Unless you have spent fifteen years as a married woman without children, you probably do not even realize just how often in the course of everyday conversation the topic of having children arises. When I was a newlywed of twenty-four, I was asked as soon as I returned from my honeymoon when I would be having a baby. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had posed the question during my wedding reception and, to save my sanity, I promptly blocked out the memory. As the years went by, I found that the questions became less and less frequent, as those who knew me no doubt deduced that since I had clearly become older than dirt, it was too late for me to ever be a mother.
What is the rush to be a mother? I know that biologically a woman in her early twenties is ideally suited to having a baby, but in my opinion this is a major design flaw of the human organism. Biology and a culture were in a conspiracy to push me into reproducing before I was ready to take such a monumental step. Those of us who wait, who postpone pregnancy until we feel ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child, are bombarded not only with the “over thirty-five” gloom and doom about fertility, but also with cultural messages lauding motherhood as the most fulfilling of roles that we should immediately embrace.
It is a shame, really, that evolution has not caught up to the reality of forty being the ideal time to have a baby. In addition, the medical establishment has not clued in to how well suited a forty-year-old woman is to both pregnancy and to parenting a newborn. By the time I got pregnant at age thirty-nine, I was healthier than I had ever been in my life, both physically and emotionally. If it weren’t for the pesky biological fact that my eggs are as old as I am, I would definitely be in better shape to have a baby at forty than I was at twenty.
When I was young, I spent most of my time on the couch eating M&Ms by the pound bag. My idea of health food was a strawberry Pop Tart (fortified with vitamins, you understand). The only exercise I engaged in was sporadic Jane Fonda workouts in my living room followed by a brief and ugly phase of step aerobics at a gym, where my natural klutziness hastened the cancellation of my membership. In my mid-thirties, I somewhat impulsively took up running and trained for a marathon. This turn of events was about as likely as if I had suddenly sprouted wings and took a spin over the treetops.
In the past few years, I have completed nine marathons and two sprint triathlons. Despite what the books say about older women having difficult pregnancies due to higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, I wager that my risk of all three is significantly lower now than it was when I was younger. In fact, when I was in the hospital having my baby, two months shy of my fortieth birthday, my resting heart rate was so low that it was below what the machine could register. When the doctor asked me if I was an athlete, I secretly smiled, thinking of the overweight, sedentary couch potato I once was, about as athletic as a slug.
Waiting until age forty to have a baby required emotional stamina as well as physical hardiness. From the time we are children, women are trained to be mommies. At an early age, we are given baby dolls to play with, we babysit the neighbors’ children when we are in junior high, and we are frequently told, “You will understand when you are a mother.” In our culture, we are surrounded by images of pregnancy and motherhood. Every time a celebrity reproduces the blessed event makes headlines. (Ever heard of a little one named Suri?) To be a woman of a certain age who had chosen not to be a mother required me to have the emotional strength to fight the cultural pressure to have a baby. To be different, to stand out from the norm, to take a divergent path from the road that is expected, was not easy. It was hard for me, as I reached age thirty and beyond, to stay true to what I knew was the right course for me and my husband.
Whereas at twenty-four I may have been more susceptible to peer pressure and could have had a baby before I was ready simply because that is what one does after marriage, waiting until age forty required the self-knowledge and confidence to separate myself from the norm, to have the ability to examine my heart and to decide what I truly desire, independent of what I think I should do. When I was in my twenties, I enjoyed going out to the movies, staying up late at parties, traveling the world, being able to pick up at a moment’s notice and fly to Paris. Even in my late thirties, as I was trying to decide whether to have a baby or not, I clung to the notion that I was free to do all those things. Then it hit me that at forty, I no longer actually did any of them.
When was the last time I had stayed up past 9:00 p.m.? When I could not even remember the last time I had been out after dark, I realized I would not be giving up anything to have a baby. Everyone says that your life will never be the same when you have a baby. My son is now six months old and the truth is my life has not changed that much. I still do the same things I always did: stay home, eat take-out, and fall asleep before the end of Desperate Housewives. At forty, I have done it all and I am so ready to be at home now with my baby.
In addition to withstanding the peer pressure to have a baby as soon as I married, I have also let go of many of the hang-ups I carried around with me in my twenties that would have impacted my ability to be the mother I am today. At forty, I am no longer keeping up with the Joneses. I have had my career; I have established my professional and personal identity. In my younger days, I might have been apt to compare myself and my child to others and find us lacking. I might have been sucked into the world of Baby Einstein tapes or joined the rush to get my child on the list for all the “right” preschools. At forty, since I am now happy and secure in who I am, I do not need to push my child to achieve to feed my own insecurities.
At my age, I have also let go of the body image concerns I had when I was in my twenties. As a result, I have taken pregnancy and the accompanying weight gain in stride. Indeed, I am now proud of my body—I am proud that it shows the signs of carrying a child and nursing him. What a powerful thing my body is. So what if I have to wear a size in the double digits and my boobs each have their own zip code? When I was younger, the weight gain would have consumed me. When I think of the energy I wasted on worrying about my weight, I know that pregnancy in my twenties would have been a very different experience. At forty, I loved it—I felt healthy and strong. Besides, having a flat stomach is overrated. Does it really hinder the person and mom I want to be if my muffin top still spills out over my waist band?
At this point in my life, caring for a newborn has only added to the peace I have found at forty. I do not pine for my old life or my old body. So to the nay-sayers who say that having a baby at forty is over the hill, I say that, when it comes to motherhood, forty is the new twenty.