those who have not, which creates drama, which creates traffic. But not illumination.

So I decided I would just skip all that and lay out the truth about older motherhood as I see it, right here.  It doesn’t mean what I’m saying is universally true, it just means this is how I see it based on my own experience and world view.

You may be surprised to find that the truth about older motherhood, as I see it, is that it ain’t ideal.

It’s a blessing.

It’s sweet.

I’m glad I didn’t miss out on it.

Better late than never…

But ideal it is not.

I didn’t really choose to be a late-in-life mother, that’s just sort of how the chips fell for me.  If I had the chance to do it over again, and I had a choice in the matter, I would have started my family much much sooner — if for no other reason than I would have liked for Sean to have known me when I still looked like myself.  And given the benefit of time, I might have liked to have had another.

The truth is that there are ups and down, pros and cons, no matter when you have children, whether at 24 or at 44 as I did.  But in hindsight, and as I look around, 24 seems a more ideal scenario than 44, if I am to be honest.

Why?  Maybe because younger motherhood is more in keeping with the harmony of the universe.  Fertility belongs to the young, it always has, even though thanks to modern medicine we can now prop that window open longer.  All the same, having children younger rather than older increases the odds (although does not guarantee) that you will have healthy children, that you will live to see them grown and that you will get to enjoy grandchildren.  And obviously reaping the benefit of those odds is more ideal than not, and who doesn’t like better odds?

But mostly what makes 24 more ideal than 44 is those extra 20 years of being a mom that you might get, that I won’t get.  There’s nothing I did from age 24 to 44 that I wouldn’t trade double to get more time with my kiddo, even on the worst of days.

But it’s not even about what’s ideal for me right now.  It’s about what’s ideal later for Sean, when under the very best of circumstances, age will catch up with me.  Health issues are inevitable as we age, let’s not pretend otherwise.  And when Sean is a young man, when he is in that exciting season of getting his life started, he will be stuck dealing with the complicated issues that go along with aging parents (if we’re still around), issues that AD and I are just now having to address with our own parents.  That’s part of the less than ideal package of late-in-life parenthood that they never talk about.

Motherhood.

Better late than never, but in my view, better is not so late — better for both mother and child.

Swings And Lane Cutters. When A Win Is Not A Win.

Have you ever been driving somewhere, and you see a sign in big flashing letters that unmistakably says MERGE RIGHT. LEFT LANE CLOSED AHEAD.

Being the good reader that you are, you take this to mean that the left lane is closed ahead.  You merge right because you know that no left lane will preclude driving in the left lane. You are astute like that.

Then you, along with the other good readers, spend the next 30 minutes painfully inching forward in the right lane for the next mile where the left lane actually ceases to exist.  And as you approach the point where the left lane ends you are united with those who did not merge right a mile back and now insist that you let them in.

And are you like me in that some days your tendency is to look straight ahead and pretend that you don’t see them? And maybe you keep the front end of your car so close to the back end of the car ahead that even a gnat couldn’t pass between?  Or maybe you are even brazen enough to look over at them and give them the “Ain’t no way buddy!” look.  You maybe even say to yourself, “That’s no fair!  Get in line and inch up like the rest of us!  Who do you think you are??”

Now that I’m older and have a slightly better grip on what is important in life, I’ll usually just wave one or two in front of me and go on my merry way, because the stress of teaching the world a lesson while behind the wheel of a car is just not worth it.  But sometimes, it’s just one of those days and I can’t stop myself, and I allow myself to falsely believe that they will change their me-first-lane-cutting ways and the world will be a better place for all concerned if I don’t let them get away with it.

But that never happens.

Those days when I just have to right the traffic wrongs, I never move along feeling better about myself.  I never feel like I made my little slice of the world a better place.  In fact just the opposite.  Sometimes a win is not really a win.

A while back, we had an exceptionally spring like day in the middle of the winter and Sean and I were hanging out at the park.  Sean was on the swing, not really swinging, but just kind of sitting and twisting in the sunshine.  A neighbor showed up with his little grandson who is about four and as is typical of four-year-olds, he wanted the swing Sean was on.  Being four, he did not say, “Pardon me sir, if you’re not going to swing, may I?”  No. Being four, he tugged at the chains and said something like, “I want to swing.”

To this, Sean responded by digging in his proverbial heels.  He gripped the chains tighter and sat as immovable as Mount Rushmore and gave the four-year-old the “Ain’t no way buddy!” look, which was painfully all too familiar.  He was going to teach that four-year-old a lesson – you can’t just cut in on the swing!

I really wanted Sean to voluntarily give up the swing for three reasons.  One, I want Sean to have a good heart, one that loves to give and serve.  Two, I want Sean to experience how good it feels when you respond with kindness where it is not necessarily warranted or likely to be reciprocated.  And three, and I am cringing as I write this in naked honesty, I wanted my neighbor to think I was an awesome parent.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to force Sean to give up the swing.  Embarrassment is never an effective teacher in my opinion.  As expected, Sean soon grew weary of the little boy tugging at the swing, so he got off and we headed home to sit on the front steps and watch the world go by.

I took that opportunity to try to tell him how sometimes when you win, you don’t really win, knowing that this is a lesson he will have to learn on his own over and over throughout his life.

“I know you probably don’t understand this just yet, but you could have given up the swing to that little boy and it wouldn’t have cost you a thing.  And you could have looked really big in the eyes of that little boy and his grandpa,” I said, “And bonus, when you do something like that, you get to feel good about yourself.”

He didn’t respond to that.  I could tell he was giving it skeptical consideration or trying to figure out how to get off the subject.

“What if you give up something that does cost you?” he asked.

Good question.  Crickets chirped as I tried to think of something I had given up lately that had cost me something and couldn’t come up with one thing.

“I guess then you get to look big in the eyes of God,” I said slowly, more to myself than to him, wondering what in the heck just happened here.  I thought I was supposed to be the teacher.

Sometimes, the teacher is the student and learning is more about the questions than the answers.

Whining Is Not A Strategy

There is an old saying that we all know:  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In other words, those who complain the loudest and the longest and in the most annoying repetitious way possible —  get what they want.  Except from me, then no, they get nothing.

My policy is this:  I don’t negotiate with terrorists or toddlers. Or those who behave as such.

At the House of Antique, if you are whining, the answer is automatically NO.  If you continue whining, you will get the Antique Mommy fish eye, which has been known to stop a charging rhino in it’s tracks.  And if you still insist on whining, well let’s just hope you’ve got your salvation plan worked out.

It would seem that whining is built into children, as a survival mechanism, as all children try it out at one time or another.  Which, now that I analyze that, it would appear as though I am devoid of the instinct to see to the survival of my child.  Yet?  So far, so good.

Some people are gifted in their ability to tune out annoying noise, and those people become teachers.  I can’t think or have a conversation if the TV is blaring, and the leaf blower makes my eardrums ache.  But I would take 1000 leaf blowers over one 40-pound child whining PleasepleasepleasePLEEEEEaaaasssee-PUH-leeeze-Uh!

Sean is a super bright boy and he figured out early on that whining and saying “please” in various intonations four hundred times in a row was not going to work with me.  I think he tried it out once or twice, and after he fully recovered from the sting of the fish eye, he moved on in search of other more civilized candy-getting tactics.  Back in the day, when he was my grocery store boyfriend, we’d pass a kid who was whining and he’d just keep licking his Tootsie Pop and shake his head as if to say, “Whining – what an unsophisticated strategy.”

Last year, I was doing a project in Sean’s classroom and this one particularly energetic boy jumped out of his seat and ran up to me and started jumping up and down waving his hand in my face (which is a good way to lose a hand) and started in with the PickmePickmePleasePleasePleeeeeezPrettyPleasePickMe!  Sean came to my rescue (or maybe he came to the boy’s rescue) and nudged him and quietly said, “Dude.  She won’t respond to that.  If you’re whining the answer is automatically no.”

I gave the boy a my crazy lady half smile-half fish eye and he slunk back to his seat.

Boundaries

Boundaries have become the issue lately — geographic boundaries.

Some families in our neighborhood are of the free-range philosophy.  They have chosen to let their children roam unattended.  AD and I have decided that is not a good choice for Sean right now.  Some of the reasons behind our decision have to do with Sean and where he is in the process of proving himself as responsible, reliable and of good judgment.

Other reasons have to do with us; our perceived risks and rewards that come with allowing him to roam beyond the reach of my eyeballs.  And really, what more important thing do I have to do than to keep track of my kid?  I can’t think of anything.

Sidebar:  For those of you who will accuse me of hovering, I would like to point out that there is a huge difference between hovering and keeping track of your kid. I do not hover.  I do however spy.  I watch him make mistakes from a distance and only intervene if it means I might have to make a trip to the ER.

Nonetheless, when he sees a boy a full year younger riding his bike down the street, he bristles with injustice.  “Why does he get to ride his bike all over and I don’t?  He’s younger than me!  Everyone gets to ride their bikes by themselves except me! That’s not fair!”

And to this I say, “That is the choice his family has made for him.  Life is not fair.  We never make choices based on what other people are doing. Never.”

He sighs.  He huffs. But he accepts it because he knows he would have a better chance of moving the Great Wall of China than to budge me an inch on this issue.

The fact of the matter is, not everyone is doing it.  Some families let their kids roam unattended and out of sight, but many other families like ours, do not — and those are the boys that Sean hangs out with, boys from families who share our parenting philosophy and that makes it a little bit  easier when we can counter with, “Bryan doesn’t.  Nathan doesn’t.  Aaron doesn’t. Reagan doesn’t.  Clayton doesn’t….”

I know that at some point I will have to let him go off on his bike and out of my sight, but I think he has some proving to do.  I want to see him demonstrate good judgment over time.  I want to feel like if he found himself in a tight spot that he would have the physical and mental resources to get out of it.

It’s a different word than when I grew up in the 1960s.  My mother seldom knew where I was. I would roam on foot or bike for four or five miles away from the house by myself and be gone for hours.  One time I got so far way from home that a policeman brought me home in a police car. I was about nine.

Some might say that those experiences were good, that I learned how to manage in the world. That may be true, but I think more so than that, that God placed hedge around me to protect me from my own stupidity, one that covered me many times well into adulthood. The hedge may have protected me from stupidity, but unfortunately not from the lingering embarrassment from stupidity.

Does Sean have a hedge around him too?  Yes. For now, it’s me.

Wherein We Speak of YKW

Today’s topic is YKW, which shall be code for ‘you know what’ which shall be code for well, you know. . .  It’s not that I am Victorian when it comes to the topic of YKW, it’s just that I’d prefer Google not send a certain audience of seekers to my humble wholesome blog, so therefore I have developed my own dorky top secret code.  So then, now you are in the know about YKW.

* * * * *

Sean prefers to sit with AD and I in our Sunday school class.  And we don’t mind, we like having him with us.  He brings a book to read.  But he is also listening.  He’s always listening.  We know this because usually sometime around Wednesday, out of the blue, he’ll make some observation about something the teacher said.

For the past several weeks, a family and marriage therapist has been leading the class on various aspects of the marriage relationship.  The next class, we were warned, would be on marital intimacy.  So of course we told Sean that he would have to go to his own class.  “Why!?” he protested, “Because you’re going to talk about s+x?”  Yes, I said, for that very reason.  “But I promise I won’t answer any of the questions!” he said.

Sean has a good understanding of YKW.  He understands the physiology.  He knows that God created male and female, each with their own unique components for reproduction.  He does not yet fully understand how the components come together to make that happen because he is not ready for that.

We decided early on that we would approach the topic honestly anytime the opportunity presented.  And one thing that has helped in that regard is that Sean has always been keenly interested in wild life and animals.  We have watched a lot of Animal Planet, where the topic is unavoidable and usually narrated in a British voice.  Which somehow makes everything seem more proper.

One time when Sean was about five and my parents were visiting, Sean and my dad were sitting on the couch watching an episode of Animal Planet while the British guy gave a play by play of two lions engaged in YKW.  Sean, ever the educator, turns to my dad and flatly informs him, “The male is the one top.”  To which my dad replied, “Oh.” and then quickly excused himself to the kitchen to refill his glass of tea.

Everyone has to develop their own parenting philosophy in terms of how and when to teach their children about YKW, so what follows is not to comment upon what anyone else is doing, but merely to say what has worked for us. Thus far.  We may find out years from now that our philosophy was a complete and utter failure.

If I were to offer any advice in regards to how you decide to educate your children on this topic it would be to decide.  That is to say give some thought as to what, when and how you want your children to learn about YKW, and not wait to see how the world fills the void.

Parenting often occurs in reaction to and against our own experience and this may be part of how our thinking on this topic developed — we looked back on our own experience and decided that maybe there was a better way.  I think for many of us Baby Boomers the best practice of the day was that somewhere around puberty, your mother or some other well-intended adult would ominously sit you down and give you THE TALK, maybe give you a book which covered the basic physiology illustrated with line drawings.  They would then dust their hands, relieved that the task was complete, thankful that we could all move on with our lives and pretend it never happened.

The problem with this approach in my view is that it’s like getting a bucket of cold water in the face.  There was no information leading up to THE TALK (except maybe from unreliable peer sources), there was no context, and definitely no follow-up.  And it was incredibly awkward at a time when your life is one big hot steaming bowl of awkward.

In light of that we decided to forego the bucket method, and opted instead for the dribble method – we would start early and give him little bits of accurate and age-appropriate information as the opportunity presented.  There would be no cabbage patch or stork or cute names for body parts.

THE TALK approach, to me, always seemed to confer upon it a sense of shame, that somehow after THE TALK you don’t talk about it, ever, again.  We want Sean to talk to us openly and freely, about everything, but at the same time YKW is not a topic we want him discussing openly and freely outside of our family, for many reasons, but not the least of which is because just like Santa Claus, other families might be going the stork route and we want to respect that.  We don’t want Sean to be a spoiler or to get in the way of how other people are teaching their children.  So, we constantly remind Sean that this is a topic that we only talk about at home among the three of us, and never with others.

When I was coming of age, my knowledge on the topic was like a book that was missing every other page.  I had bits and pieces of information here and there, but by no means did I have a complete picture or a useful understanding.  And I knew it.  I can still remember my freshman year of high school, the panicky feeling of knowing that I didn’t know what I thought everyone else knew, and trying to pretend that I did.  And that panic and pretending is awful, because you’re just waiting to be found out as the dumbest person ever.  And I don’t want for Sean.  I want him to have confidence in who he is and what he knows. I don’t want to leave wide open gaps for the world to fill with panic and ugly half-truths.

That is why we want Sean to hear from us first on the topic of YKW – like the local news, we want to be his first and most trusted source of information!  Back to you AD in the studio!

That he should hear from us first on this topic is the cornerstone of our philosophy — the two people who love him most and know him best, who have his best interest at heart and in whom he knows he can trust completely.

We want to provide him with information on a level that is appropriate for him, in the context of our beliefs and values, with the understanding that physiology and faith are partners, not opponents, that one without the other is incomplete.  We want him to feel he can talk to us anytime, openly and without reserve or shame.  We want him to understand that this is a topic that is to be handled with respect, and therefore is private (not secret) and not public.

If our philosophy is sound and works the way we hope, when the topic of YKW comes up on the playground, as it will if it hasn’t already, he’s heard it before, it is old news.  And hopefully he’ll yawn confidently and walk away.

If not, he can discuss it with his future family and marriage therapist.

Why There Are No 1st Graders In The Secret Service

As he walked towards me, I could see that something wasn’t right.

That is not to say that I saw anything unusual, but my momtennae went up. There was something about his posture and his expression, something that telegraphed that all was not well.

His hair was a crazy mess.  Nothing unusual about that.

He had a red popsicle ring around his mouth which matched the red splotches on the front of his t-shirt, also not so very unusual.

I took his backpack from him and slung it over my shoulder.

“Hi dude! How was your day?” I asked as we turned and walked towards the car.

“Okay,” he said unconvincingly.  I noticed the spring in his step was missing.  He did not run off and play tag with the other kids as he usually does.

Instead, he heaved a heavy sigh and watched the ground pass under his feet as he walked.

I decided not to push it and instead wait to see what he would offer.

He reached up and grabbed my hand as we walked along.

I looked at his fingers interlacing mine – dirty jagged nails, scraped knuckles, long slender fingers, red and sticky with popsicle and marker and who knows what all else.

I reflected back to the days when those same hands would reach up for my face as I cradled him and gave him his bottle.  He would gaze into my eyes as though he were trying to figure me out and play with my chin as he slurped and gnawed on the bottle.

When we got to the car, he confessed.

“Actually Mom,” he said, “I had a bad day.  A reeeeeallly bad day.”

“Oh no,” I consoled, “Tell me about it.”

And he did.

He told a friend at school a secret, that he liked a certain girl in another class. The so-called friend didn’t keep the secret, but blurted it to everyone instead.

The bandwagon was a 1956 Chrysler, big and wide, with room for everyone in the 1st grade class, save one little boy named Conor.  There was chanting and teasing.  He said he started crying, so he pulled his sweatshirt up over his face.  He said he cried because he was embarrassed.  I don’t know exactly how it all played out but the teacher sent Sean and Conor for a slow walk around the school while she chatted with the class.

We sat in the car and talked about what happened for a long time.  As painful as it was for Sean, for me it was a gift – a golden opportunity to talk about trust and compassion and other important things, all wrapped up in a real life experience.

We talked about the importance of trust, of figuring out who you can trust and the importance of being someone who can be trusted. I told him that at school, at least, if you don’t want everybody to know everything, don’t tell anybody anything.  I told him that first graders are notorious blabbers and that’s why there are no 1st graders in the Secret Service.

We talked about compassion, about how it felt to be teased and what a good and noble thing it was for Conor to choose not join in the teasing.  I told him Conor’s mom and dad could be very proud of him and that is exactly how I would want him to respond if someone else was being teased or picked on.

We talked about how sometimes you have to just not care what other people think, that there will always be people who don’t like you or what you are doing and want to make you feel badly about it.  We talked about how you can’t control what others think, you can only control your own response. Although I was quick to admit that that was a hard one, one he might have to work on his whole life if he is anything like his mother.

Then I told him the true story of how one time when I was in 1st grade, I had to go pee, but I was afraid of the nun and too scared to ask to go to the bathroom, so I just pee’d right there in my seat and it puddled on the floor by my desk and ran clear down the row to the back of the room. When the other kids saw it, there was a mighty uproar as they all laughed and made fun of me.

“What did you do?” he asked aghast.

“I cried,” I said as a matter of fact.  “I pulled my shirt up over my head and cried.”

We both laughed about that just a little, because after 45 years, the humiliation has worn off a little bit and it’s kind of funny.

He looked me in the eye and squeezed my hand.  His eyes shone softly with compassion.

“Mom,” he said, “I’m sorry that you pee’d, I mean, you know, that that happened to you.”

“Yeah, thanks buddy,” I said.  And I squeezed his hand back.

And I tried not to cry.

Learning To Work

Some random thoughts on the importance of learning to work.

* * *

Back in the olden days, many people bore children to help them work the farm. They needed people to work the land to survive, so they bred them.

I recently read an interview with AD’s grandmother who was born in the 1890s.  She talked about how she walked behind a plow and picked cotton when she was seven.  It was harsh, but it had to be done.  She had to help, everyone did, that’s just the way it was.  Probably your grandparents or great grandparents did similar work to help the family keep body and soul together.

Today, children are not expected to walk behind a plow or work in factories.  And that is a good thing. However, in my corner of the world, most children I know are not expected to work at all. They watch TV and play video games and go to lessons while their mothers wait on them hand and foot. And I think that is not so good.

Early on I decided that Sean is not a prince and I would not be his valet.  I decided that he should learn to pick up after himself and to pitch in — to embrace the concept of work.  And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve got a lot to learn as a parent, but one thing I have observed in my own child is that the first step in training is to establish the expectation.

And so I set about establishing this expectation of work.

When he was around three I showed him how to use the Swiffer mop and how to dust.  He still thinks this is tremendous fun.  I began to teach him how to cook.  When he was four I taught him to set and clear the table. When he was five I taught him how to fold dish towels.  Now that he is almost six, he can fold bath towels fairly well.  I sometimes pay him a penny a towel, sometimes not.

When I tell him what a big help it is to me that he has folded a basket of towels, he beams.  It is a bigger reward than the two dimes I give him.  His new job is to take the trash and recycling out to the garage.  Next year, we’ll start working on laundry.  My dream is that at some point he will be a man who looks around, sees what needs to be done and does it.

My point in saying all this is that sometimes we think that children are too small to help or too small to learn how to contribute, but I don’t think that is true.  It is true that most often it is easier to do something myself rather than to take the time to teach little hands. But oh the reward that comes later for both mother and child is a wonderful thing.

As a not-prince, I have established the expectation that Sean will help me do what needs to be done to make living in this house a pleasant experience — which means if he wants to have a pleasant experience living in this house, he needs to help me do what needs to be done. Sometimes Sean thinks the work is fun and other times he grouses about it. Either way, he knows it is expected and he has to do it.

Some families choose to do chores and I can see that there is value in that.  For me, because I am not great at keeping track of stuff I would just end up paying him for work he didn’t do and that would be bad because you seldom get paid for doing nothing in the real world.

For me,  it works better to hire him for certain jobs, or, if he wants to earn some money, he’ll ask me if I have any work for him to do.  I think it’s good for kids to know they are expected to contribute to the keeping of the house but also to be rewarded for their work once in a while.  There are probably as many ways to balance that as there are families.

If you were to look at the Biblical model, life is six parts work and one part rest. I hope to inspire Sean to strive towards that model.   Work provides purpose and structure and satisfaction.  These things are good.

* * *

He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies lacks judgment.  ~Proverbs 12:11