When my grandmother was my age, she had a 7-year-old granddaughter—me. When my mother was my age, she had a daughter who was a graduate student in anthropology—also me. At 57, they were middle-aged housewives with empty nests. I, on the other hand, am the 57-year-old mother of a seventh-grader.
The same week that my daughter entered kindergarten, I was invited to join official seniordom with a startling invitation from the AARP that snuggled in the mail among my birthday cards. I threw the envelope in the garbage can and dumped coffee grounds on top of it so my husband wouldn’t see that the world outside our house knew I was 50. How could I possibly be a senior, when just five years earlier I had given birth?
When our daughter started kindergarten, I looked around at the other mothers. A few looked 50, too, but I didn’t ask. Sun worship could have aged their skin prematurely. No one, including me, had gray hair. Most looked to be in their thirties. I was probably the oldest mom in the school, but no one had to know. No one talked about age directly, and I certainly wasn’t going to give away any information that could hint that I was in college in the late ’60s.
As a midlife mother of a middle-schooler, I am out of sync with the age-appropriate role my culture expects me to perform. And as an anthropologist, I can’t help but observe that American culture presumes 50-year-olds will contemplate retirement, have children in college or earning their own living and become grandparents. In fact, a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2000 found that the average age of first-time grandmothers in the United States was 47. Not only are women over 50 depicted as grandmothers, they are also seen as postmenopausal beings who regard sex as a thing of the past. Even medical research on sexually transmitted diseases surveys women in the reproductive 18- to 44-year category, with the underlying assumption that women over 44 are not getting sexually transmitted diseases because they are not sexually active.
In reality, the incidence of older women becoming mothers is increasing in the U.S., as the Center for Health Statistics reported in 2003. The birthrate for women in the 40-to-44 age category doubled since 1981, and topped 100,000 in 2003, while the birthrate for women between 45 and 54 years of age increased by 0.5 percent.
I only wish our culture would catch up with the social and biological realities of moms like me. Instead, retirement communities advertise for residents aged 50 and over. Exercise classes for seniors aim for 50 on up. Some stores start their senior discounts at age 55. These cultural representations of seniordom pervade television and magazine articles as well as advertising images. And they don’t apply to me.
But as the mother of a kindergartner, I was embarrassed by my age. I kept telling Eliana, our daughter, not to tell anyone how old I was. She was quite good about concealing my secret, although she couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want anyone to know, since age is a curiosity of children and a characteristic by which they compare others to themselves.
“Mommy?” she asked one day when I picked her up from her first-grade class. “Do you know that Ashley’s mom is 28, and her grandma is 50?”
I knew it was coming. Someone would have a grandmother younger than I.
“Well, sweetie,” I answered, “when I was 28, I was in grad school and planning on going to Iran for my doctoral studies.”
“Why did you wait so long to marry Daddy?”
“I didn’t meet Daddy until I was 39, and we didn’t get married until I was 43. Anyway, I was having a good time traveling and doing research, and you might want to do that, too.”
If my daughter imitates my behavioral history, I’ll be a 90-year-old first-time grandmother—hopefully not wheelchair-bound in a convalescent home or too feeble to hold an infant.
My age was Eliana’s and my little secret until the second half of first grade, when the children wrote short stories about their parents. These were posted on the teacher’s bulletin board in the hallway. To my horror, there it was, spelling having been corrected by the teacher:
“My Mommy is 51. My Daddy is 42. My Daddy is a physicist. He works at LBL. My Mommy is an artist and an anthropologist.”
I wanted to sink into the floor. If I were aghast at everyone knowing my age, I could only imagine the discomfort that the lesbian moms of one of my daughter’s classmates must have felt when they read their child’s description of fights, separation, and wishes that her moms would live together again. We parents were reading each child’s family description, finding out private information that could form the basis of a juvenile Jerry Springer show. I then knew the ages of every parent whose child was in Eliana’s class, and was mostly surprised that those I thought were close to my age were not. I was, by far, the oldest mom. I longed to strangle the teacher for her audacity in publicizing what some parents might consider very private information.
More than six years have passed since that disconcerting incident, and I am already nostalgic for Eliana’s early school years. Now in middle school, she is growing up and entering the self-consciousness of adolescence. But I, too, am growing up. Having found and befriended several other mothers in their fifties when Eliana was in elementary school spurred me—and them—to be proud older moms.
No longer embarrassed about being one of the oldest mothers in my daughter’s school, I happily tell my years if asked. In fact, when I look around me, I have no idea whether women I see are in their late thirties, forties or fifties. Among ourselves, we older moms joke about our anomalous status, and enjoy the expressions on the faces of younger parents when they find out our ages. We are energetic, vibrant, fun-loving, sexual women. Grandparenting is far from our minds. We have too much to do.
As a woman of 57, I undoubtedly don’t fit into society’s expectations of my age. After taking off years from work to be a mother half-time and an artist half-time, I still think I have a career ahead of me, like many younger stay-at-home moms. I am not looking forward to retirement. Physically, I am more active now than I ever was in my youth. I learned to cross-country ski six years ago, and when my daughter started ice-skating classes at the age of seven, I began figure skating lessons at the age of 52.
In fact, I can’t imagine having spent my twenties and thirties in the throes of parenting. During those years I studied and traveled to third-world countries, stayed in sleazy no-star hotels, and experienced remote cultures that enriched me as a person. I doubt that empty-nesters who became parents when I was wandering the world would attempt the kind of adventurous travel in middle age that I encountered years ago. Even for me now, a simple two-star hotel won’t do.
Sometimes, though, I wonder whether Eliana is comfortable with my age.
“Guess what happened at the movies last night!” I proclaimed to her recently. “I got a discount ticket because I’m 57 and they think I’m a senior. And Daddy had to pay full price.”
“That’s funny.” Her eyes sparkled. She was grinning.
“Hey!” I grabbed her, and we polkaed around the kitchen, humming “The Lonely Goat-herd” from The Sound of Music. “Are you embarrassed that I’m one of the oldest moms you know?”
“No, why? Lucy’s mom’s 54. And so is Jakie’s mom. And Alex’s mom is 56. Rebecca’s mom’s 56, too.”
I smiled. My generation has elasticized the age of motherhood. I just hope that by the time my daughter becomes an adult, cultural images of middle-aged mothers with their young children will be common—and depictions of seniorhood will start at age 70.
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