Having a Baby After 50
I opened my post office box and removed an AARP magazine, a La Leche League newsletter, and a postcard of a pagoda in Myanmar, which I’d mailed to myself two weeks earlier while on assignment in the country formerly known as Burma. The Idaho mountain morning was autumn orange, my first at home after 24 sleepless hours flying economy class from Yangon. My baby screamed whenever the stroller stopped rocking, and the early miseries of a cold pounded in my head.
A young woman standing next to me at the post office smiled and nodded at the stroller. "What a beautiful baby," she cooed in a swoony voice. "Where’s his mother?"
Putting on a smile stolen from mug shots of serial killers, I said, "This old hag is his mom."
I am 54 years old and suffering the delirious consequences of weaning a baby and being one of the first Western journalists to visit Naypyidaw, the new capital city of the military dictatorship that has held the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the past 18 years. No doubt, I am also the first breastfeeding 54-year-old journalist to go this route. (No, I didn’t take my son with me: Myanmar, military dictators, and babies really don’t mix.) But today, deadlines looming and baby wailing as if his hair is on fire, I choose to blame my entire exhausted life on the airline’s lack of business-class upgrades and on Mary Martin.
I was 7 years old when Peter Pan soared before my eyes. No Wendy envy and shadow mending for me. Martin set my imagination free and ruined any future I had as a shop clerk or a stay-at-home mom. Nothing since has been able to hold me down — not marriage (past or present), four kids, State Department warnings, or leaking breasts. I’m not complaining. My dual careers as a journalist and as a mother are rewarding: unimpressive pay, but magnificent scenery once you get outside the refugee camps or the laundry room.
So perhaps that’s why I’ve been dodging bullets in the third world and giving birth for four decades. The possibility of my dying on the job does not seem too alarming, since fate can hit you with a truck anywhere. But to some, having a baby in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s sounds like a nasty habit, right up there with chewing tobacco or scrubbing grout with your toothbrush. There should be a 12-step program for women like me, rebels who can’t give up their quixotic causes or their diaper bags.
Why a baby at 53? I could answer, "Because I’m good at it," or, "Because I wanted to." Or, more accurately, because my husband, Fred, wanted to, and he hadn’t met his soul mate until we both were in our last laps around the reproductive track. Our handsome young fertility doctor did a uterine drive-through and felt confident he could get me pregnant. "I’m flattered," I joked weakly.
Retirement accounts, our contemporaries warned, are for endless rounds of golf and margaritas, not rocking chairs and Similac. With two kids out of college and one in high school, our next 20 or 30 years offered unlimited travel, complete domination of the remote control, and the luxury to fail miserably at every fine art we’d always claimed we could have been great at. Weeks of vacillation turned to months, and my husband began to squint when he looked at me, as if he suspected I wouldn’t give him a kidney if needed. I could hear my biological clock still ticking even though it was nearly broken.
Because I love my husband to destruction, temporarily carrying around an extra 25 pounds in order to deliver seven that are all he’d ever wanted began to seem a small sacrifice. Fred was a musician-rancher who had made enough money that he no longer needed to hold down a nine-to-five, so being a dad would be his new full-time job, leaving me free to travel for my work. Tick, tick, tick…every day I told myself I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t crazy. Some days, I believed it.