The Ode to Old Mommies

I don’t recommend waiting until you are in your dotage to have children. But life is complicated and sometimes you don’t get a choice. Those of us who had children at 39+ (I gave birth to my daughter at 39 years and 10 months of age) encounter obvious difficulties. But we also can offer great things to our kids that would be impossible for many of us earlier in life. Here are some that I discovered but feel free to share yours:

1. At my age, the source of judgment about my worth has moved from the outside to the inside. I see so many articles and posts by younger mommies who feel the need to defend their parenting decisions to the world. It’s such a relief simply to not care whether anybody thinks I’m a bad mother for not making a greater effort to breastfeed, for buying my kid her favorite tulip cookie at Panera, for not denying her the pacifier, for taking her to preschool in summer when I don’t teach or “do anything”, etc. I can’t be bothered to explain my choices because I’m way too old for that.

2. I don’t mind looking silly or ugly. I’m the most fun parent on the playground because I run, climb, sing in a really ridiculous pitch, lie on the ground and make funny sounds, etc because at my age nothing embarrasses me any longer.

3. My life is pretty much all figured out. My personal and professional lives are as stable as it gets.

3. I’ve had time to visit all bars, parties, adult restaurants, child-free resorts, theater performances, and movies that a person can possibly need. So I don’t feel deprived because I can’t do any of it any longer.

4. I’m financially comfortable enough so that I can, for instance, take my kid to Florida for 3 weeks and not notice the cost.

5. I’m very emotionally stable. I’ve been knocked about by life enough not to worry or stress out over anything that isn’t life-threatening.

6. I’ve had enough time to learn to be very organized. When I’m with my kid, I don’t need to do anything else because it’s all done. So I don’t feel rushed or stressed out.

But hey, if you are a younger mommy and don’t have any of these things, it doesn’t mean you are not a great mommy. You probably can give your kid a bunch of siblings and I can’t, and that’s a lot more important than trips to the beach or the knowledge of how to treat childhood ailments with natural remedies.

As psychoanalysts of childhood say, all you need to be a good mommy is to be. Not to be any special way, but just be there.

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23 thoughts on “The Ode to Old Mommies”

  1. Yeah, Clarissa, you’re really in your “dotage”! Glad things are going so well for you and Klara, but…

    At least two women in India in their SEVENTIES have given birth to healthy babies thanks to successful IVF treatments, and three years ago a 65-year-old German grandmother gave birth to quadruplets. There are a number of ethical, medical, and everyday practical issues that IVF treatments for women that old raise, but these new mothers got lucky — so far.

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  2. “These are not their children, though”

    I suspect that those old ladies would disagree VERY strongly with that statement.

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    1. I’m not a huge fan of the idea that everybody is whatever they say they are. These ladies are host wombs who engage in an activity of a dubious moral value. I mean, has anybody heard of a shortage of people in India?

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      1. These specific women weren’t “host wombs”(or “surrogate mothers”) in the sense that they let their bodies be used to bare children to be handed over to other families to raise. These women desperately wanted children of their own, and for whatever psychological reasons, adoption of a child wouldn’t have met their emotional needs.

        Still a bad idea for multiple reasons, including the question of whether the old women will be alive / physically capable of taking care of growing children a few years down the road.

        There’s no legal maximum age limit for IVF treatments in America, but most U.S. clinics won’t consider the procedure for women over 50.

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          1. “It’s not their eggs, though. So mommy is somebody else.”

            Ah, Clarissa, you’re such a “Debbie Downer” sometimes!

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  3. I had kids at 26, 34, and 38, so I have been both a young(ish) mom and an older mom. With the first kid, I had far more energy and the physical toll of pregnancy/childbirth/no sleep (fuckin’ breastfeeding; I did it with all my kids, but the sleep deprivation is sheer torture) were far easier when I was younger. I also had more energy to take kid to the park all the time etc. On the downside, we were so broke (grad student stipends) that just giving buying antibiotics for the kid’s ear infection and paying for daycare so we could continue going to school was beyond what we could afford, and the only way to deal (no safety net) was to take on debt, with purpose, with the plan that I would graduate quickly and get a real (well paying) job. Which I did. But the approach is not for the faint of heart.

    With the younger two, I had more money and the knowledge that I’ve already done all this and I can do it again. But it’s two, then three, rather than one kid, i.e., the older ones don’t just vanish because you have a baby. I was far busier as a mom on the tenure track with kid No 2 than I ever was as a grad student, and then after tenure with three it was quite brutal, physically. The effects of stress from the job and the sleep deprivation from breastfeeding were much harder to take when I was older. But I am totally with you in that I do not give a rat’s ass right now how I look or what anyone thinks of my parenting choices. I am much more laissez-faire about what the kids eat or wear or how they spend their free time, because I appreciate that they are their own people from the get-go and trust that they will be just fine as long as we are there for them, safe and stable and loving.

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  4. I was always taught you should have kids when old (30-40) so you could handle it emotionally but then noticed people who did it at 20 had so much more energy. I’ve decided I am for that provided you are on the Brazilian system — your mother, now in 40s, takes on a lot of childcare, which she is willing to do because her mother did it for her. I know this sounds weird and has its own problems but if you are in a context where you can do this it is one of the best divisions of labor I have seen.

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    1. This is very common in my counselor and it’s a horrible, horrible thing. Children should be brought up by their parents. Everything else, no matter how convenient, brings really bad results.

      Unless grandma is a robot, she will get confused as to who has the ultimate authority. She will want to do things her way. It will be a constant tug of war between mother and grandmother. The child will be a club they will use to beat each other over the head.

      Signed: that child. 🙂

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      1. In hierarchal systems, good luck asserting your authority as a parent over the grandparents, who are obviously older and have greater authority.

        It obviously doesn’t work if you’re the type of young person who has a kid to attain adult status. Or you consciously had to untrain yourself not to default to whatever your parents did.

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        1. The mommy who can stand up to the authority, experience and knowledge of her own mother is not the kind of person who would want anybody else to raise her kids anyway. That’s a pretty powerful woman to begin with.

          Imagine if a baby gets sick. The panic is, obviously, through the roof. And here is grandma, who has treated a hundred of such illnesses successfully in her own kids. Imagine what it takes not to let her take over.

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          1. And then the child begins to notice: mommy is not in charge. Mommy is not the real authority. She has no power. The child perceives this as an enormous betrayal. The failure of the mother to be all-powerful and to represent the ultimate authority in the first years of life creates intense anxiety in the child. Who then has no idea why she spends her whole life on anti-anxiety meds.

            This is a topic dear to my heart because, as I said, I am that child.

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            1. That’s very interesting. I do in fact know someone here — actually two people, at least — with that situation and it is awful. People don’t see it, but it is devastating. It’s not the dynamic I’ve seen with this elsewhere but perhaps I miss something.

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      2. \ The child will be a club they will use to beat each other over the head.
        Signed: that child. 🙂

        Let me guess, the grandmother was your father’s mother, not a relative of your mother?

        When I was ill, which happened very often, my mother decided things, my grandmother didn’t interfere. (Asked my mother about it).
        However, in day to day life my grandmother didn’t have less authority.
        Don’t remember any tugs of war ever.

        As a funny story, when I was about five and grandma went to Russia to visit my aunt. I happily informed my mother on the way home that now I can do whatever I want. My mother was surprised and didn’t react. That’s her words, I don’t remember it.

        Personally, especially considering my father deciding not to take part, I am glad to have had grandparents to raise me too. Unfortunately, grandpa died when I was not yet 6 and I haven’t had the chance to truly know him as a person. I do remember loving him though. Grandmother died in Israel in my early 20ies and I am glad to have had her as another parent – grandparent figure.

        You talked about the difference between parents and grandparents. The way I imagine it is that most people’s grandparents don’t live with them and are frankly less close to them and less important than mine were. Of course, they also have less authority, if any, while both my grandmother and mother have been strong people. I have always felt loved and protected.

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        1. “Let me guess, the grandmother was your father’s mother, not a relative of your mother?”

          • It was first the battle between mother and her mother and then the battle between mother and her mother-in law. And then, to top it all of, there was the battle between mother and the mother of her mother-in-law. If you can keep track. 🙂 So I know the issue from every side, and every side of it stinks.

          Result: I have battled anxiety my whole life and only now am getting somewhere in the battle.

          How is your experience with anxiety? Because that’s the only true measure. Everything else is a story one tells oneself. I’ve told myself many stories over the years, but. . . yeah.

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  5. Just to clarify, I do agree with you that in full families parents should take leading roles and not up to 4 grandparents fighting among themselves and parents. 🙂

    Just wanted to share my own experience of 3 people functioning as parent-figures.

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    1. And yes, of course, we have a very culture-specific phenomenon of a woman being “married” to her mother and giving birth to the mother’s child. And they function as a mirror of a nuclear family. It’s very confined to our culture, so I don’t think anybody here even knows what I’m on about.

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    2. Right, this is what I’ve seen working well (so far as I can tell) among my Brazilian friends but HORRIBLY here because parents have now power. The difference is staying in role — the parent(s) still have to be the parent(s).

      My mother felt usurped because my father’s aunt paid for us to go to college.

      My anxiety has to do with terror at being left with no adult in charge but my mother, who was so ill.

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      1. \ Right, this is what I’ve seen working well (so far as I can tell) among my Brazilian friends but HORRIBLY here because parents have now power.

        Parents have power or grandparents?

        \ It’s very confined to our culture, so I don’t think anybody here even knows what I’m on about.

        What happens with single mothers in American culture? Are they left to fend for themselves alone by their parents?

        What about African-American community with its relatively many single mothers? I thought they also had something like that. Only unlike in my family without socio-economic , cultural ability to do it relatively successfully.

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        1. Brazil: my observation has been, it’s the parents who are the parents, even if they get a lot of support from grandparents (for instance: grandparent, if retired, will watch the kids after school until the parents get home from work, every single day — as in, kids go from school to grandparents’ house, then get picked up by parents later; and in addition grandparents will sometimes have them over on a weekend night so parents can stay out super-late). I’ve seen this extended family situation work well here too, with grandparents or other relatives pitching in extensively. It can work well but I think that when it does it is because nobody is fighting over who the parents are, whose kids these are: the relatives helping out are very conscious that they are just that, and the parents aren’t being usurped.

          I’ve got a couple of counterexamples in my local circle of friends, though, and it’s SO clear although the people involved do NOT see it. In both cases it is grandparents who are really running things. Parents don’t get to be parents 100% and it creates huge conflicts for the kids, and is destructive to the parents. And the grandparents are convinced they’re helping. It’s sad and at after a certain point, some of those involved are damaged beyond repair.

          This post is causing me to notice once again how valuable psychoanalytic principles and insights are. They can be so simple, really: presence and the anxiety caused by absence, etc. One can talk and talk about more superficial things and not make headway, but just noticing these very basic things and the gaps they leave can show you where you may want to shift attention and beam love.

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