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.
Discussions about the viability of my few remaining eggs inevitably led to using an egg donor. In truth, this felt slightly criminal, slithering around Web sites with secret passwords of agencies that, for fees starting at $10,000, offered young ladies who were "donating" their genetic material as openly as espadrilles. It’s not an easy thing, choosing the mother of your child. Finally, we found her: a 25-year-old putting herself through law school, a girl so healthy, lovely, intelligent, and funny that our doctor said she could be my daughter. She wanted to meet us, but, by our choice, we spoke anonymously on the phone. A good thing. By the end of the conversation, we were ready to adopt her.
My stalwart girlfriends, those I’d met and maintained since my now 30-year-old son was in kindergarten, gave me a baby shower. They chugged cocktails and talked about their hunky oil-painting teacher. I sipped green tea and opened gaily wrapped packages of T-shirts for newborns, a box of Huggies, and a box of Depends. My best friend, Chris, rolled in a stroller that cost more than my first VW. Seated inside, in a bonnet, was a defibrillator they’d rented from a hospital supply store.
Most of these women — who are educated, working, and ecstatic to have finally traded in their toddlers’ daycare costs for college tuition fees — considered the shower a thinly veiled bon voyage party, only I was going to jail. Chris, however, never wavered in her support. We had met when our daughters were 5. A career in nursing had taught Chris that healthy babies, old friends, and the terminally ill thrive on humor and irony. "Apparently, 14-karat-gold-plated harmony ball teething rings and baby blogs are absolute necessities to successful parenting these days," she said, dumping the latest craze in mommy-lit books onto my fat lap.
Carrying this child actually proved easier than my last, 15 years before, mostly because I avoided Nutter Butters and gained only half the weight. That now-six-foot-tall son refuses to walk the baby with me because people automatically assume it’s his, and that I must be the proud granny. My daughter, a college senior majoring in neuroscience, called the baby her pass to brain surgery. "You’re having your own grandchildren, so I’m going to medical school," she announced. My firstborn, who survived cloth diapers with open pins and homemade, obsessively strained applesauce, dates an endless supply of beautiful 20-year-olds. He doesn’t say so, but, like my daughter, probably considers the baby his savior from the silent parental pressure to settle down and reproduce.
Another Baby Down the Road?
The delivery was noneventful: no heroics, plenty of drugs. My brilliant young obstetrician worried too much, but I assured him I’d done this before, probably before he was born. Fred and I cried the moment the baby was handed to us. Today, when the baby said "Daddeee" and pointed at his father’s nose, my husband cried again.
Babyness is at once the same and improved. We have recently entered the great Cheerios phase: Every step we take crunches, and little O’s are floating in the toilet. Baby accoutrements have gone high-tech. Manipulating a car seat is more complicated than driving the car itself; organic baby food comes in a jar and costs as much as an entire Happy Meal. Nuzzling the baby’s neck, I too feel like crying. His skin is a velvety promise of joy and woe. After a bath, he smells as I imagine clouds in heaven might, full of vanilla and wonder. He smiles constantly, at everyone, reminding me of the Dalai Lama, except when he bashes his head on a sharp corner.
A baby is a reminder as strong as headlines from Baghdad or New Orleans that the world is an eternity of sharp edges. To love a child or anything this much is both courageous and ridiculous. Dread steals your breath away, then hope swells you drunk with gratitude. Every day is a bungee jump. The intensity either kills you or saves your life on a daily basis. But on we go, having and loving our kids like there is no nuclear tomorrow. And what choice do we have?
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" asks the poet Mary Oliver. How better to affirm your existence? Be like the baby and the Dalai Lama. Smile till you’re blue in the face. Take the chance. Take a stand. Spread the love. Volunteer in Darfur. Knit booties. Would I do it all again? Right now, I’m packing for Africa. Ask me in 10 years.
Karen Day has reported for NBC Nightly News. She is working on a book about peace-makers around the world.
Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2007 as "Why a Baby at 53?"