Most moms will tell the world that having a baby at any age was the best thing they’ve ever done because that’s what you’re supposed to say. But a lot of young women in their 20s aren’t quite ready for it; some take the step as, well, yet another step in the journey of life, wanting it vaguely and knowing they’re supposed to do it a few years into that marriage.
Deciding to become a mom at age 50 is something else. I was ready, more than ready. I’d wanted to be a mom for at least two decades—admittedly in that vague sense in my 20s, but much more keenly in my late 30s and early 40s. I thought, by age 49, that there was no chance. My issue with getting pregnant had never been a physiological one—it was more of a personnel problem. As in, I was short a daddy candidate.
At my annual physical a few months before my 50th birthday, my very no-nonsense doctor walked in, pregnant with her third child. That heartbreaking sense of envy I felt every time I saw a pregnant woman welled up. She saw something in my face change and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I wanted to have a baby, but knew it wasn’t really possible anymore.
“Talk to Kathleen Brennan,” she told me. “If there’s any doctor who can get you pregnant, she’s the one.”
Starting the Journey to Motherhood at 50
As it turned out, Dr. Brennan was magic. A board-certified reproductive endocrinologist, she was optimistic on my first visit, but not unrealistically so. After an exam, she saw that physiologically, pregnancy shouldn’t be a problem. But she was candid: At age 49, I had a 50 percent chance of having a baby with genetic abnormalities. She would only work with me if I agreed to use an egg donor. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I agreed.
I knew this was my hail-mary pass, my very last chance. Dr. Brennan’s cut-off age was 50, so this really was it. I had the support of good friends who’d had their kids 10 to 15 years ago, so I didn’t have to face baby showers blossoming with pregnant bellies while I crossed my fingers. Going through any kind of fertility treatment in my 20s or early 30s would have been so much harder. That envy I felt upon seeing my doctor with her big belly would have been exponential witnessing all my friends pregnant when I was trying so hard to get there myself. I hadn’t felt that back then because I’d always thought it would happen. That I’d find the guy and then we’d have kids. The way it’s “supposed” to happen. Right.
On the day I turned 50, I was in a reproductive lab in Beverly Hills, masked, watching on a screen as Dr. Brennan transferred one little embryo, a day-5 blastocyst, into my uterus. On screen, it looked like a miniature shooting star in the night.
I avoided peeing on a stick. There’s no way I would have had the patience 20 years ago to wait for the blood test instead. But at 50, I’d gained at least a little tolerance for uncertainty. I didn’t want any false hopes, just the real news. Blood test came back. Boom, I was pregnant.
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The Ups and Downs of Being an Older Mama
The 12 weeks of hormone injections are not one of the joys of being a 50-year-old pregnant woman. But I was healthy. My OB told me that yes, I was her oldest patient, but I wasn’t her most high-risk patient. The higher-risk mamas were those in their 40s using their own eggs. Interesting. But I was still high-risk, by age and because I’d used IVF. Still, age conveyed advantages: You don’t get biweekly ultrasounds if you’re 20-something. The constant monitoring meant getting to see my little one on the screen evolve from a lima bean-shaped dent and a teeny beating heart to seahorse with little nubs to waving hands and a face in profile. I still felt a low-level persistent anxiety that something could go wrong until the amniocentesis, but mostly, I felt joy. The incredible miracle of getting pregnant at age 50, after decades of wanting it.
Even my socially distant, Zoom baby shower was a joy. It would have been better to see everyone in person, of course, but I think more people showed up this way, from across the country. There wasn’t a lot of drama. And in the planning of it and in creating a registry I was practical. By age 50 you realize that you don’t need a theme for your kids’ stuff, and you don’t need for your baby shower to out baby shower your best friends’. You just want guests to not be bored and for all the gear to be functional and safe. Who cares which animals are on it?
Coordinated gear or not, being a new mom at any age is really really hard. It’s disorienting to have your whole life turned upside down in the course of day in the maternity ward, even when you’ve taken all the classes and wanted this very thing so badly. And being a single mom adds yet another layer of difficulty; there’s no partner there to split the late nights with you or to hand the baby off to so you can shower or pee. But my wonderful friends and family showed up, literally, to help. At least every other week during the first three months or so, I had friends or family in town to at least let me nap and shower during the day or take that 11 pm feeding or the 5 am one. Because all my friends had older kids, they could take a few days away from home to help. I learned how much of a community I had already, but I saw like I’d never seen before, just how much my friends and family loved me. If having my greatest dream fulfilled didn’t crack me wide open (which it did), seeing that love in action certainly did. I cried more over being touched by this abundance of kindness than I did while pregnant. Ok, yes, hormones were still circulating. But still.
If you’ve managed to get yourself to age 50, you’re pretty capable. You know you can handle just about anything thrown your way. In your 20s or even 30s, your abilities are much more untested. Cranky boss? You get a new job. When you have a baby, the cranky boss is with you for life. When your little guy needs you every two or three hours in the middle of the night, forget that 8 hours of shut-eye. But at 50, I’m able to say, who cares? What else do I have to get up for that’s this important? So what if I’m a zombie tomorrow? Or the next day? Eventually, this will shift. And it did. I don’t know that I would have been able to shrug that off so easily in past years.
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Part of that, I think, is the radical shift in lifestyle. Most of us like our lives before children. The ease and flexibility of going out to eat with friends, of committing to travel to Paris for work or to Hawaii for a vacation. Flying was easy, driving was easy.
Once your little peanut is on the scene, however, everything is harder. My guy hated the car, so even going to get groceries was an exercise in torture. (One huge benefit of the pandemic came in handy here; nearly everything could be delivered.) Dinners out become a thing of the past, not just because finding a sitter is crazy expensive, but kids go to bed early when they do finally sleep through the night, so it was lights out at our house at 6:30 pm for a while there. I didn’t even mind. If that meant I could go to bed at 8 pm, an hour when I used to eat, I wanted to dance a jig (but was of course I was too tired to even consider that).
Friends were jetting all over the place once the pandemic eased, but not us. Yet I didn’t feel like I was missing out, as my younger self surely would have felt. I’d already seen London, Paris, Champagne, Rome, Iceland, Thailand, and more. I’ve skied mountains big and small, sunbathed on beaches around the world. Maybe I would again. But right now, my son needs walks in our local parks and some time eating sand at the shore, he needs practice crawling on the playground across the street, maybe trying to shove a leaf or stick into his mouth, too. The things I’d hate to miss out on now aren’t that 40-year-old bottle of wine poured at sunset in a distant land, but rather the switch my son made this morning from army crawl to knee crawling.
I still get grumpy when my sleep is interrupted, but it’s interrupted a lot less than it used to be. He’s now getting 11 hours of sleep and I’m getting 8 straight. I feel like a new human again, another kind of joy. But it’s not a return to my old self exactly. That return of energy isn’t for me, it’s for him. I think about what we can do together next; not what I want to do myself.
Embracing My New Role, as Mother
There’s this idea that you have to give up your life once you have kids. People of all ages say it. But I haven’t felt that way. It’s a change, sure. I can’t just invite friends over for a glass of vino on any given night (even if I could clear a spot on the table between the board books and that stack of bibs), but that’s ok. We can have lunch instead. Somewhere kid-friendly. When I think about my life pre-baby, it was terrific in many ways, but I can’t say that it was filled with daily moments of joy. It wasn’t joyless, it was pretty damned good. And if it had just continued on as it was, that would have been fine, though a bit monotonous. More hikes with the dog, more work, more vacations with the extended family, and a few by myself or for work.
If I were younger, I could see that I might be a bit resentful of all those experiences that do take a backseat when raising a child. But I see it differently now. I’ve done those things, and maybe I’ll do some of them again. But in the meantime, I’ll do other new things and get to see them through my son’s fresh eyes as something wondrous.
I’ll have another human to share each experience with, even if he’s a tiny human, and even better, more of my daily moments of joy are shared ones. Singing in the car, dancing in the kitchen, babbling nonsense while we each crinkle some crinkle toy, while we toss dried lentils from one bowl to another and spill them on the floor. And oatmeal squished in a hand is interesting, isn’t it? Well, not to everyone. But it is to my little guy, which makes it interesting to me, too. And together, we can share that moment, feel that sticky ooze between our fingers and giggle about it.
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