Elderly primigravida. That’s what I was called when I got pregnant for the first time at 35 (my first son was born when I was 36). Not just me, of course; that completely charm-free phrase is the official stamp the medical community puts on us aging reproducers, never mind that (a) women much younger than me have trouble getting and staying pregnant, and I had neither issue; and (b) women older than me have children all the time. Elderly? I get I was – am — older than your typical mother of grade-school kids (I’m turning 47 this month), but elderly I am not. Nor am I alone.
It’s only now, ten-and-a-half years later, that I realize that age really is just a number, though it’s a number that we “elderly” moms find ourselves playing with (adding to, subtracting from, comparing with) in our heads all. the. time. I call it older-mother math.
I’m the child of a young mother. In fact I had the youngest mom on the block, back in the day. My mom got married at 19 and had my sister nine months and five days later (your basic honeymoon baby). She had me when she was 23.
And then she and my dad got their birth-control act together and didn’t contemplate a third child until she was 31. That’s when my brother was born. I tell this story to illustrate one of those formative events in my young life: My mother frequently told me, both in so many words and obliquely, that 31 was a good age to become a mother. It was when she was ready to be a mom, when she felt relaxed and grown up, but not so grown up that she’d grown out of the whole thing. My sister and I were in school full time, of course (me in second grade, my sister in fifth), and back then that meant we were far more independent than, say, my own kids are. She knew what to do, and she delighted in my brother in ways she didn’t with my sister or me (which is not to say she didn’t love us, of course; it was just… different).
So I thought, not surprisingly, that 31 would be an excellent age for me to have a baby. Life did not agree with me. I was engaged to be married when I was 30, but my fiancé had other ideas, and the relationship imploded four months before the big day. I didn’t meet the man who would become my for-real, forever husband until I was almost 33.
Then time flew. We got married one year and seven months after we met. A year later, I stopped taking the pill. Daniel was born two days after our second anniversary, and James, 23 months after that. And as they’ve grown, the calculator in my head clicks and clacks constantly. When Daniel graduates high school, I will be 54. My mother was 38 when I graduated high school. My mother became a grandmother at 44 (my sister started early, too). When I was 44, my younger boy was finishing up kindergarten. And as for my chances at grandchildren? I’d say they’re good, but not so good that I’ll be dancing at my grandchild’s wedding, as my parents just did at my niece’s wedding last fall.
I admit that when I thought about my parents having a fabulous time at their granddaughter’s wedding, I did some of my usual older-mom math and felt sour.
But lately I’ve been trying to quit the calculations. Is it too simple to say that I am who I am, I had my kids when I had them, because that’s how the world spun for me? And I was lucky, so so lucky that it turned out the way it did, with a great husband and two sturdy, healthy, crazy boys. What happens next, well, it’s not something I can balance like a checkbook.
Because really, maybe I won’t have or see grandkids at all. Only a couple of weeks after dancing together at that same wedding last fall, a cousin of mine lost her husband, who was the same age as I am. They had two boys the same age as mine. It was a car accident. One moment he was on his way home on a rainy night to resume a life that he probably assumed would someday involve high school graduations, college graduations, weddings and maybe grandchildren, and the next, a shock wave rippled through the family and everything changed, forever.
When I was an elderly primigravida, everything changed for me, forever. But what does forever mean? I can’t add that up just yet.
Denise Schipani is the author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later (Sourcebooks, 2012). She blogs at Mean Moms Rule.