When I’m dying, I’ll see this room—the Marimekko print, the monkey mobile, the books spilling out of the bookshelf, the bear flat with age, the Ikea chair that Bryan says makes us look like college students, and the baby girl who looks like Bryan. I sway and jostle, counting silently to a hundred, counting silently to two hundred. I have a stack of essays to grade and several semi-emergency emails to answer, but here I am. Go to sleep, little girl. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.
Kai’s crib is lined with a baby quilt my Nana made when I was fourteen. I remember how she held out her papery cheek for a kiss and how inattentive I believed her to be. I hadn’t played with dolls in years, and motherhood felt as distant as the moon. Now, as I rock Kai, I do the math. Nana was seventeen when she got married, twenty-one when she had three children, forty when she became a grandmother. Soon I will be forty.
Kai pushes her toes into my mouth and giggles. We began this dance thirty minutes ago. I shift her weight incrementally to ease the tension in my biceps. Soon I will have the rock-hard arms of a teenager. What I do not have is the serenity my age presumably bestows. It’s the one thing older parents have going for them. But I have always been restless.
Before settling in California, I lived in Tennessee-Thailand-Tennessee-South Korea-Iowa-Uganda-South Korea-Minnesota-Austria-Minnesota. My string of addresses looked like cars on a train. Final destination: unknown. I didn’t own a pet because of the commitment.
And then, when I was thirty-six, I surprised everyone and got married.
American women are waiting to have their first babies, and I keep clicking on articles that explain why. Maybe I’m looking for reassurance or a good scolding. Maybe I’m surprised to find myself so centered in the zeitgeist.
Each article includes some new statistic or angle, but humming beneath all of them is an assumption I’ve come to recognize: Women just want to have it all. And who wouldn’t? Except wanting to have it all is the wordy way of saying hubris, and even your mid-level Greek god will warn you of the folly to come.
O women, sings the chorus, how you upend the natural order of things, how you bring ruin and despair.
A year after I married Bryan, I got pregnant. It was just so easy. We shared the news with our families, talked about names, and then, at my first doctor’s appointment, the obstetrician couldn’t find a heartbeat. Bryan and I ate at a fusion restaurant on the farthest edge of town. Neither of us felt like cooking or being in our apartment or making decisions about what to do with the prescription that the doctor had written for me and that Bryan had filled at the pharmacy. I didn’t want to wait and miscarry naturally because it could happen while I was teaching, and after reading about the off chance of hemorrhaging, I was afraid to take the pills. We sat across from each other, cloth napkins on our laps, and spoke gently about work.
I think Bryan called both our families and told them the news. My memory is empty on this point, but it seems like something he would do for me. I made an appointment for a D&C. A week later, I taught in the morning and had surgery in the afternoon. I told everyone that I was fine. Miscarriages are really common. During the day, I ate bowl after bowl of Cream of Wheat. At night, I cried. I was fine, really. I would get pregnant again.
Except I didn’t. Month after month ticked past, and I felt increasingly anxious. Had I turned some fertility corner and was now too old to get pregnant?
Bryan and I began training for half-marathons. In the evenings, we tied our shoes and jogged out of the apartment complex. Bryan was soon in front, more willing to push against discomfort, while I loped half a block behind. Through my earbuds, Mumford & Sons crooned. When the band attacked the banjo and guitar strings of “I Will Wait,” I slapped my feet against the pavement, trying to reach Bryan. The irony always amused me. Wasn’t catching up the opposite of waiting?
Country music singer Carrie Underwood was asked in an interview if she wanted a large family. She already had one child and was (quietly) pregnant with the second. She answered, “I’m thirty-five, so we may have missed our chance to have a large family.”
USA Today did a piece on the public’s reactions. Some fans thought Carrie wasn’t too old; others thought she had a right to her own opinion. Random stranger Juliet James tweeted: “Since fertility DOES decrease as women age, this is just TRUE. She MAY have missed that chance.”
I was eight when my mother bought me the Sunshine Family. They were a set of four fake Barbie dolls with terrible hair and wholesome clothing. I played with them whenever we traveled. They were easy to pack, and their regimented schedule provided an anchor to my disrupted one. Whatever might happen, the two Sunshine children needed to be fed, bathed, and put to bed.
My cousin Riikka had two real Barbie dolls, and when we visited her family in Finland, she brought them out. I was the youngest cousin, and usually no one, not even my sister Sonja, wanted to play with me. But Barbie dolls united us. Sonja and Riikka voiced the real Barbie dolls while I inhabited the entire Sunshine Family. The two regular dolls would go to their jobs—one was a veterinarian, the other an architect—and then meet up for ice cream.
“The Sunshine Family likes ice cream,” I would say.
“Oh, no kids allowed,” Sonja or Riikka would reply. “We’ll invite you next time.” Their dolls would talk about boys and work, and then go shopping, trying on intriguing combinations of clothes.
The Sunshine Family, propped up on a pillow, had run out of conversation. As the mother doll waited for an invitation, she fixed supper, put the children to bed, and wondered about her life choices.
Reasons American women are not having babies (or are having them later in life) according to articles I have read in the New York Times: smartphone ownership, climate change, the 2008 recession, the #MeToo movement, getting married late in life, pornography, the popularity of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), lower rates of homeownership, increased college attendance, and decreased stigma in being an older mom.
A few days before Christmas, Bryan and I sat in the parking lot of Walmart, waiting for the doctor to call with my blood results. It was cold in Arkansas and already dark. Last-minute shoppers half-jogged past our truck. They had come for turkey and green beans and other holiday necessities. We had come for reliable cell coverage and to learn whether I could still get pregnant. Because I couldn’t bear anyone knowing, we had told my mother-in-law we needed rutabagas. “I suppose Walmart might carry it,” she had said, handing Bryan the keys to her pickup truck.
When my phone rang, I answered immediately. I had an old flip phone, leaving Bryan on one side of the conversation—Yes. Sounds good. Great. Thanks. I summarized the particulars: My blood looked mostly fine. I needed to take thyroid medication. I should visit a fertility doctor. Having a kid wasn’t necessarily off the table.
We walked into Walmart, joking about rutabagas.
I turned twenty-one in Thailand and looked fourteen. The adult students at the language institute where I taught called me Dek-dek. Baby baby. The children called me Salee. They would pile into my lap during class and claim me at our institute parties. Two brothers began arriving for class an hour early, despite the locked gates. They would wait outside the school, which was also where the teachers lived, and take turns shouting my name. If I didn’t answer quickly enough, another teacher would find me: “Your boys are here.” I would set down the novel I was reading and go to them.
It has been more than two decades, and those boys are now men with their own adult lives. But in my memories we’re all still babies, so young and trusting and glad to see one another.
In the 2018 Atlantic article “The Rise of Older Mothers,” Olga Khazan reports that birthrates in the United States are at a thirty-year low. Every demographic is having fewer babies, except those over forty. Women are waiting on children, according to the article, because they want to finish school and establish a career first. The baby becomes “a capstone.”
While the piece turns mostly on the whys of older mothers, Khazan also provides an economic upside: the United States government has spent $40 billion less on babies and has used this windfall to bolster Medicare and SNAP benefits.
I lived in South Korea twice, before graduate school and then after. The second time, I landed with a thud. I had quit a coveted NGO internship in Uganda because I missed being a teacher and because grief from my mother’s recent death kept washing over me. I used my sister Sonja’s wedding in Pusan as an excuse to return. I remember lying on her guest bed before the wedding and watching the red glow of traffic. I was twenty-seven years old and had no money, no job, no work visa, no career, no plans. I didn’t even have romantic prospects. I felt empty and transitional.
My Korean friend Sandy evicted her roommate—a New Zealand spinster who stashed socks in the freezer—and I moved in. Sandy helped me string together illegal teaching gigs. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, I taught at a language institute called Hello, English! On Wednesdays, I taught seven hours straight in somebody’s living room and got paid in fat envelopes of cash. On Fridays, I applied for university jobs. When I got hired, I nearly wept.
“Teaching in South Korea is for those of us who haven’t decided what we’re going to do when we grow up,” my friend Bob said at a board game party. The expatriates nodded. Bob was married. Sonja was married. Yet it felt as if we were suspended in time. Our university teaching contracts were one-year renewable, and our Korean colleagues considered us temporary.
As I waited, I gathered myself. I got a black belt in taekwondo, volunteered weekly at an orphanage, mountain climbed with Sonja and Sandy, attended film festivals with Sonja and Sandy, hosted board game nights, traveled, saved money, and wrote. If my life were a pie chart, the years I spent in South Korea would be only two slivers, and yet they represent my transition into adulthood.
Another medical phone call—this time with the fertility doctor. “Your eggs are older than your biological age,” he said.
“Really,” I said and sat with the knowledge that my body wasn’t younger than my biological age, as I had always assumed; it was older. Why, bless my heart.
The doctor prescribed hormone shots and pills, to be taken for three consecutive months. Each round, he said, would improve my chances by 10 percent, which sounded like both a lot and very little. Bryan and I didn’t talk about what we would do afterward. If anything. Each month, a box arrived with a vial and needles. I remember the light streaming in through the kitchen window as Bryan injected me in my stomach, and how we then tied our shoes and went out for a run.
After the last hormone shot and the requisite waiting, I took what must have been my twentieth pregnancy test over the past year. Each box was a memoir of hope and failure, and I was embarrassed to keep buying them from the pharmacy across the street. I set the timer down on the counter. Bryan was in the living room, talking on the phone with his mother. I expected the test to be negative. Even if I was pregnant, it was probably too early to trigger that second line. Taking it was just a tick on my weekend to do list. I was fine.
Before the timer rang, two lines appeared. I charged down the hall and jumped around behind our couch, waving the stick in the air and mouthing, “Positive!”
This is how we waited for adulthood: The boys played with Legos and the girls played house. In Finland, Sonja and Riikka grabbed apples off my aunt’s table and ran out the door and I followed. Always the youngest. We traipsed into the forest, where the moss was thicker than carpet and large stones nestled within the birch. Fallen tree branches marked the edges of our houses; flat-topped stones, lined with lichen, were our furniture. We set our tables with wild berries and the apples we had brought with us. We imagined that we were women, capable and free.
The average age when American women have their first baby is 26.5, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report. South Korean women, on average, are the oldest first-time mothers at 31.4. In Germany, 23 percent of women past childbearing age have never had a baby; in the United States, it’s only 14 percent. And on average, American women have a total of 2.2 children, while Japanese women have 1.5 children and Icelandic women have 2.3 children.
I was thirty-eight when I got pregnant and turned thirty-nine halfway through it. I hiked, jogged, kayaked, and camped. “Still running, huh?” my obstetrician asked. “I’m going to tell my other patients about you.” I beamed. But some nights my legs were so tired that when I needed to get out of bed, I had to manually pick each one up and drop it off the edge of the bed as if it was an anchor. I googled “tired legs + pregnancy” and found nothing. I googled “tired legs + geriatric pregnancy.” Still nothing.
When I shuffled past the bathroom mirror, I pressed my stomach into the sink and searched for threads of white running through my hair. If I found one, I removed it with a satisfying yank.
I lumbered back to bed and to the novel I was reading. Halfway through, the protagonist observes another mother, her baby, and that mother’s graying ponytail. Graying ponytail. The words could have been written in fire. I felt exposed and ridiculous. All that running! I set down the novel. I picked it up. I read the scene again. I laughed. I read it to Bryan. Graying ponytail, indeed.
I stopped pulling out my white hairs. “They’re like highlights,” I told Bryan.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I like it. You look real good.”
My mother was thirty-four when she had me, and no matter where we lived, she was the oldest parent in my peer group. She wore her short hair in a perm, dressed for comfort, and said what she thought. Store clerks sometimes asked if she was my grandmother. How she laughed then.
When I learned that my mother would substitute teach my eighth grade class, I wanted to transfer to another school or at least fall critically ill. A brain tumor would be nice. The night before she was to teach, I selected my mother’s outfit, including her shoes. I told her who the cool kids were and implored her not to discipline them, no matter what. I remember her being amused, but years later I wondered. No one can wound quite like a daughter.
On the big day, I kept my head down and worked. We had moved to Atlanta at the beginning of the school year, and my friendships were fragile. Each day I worried about wearing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. I had already survived one social shunning. Now my mother was here. She wasn’t just uncool, she was radioactively dorky, and by association I was too. Although everyone knew she was my mother, I gave my classmates no further evidence. At lunch I sat with a circle of girls, who on this day allowed me to eat with them, and my mother sat at the teacher’s desk alone. We each ate our cheese sandwich made from the bread she had baked the previous day.
I was thirteen and terrible. She was forty-seven and understood. She watched me from across the room and silently sang the song of the mothers. Oh, child of mine, you will not always be thirteen. You will be okay. You will be okay. You will be okay.
As I waited to go into labor, I watched Top Chef and researched epidurals. For months I had read about their link to C-sections, yet I had no alternate plan. My mother had famously had both daughters with only grit. Maybe I could as well.
Pain provided clarity: I was not my mother.
After the epidural, I fell asleep and woke to active labor. The doctor swung by to check on me. “Any minute,” she said. A joke Bryan and I caught several days later. At the time, we looked at each other tenderly. I breathed and pushed, breathed and pushed. The nurse called it practicing, and still I expected to deliver soon. The clock in the room had a white face. The long black arm made a slow circle and started another. I thought about the purple knee socks embroidered with sloths that I had packed for the delivery and wondered what I had been thinking. There was nothing whimsical about giving birth. It was like running a half marathon while getting your teeth drilled.
The doctor returned, and this time she sat down. Any minute. I had seen births on TV and read about them in books and in student essays. Now I would learn what nearly everyone my age already knew. One push moved into the next. I watched the clock and breathed and wondered how this would end. Would I need a C-section? I felt suspended at the midpoint of my life. One more push, the doctor said. One more push. One more push. And finally one more push was the last one. The doctor held Kai up like a lobster and plopped her on my chest.
Little, red sea creature glistening with goo.
Barry Walters, an obstetrician in Australia, caused a national stir in 2011 when he scolded older mothers. “There are far more women over the age of 38 getting pregnant than there ever were 10, 20 years ago,” he told the West Australian newspaper. “The medical side is only part of it. It is selfish and self-centered of older women to have babies.” He listed the challenges children would face because of their aging parents, and ended with a line every mother knows, “It’s just not fair.”
After extensive criticism, Dr. Walters wrote a follow-up for the Brisbane Times, titled “Pregnancy Advice Is about Facts, Not Values,” in which he now held medical professionals—not women—accountable for geriatric pregnancies. Near the end of the op-ed, he wrote: “Tens of thousands of women in this nation would avoid suffering if they chose to become pregnant earlier in life. This is a simple message and should be made clear by doctors to those who seek their advice.”
On the weekends, Bryan takes Kai on outdoor adventures, i.e., the backyard. While I’m washing dishes, they bound back inside. “Mommy!” Bryan says, a joke this calling me Mommy. “Inspectors Bradford and Bradford found a tail and a leg in the garden. We think it belonged to a cat.” Kai waves her arms at me and shrieks, sensing something fun. “We think a coyote left them. We’re going to go investigate some more.” They turn and glide back out the door.
Waiting meant I got to marry this man. He makes up songs for Kai about hand washing and eating couscous. He calls President Obama on my now broken cellphone. “President Obama? Kai just ate her broccoli. Exactly! We were very impressed and we thought you’d want to know. You’re welcome!”
How could I not have waited?
The most popular reader comment to the New York Times article “American Women Are Having Fewer Children Than They’d Like” came from Lindsay K. in Westchester County, NY:
I’m so tired of these articles. I’m in my mid-30s, and the lack of a partner is the primary reason I don’t have kids. No, I’m not “too picky” . . . By the time you get to be my age, people think you should be satisfied if the guy has a pulse, is under 80, and doesn’t smell. Particularly if you want kids, the line of thought seems to be that you should be willing to put up with anything and anyone because hey, you’re not getting any younger or prettier. Newsflash: neither are the guys.
Bryan was married when we first met. When I tell people this, I always add, “But it’s not like it sounds,” and they nod because the vibes that radiate off my body aren’t husband-stealing ones; they’re nun vibes, literally. At an icebreaker in Minnesota, a group of strangers collectively guessed that I was a former nun.
Bryan and I became friends when we were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. On weekends, a group of us played basketball or picked apples or went sledding. For my thirty-second birthday, I threw a party at my studio apartment. Bryan and his wife brought cake, and someone else gave me a lei, which I draped over my head. We ate and gossiped and then played Balderdash. I was about to win when Bryan tricked me into making a terrible move. I can’t remember what. I just remember the horror that washed over me, and Bryan’s laughter, so full of joy and mischief. He tipped back, shoulders shaking, a grin across his face. I had never seen him so unguarded. Something turned inside me. Fondness, I assumed.
When Bryan got divorced, I was living in California and was sad to hear the news. When we started dating, our friend group was astonished. When we got married, I knew that I wanted a baby with his laugh, that I wanted to see him laugh with a baby.
Type “benefits of being an older mom” into Google and you will find an encouraging number of lists:
12 Unexpected Benefits of Being an Older Mom, BabyCenter
5 Pros and Cons of Being an Older Mom, Today
10 Benefits to Being the Older Mom, Scary Mommy
15 Benefits of Being an Older Mom That You Didn’t Think Of, Baby Gaga
My favorite benefit comes from Baby Chick, a website that describes itself as a pregnancy and motherhood resource, and by favorite, I mean the one that unfailingly makes me laugh. The benefit? Your mom friends will all be younger than you.
“While you may gain a few gray hairs on your head,” the article (“6 Benefits of Being an Older Mom”) states, “you are also staying abreast with the latest pop star and fashion trends. You’re not only older and wiser, but cooler. And what isn’t super fun about that?”
The mothers are in the sauna. None of us follow the latest pop stars or fashion trends, but we’re at ease in our skins and wear what we like. Today we’re all wearing bikinis in various colors. From the window, we can see the others—our children swimming in the Baltic Sea, our spouses watching. Bryan is holding Kai. Riikka throws water onto the stove, and the steam drives Sonja and me to the sauna’s lowest bench. We cover our faces with our hands and bend down to where the air is cooler. On the top bench, my cousin’s wife Lena sits comfortably with Riikka. We have not absorbed nearly enough heat to run toward the sea.
As the steam dissipates, Sonja mentions the Sunshine Family and we laugh. “I was thinking about them a few weeks ago. They were so . . .” Riikka searches for the right word, and makes a face. “And we were so terrible. I understand the mothers better now.”
“The Sunshine Family was too earnest,” I say. “They needed some toughening up.”
I’m moved by the passage of time, by the overlay of who we were then and who we are now. I’m still the youngest, the most uncertain, but I can feel our collective strength. What kind of Barbie dolls have we become? Lena and I are teachers. Sonja just earned her doctorate and is a writing center director. Riikka is an ophthalmologist. We are opinionated about our careers and about the world around us, but as we talk, we return to the subject of our children. Between the four of us, there are eight kids. Kai is the youngest and still doesn’t sleep through the night. The mothers are sympathetic. “Oh, just wait. It gets easier and harder.”
Riikka throws water on the stones in earnest, ladle after ladle, creating enough löyly to chase even the Finns out of the sauna.
“Shall we?” asks Lena. We nod.
I push the door open, and we run out in a line. “The mothers are coming,” shouts Riikka. The children—our children—step back, bewildered. What is this force?
My uncle has built a diving platform at the end of the dock. It’s about ten feet high and a favorite with the children. I grab onto the wooden ladder and clamor up, trying to get into the water before the heat leaves me. I know that the mothers are behind me. One by one, we hurl ourselves into the Baltic Sea.
Paradox: Being a mother requires selflessness, but wanting to be one is selfish.
Before you’re pregnant, there’s no actual child to consider, only the self. Your desire is personal first and then maybe partnered. You hold your dreams quietly—the family you will transform into, the baby grabbing your hair, the damp child at bedtime, the small hiker beside you, sunlight slanting across the path.
If a newspaper reporter asked me why I was an older mother, I would say this: it just happened. Life unfolded in unexpected ways. Maybe I should have been more intentional. Or maybe I should have released my desire to be a parent. For years I was so young, and then one day I wasn’t. And on that day I became hungry for a child. I noticed small ones everywhere I went. I did the math. If I got pregnant now, I would be in my forties when my child was in kindergarten, in my sixties when my child was in college. Was my age fair to this idea of a person? Was I selfish?
For my forty-fifth birthday, we camped at Mineral King, part of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Kai was five. We roasted vegan marshmallows, waded in creeks, picked wild berries, and took our longest family hike—an unexpected nine miler. In the evenings we attended the campfire program led by Ranger Allan—a lanky Millennial with curly hair, large brown eyes, and an earnest demeanor. His presentations were interactive, and for Kai, our attendance was mandatory.
On our last night, Ranger Allan set up a Jeopardy board. He would ask a personal question, take a few answers, and then transition into a fact about bears. The audience skewed older and quieter. And then there was Kai, leaning forward, radiating enthusiasm.
“Name a time when you felt strong, either emotionally, mentally, or physically,” Ranger Allan asked. He waited for someone to answer and when nobody did, he volunteered participants. The woman in front of us wasn’t sure if she felt strong while she drank coffee or while she journaled. She was annoyed, she said, by the question’s narrow parameters.
Kai raised her hand.
“Yes?” Ranger Allan said.
“I felt strong when I was hiking today,” Kai said.
“We climbed to Monarch Lakes,” I added.
“Wow,” Ranger Allan said. “Did you feel strong when you were at the top?”
“No, when I was coming down,” Kai said. “Because then I knew what I could do.”
“Did you feel physically strong, mentally strong, or emotionally strong?” Ranger Allan asked.
“All of them. I felt all my strongness.”
I will remember this moment. We sat on an old log, surrounded by pines. A film of dirt clung to our bodies, despite the washcloth we had used to freshen up for the program. My feet were a satisfied tired. My child leaned over to whisper that she had seen a bat. Several swooped overhead. Kai would start kindergarten the day after we returned home. She had been nervous all summer about making friends. Oh, child of mine, remember your strongness. Ranger Allan explained how a bear can flip over a log, and Bryan unfolded Kai’s jacket and helped her into it. I pressed my boots into the dirt and watched the bats dart above us, ephemeral companions.
I was here and I wasn’t waiting for anything.