I became a new mother later than I intended. It wasn’t my choice. I’d always assumed I would get married and have kids in my twenties. But then came New York City, grad school, marriage, divorce, marriage again—and suddenly I was thirty-eight.
Like many women my age, getting pregnant involved more time at the doctor’s office than it did in the bedroom. Finding out (at last!) I was going to have a baby ignited in me a fierce desire to give him the best possible life. This included the safest crib, the top rated pediatrician, the best preschool, the most organic baby food—you get the idea. As it turns out, the best thing I did for his future was completely accidental: I did not have him in my twenties.
My husband was also older when we had our son. At 46, most of his friends were teaching their kids to drive and touring colleges while he was changing diapers and playing peekaboo. He consoled me when I worried about our son having geriatric parents one day.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Plenty of guys my age have babies—with their second or third wives.”
What we didn’t realize was that we are part of a growing trend, outlined in the New York Times. First-time mothers in larger, coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco are nearly a decade older than their counterparts in rural areas and the South.
I have experienced this data first-hand. My husband and I started trying to get pregnant in New York, but became parents after a work-related relocation to the South. In New York, babies were just beginning to appear in my crowd of mid-30s girlfriends, most of whom had advanced degrees and executive-track careers. Our happy hour conversations centered on work, relationships, and trendy cardio classes. Diapers, daycare, and “having it all” had not yet entered our lexicon.
You don’t have to be an economist to reason that kids born to older versus younger parents are more likely to have better upward mobility and fully funded college educations. Or that those mothers are more likely to be earning money and sharing domestic responsibilities more equally with their male partners.
What isn’t captured in the data, though, and what is way more important to most women is how we are perceived as mothers. Because at the end of the day, America thinks older moms are weird.
When I moved to the South the best advice I got came from a friend who’d had twins at age forty. “When you have kids don’t tell anyone how old you are,” she advised. “It just makes it awkward at the playground with all the 25-year-old moms.”
After moving I remembered her words when I ran into a coworker in the ladies room at my new company. She was my age, late thirties, with two teenage children. “I’m going to a friend’s baby shower tonight,” she said, shaking her head. “The poor thing is forty and pregnant—can you imagine?” I touched my still invisible first trimester belly and did my best to look scandalized.
While I was pregnant, I went to a brunch for new and expecting mothers advertised by my neighborhood association. I had heard that the key to surviving maternity leave was having mom friends, and as a recent transplant from New York, I had none.
Of the dozen women who attended the brunch, I was by far the oldest. The woman next to me, a mom of two, looked barely able to legally consume the Bellini in front of her. She told me the “hilarious” story of when she and her husband visited New York with their children, and how when she took a walk by herself with the stroller everyone thought she was the nanny. I forced a chuckle.
I wrote the group off until my son was two weeks old, when the intense desire for adult conversation and to extricate myself from my couch overtook me. I blasted an email to the brunch group and two women who had also recently given birth responded.
My first mom date was a not a match. She was twenty-seven, married to her college sweetheart, and spent most of our walk through the neighborhood complaining about how long it took to talk her husband into having a baby.
“I told him I didn’t want to be an old mom, you know? But here I am. All my friends are already on their second or third.” She paused to scroll through Instagram and then looked back at me. “So how old are you?”
Things with the second mom went better. She had lived in New York after college and so didn’t seem to subscribe to the traditional timeline of when major life milestones should happen. Still, it took three months of walking our babies to the park together nearly every day before I finally felt comfortable telling her how old I was. I also faked a cough at the same time, so I’ll never be completely sure whether she heard me.
On the one hand, the New York Times study is encouraging. Because of my age, my son will have a better future. I will also likely be better off in terms of what I earn and how my husband and I share domestic responsibilities. The flip side is that living on the wrong side of the “age gap” is lonely. I still don’t have any mom friends my age. I also struggle to connect with women who are my age because they typically have older children and are in a very different stage of life.
As my baby has grown into a toddler, I’ve realized that where I live being an older mom will always make me different. At first I worked to hide it, mastering the evasive response to the age question, saying things like “Gosh, today I’m so tired I feel like I’m eighty!” or “Oh wow, is that Beyoncé over there?”.
Now I’m just honest. Despite the stigma, I’m glad I had my son later in life. I’ve furthered my education and am more established in my career than I was a decade ago. When daycare calls to tell me he’s sick and I need to leave to pick him up, I don’t worry that anyone will think I’m not serious about my job. I’m financially stable, and so will be able to give him experiences I never had growing up with young parents trying to keep their checkbook balanced. Most important, I’m comfortable in my own skin. Personally, I can’t imagine anything harder than raising a child while figuring out what kind of adult you want to be.
While I have come to embrace my accidental status as older mom (and while the data may tell us otherwise), there isn’t one right path to motherhood. We are all better and worse prepared in different ways. No matter where we start out as mothers, ultimately we all want the same thing for our children: the best possible life.
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