BY RASHA AL-SALEH
You're in your forties with no kids. Your life exudes a quiet elegance. Your time is neatly divided between work, self-care, and social commitments. You spend your hard-earned money on travel and beautiful possessions. The last time you had a sleepless night, Beyonce was the lead singer of Destiny's Child, and it was a wild one. And, if you are in a relationship, you're too well-rested to bother with the daily quibbles that parents of young children seem intent to waste their time on.
And then, one day, something magical happens. You have a baby— an extraordinary gift after years of emotional tumult, and perhaps financially draining medical assistance. It's a dream you have longed for and for which you feel immense gratitude.
It's also a dream that hits you like a ton of bricks. And, as you go through the all-encompassing experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care, the life you cultivated over decades morphs into an unfamiliar landscape.
For the first time in years, you are not the architect of your day. Your time is dictated by the tiniest bundle of human. Sleeping, eating, and bathing are no longer everyday activities that you go through mindlessly. Instead, you long for a day when you do not have to make the impossible choice which to forgo: sanity, health, or body odor.
You had spent years climbing the corporate ladder to an impressive job, regularly charming colleagues and clients with your wit and competence. Now, you humbly step off that ladder to spend day and night taking care of the basic needs of someone who unapologetically returns the favor by throwing up all over you.
The only thing left from your pre-baby existence might be that you still don't have daily quibbles with your husband--only because you're both too old and sleep-deprived to bother.
In the grand scheme of things, you have everything you ever dreamed of. In the day-to-day, your life could be an art installation paying homage to prisoners in hard labor and solitary confinement.
As a seasoned human in your forties, you knew what you were getting into. You were prepared for the hard work and the physical and emotional highs and lows of having a baby. What you were not prepared for, perhaps, was how much of a solitary journey this would be. At least I was not.
Moments of isolation are part and parcel of motherhood. Yet, younger women seem to go through motherhood alone, but together. They often have friends, cousins, and sisters having babies at the same time. And even though they spend hours alone with their babies, they have play dates and call one another with questions or to compare notes. During our thirties, entire friend groups transitioned together to a family social life that accommodated babies, mums and dads. Both partners had friends to share the trials and tribulations of parenthood.
Very few people start their families in their forties. I consider myself to have a robust social network, and when I gave birth, I had a total of two other friends with babies. We lived on different continents, so we quietly supported each other via late-night text messages, trying not to wake up our babies while every other person we knew slept.
I was quickly marooned away from my social circles. I couldn't keep up with the lively rhythm of my child-free friends. They—understandably—didn't enjoy one-on-two dates where they were competing for my attention with a crying baby. I, also understandably, didn't want to meet up for drinks or dinner at the ungodly hour of any-time-that-I-could-be-sleeping o'clock.
Friends with kids were caught up in the schedules of their older kids and teenagers. When we did make time to see one another, we found it hard to relate to each other's parenting experiences. They weaned their kids with Gerber food jars and disciplined them using Supernanny's "naughty step". Meanwhile, I was grappling with baby-led weaning and learning to replace punishment with "ok-ing the feelings" while "holding boundaries,”— complete gibberish to anyone who parented before Instagram. The changes in the "science" of parenting had created a gulf between us.
I had to blaze new trails to find my tribe. I wanted to make an effort with the lovely new moms I met at baby and parent classes— but I had to ignore the fact that they were toddlers during the airing of Season 1 of Friends. They tried to hide their shock when my age came up and were quick to tell me how good I looked for my age—which I would take as a compliment, except I remember thinking of 40-something-year-olds as "the elderly" when I was their age.
I wonder if this age difference means I will be off-synch for the rest of my life. I imagine spending my 50s at noisy children's birthday parties while my empty-nester friends sail away on long holidays together; or dropping my kid off on her first day of high school just as one of my best friends becomes a grandparent.
I also worry about the future. How do I equip myself to raise a child in these fast moving times? I can barely relate to what my adolescent nieces and nephews are experiencing today. How helpful will I be to a teenager in fifteen years? And what can I do now to make sure that my daughter, who will be starting her life as an adult in twenty years, doesn’t have to worry about caring for aging parents? Will I be alive, let alone be well enough to help her, when she has her own children?
I didn't choose to wait till my forties to have a child. It is how my life unfolded. I wonder though, if I could go back in time, would I wait until my forties to have a child?
I definitely wouldn't be as flippant about having kids as I was in my thirties. But when I really think about it, I don't know how much better off I would have been having a kid ten or fifteen years earlier. I don't think I would have been a better parent or partner. I am by far the most patient and calm version of myself to date. I am not plagued with FOMO. There are few activities I would rather do than spend time with my family. I worry less about comparing myself with other mothers and feel more secure about my parenting than I would have fifteen years ago.
I am also in a better place financially to take care of a child. I shut down my business to focus on my kid, knowing that what i have built once, I can always rebuild again— a difficult choice but something I would never have been able to do in the beginning of my career. As for finding 40- something-year-old kindred spirits going through early parenthood, they are still few and far in between, but I am slowly discovering more and more of these mythical creatures.
I don't take any day of being a parent for granted. I cannot stop thinking what a miracle it is to have a child—especially when I know how difficult the journey can be. I don't know how I got so lucky. And this visceral appreciation of parenthood makes every day that much easier. That is something I would have never understood if I had a baby when I was much younger.
So, yes, having a baby in my forties is challenging. But as I hold my daughter in my arms and breathe in all her sweet and tangy toddler smells, I know that I would have waited much longer than forty years to be where I am today.