There doesn’t seem a better time to read a collection of essays about gender, age and motherhood. As parents begin families later and people live longer, and with newer restrictions to women’s healthcare, what it means to parent—whether via natural birth, fertility aids, or adoption—is prescient.
In Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40, Dottir Press editors Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin have assembled groundbreaking work (including poems and a piece by a child of older parents) by 29 writers of different ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds who detail in candid, funny, sometimes terrifying but always unabashedly honest and illuminating prose, their roads to parenthood.
Divided into five sections, the first, “Why Did it Take So Long?” author Laura Davis wonders if the equally important question is not whether it took long but whether an older parent became one by choice (or chance) because of some barrier that made the clock run out a little differently than she may have wanted. In her essay “Out of the Closet and Out of Time” Davis grieves the time and energy she spent in the years of finding acceptance as a queer woman, thinking she might not become a parent due to how our culture’s “response to queerness” had set “many extra hurdles in her path.” A self-proclaimed “lesbian vegetarian daughter of Southern Baptist deer hunters,” she resents those lost years. In photographing her one-year-old daughter with her mother while they visited her grandmother—women from a family that she notes typically have children in their early twenties—she decided that her “could-have-been, would-have-been, should-have-been daughter—probably would have been twenty-one.” She reflects on this with a sort of poised pang: “Oh my God. We are missing a whole person who could have been here.“
In the second section, “Pregnancy and Birth after Forty,” Sarah Dougher writes in her essay “Old Mom ” that she is often mistaken for her daughter’s grandmother. While at an airport she lets her child scream while she finishes a transaction only to have the clerk comment, “Grandchildren are a handful! I’ve got four of my own.” Dougher wonders: “Do I have a responsibility to let the clerk know that older women can be excellent mothers?” But ultimately she realizes that is not the point, the point is shared solidarity—the other woman acknowledges the difficulty, sacrifices and time commitment needed to raise children—not that she mistook Dougher for the grandmother. “In that harried airport moment, when I put my child down on a dirty floor and let her scream and cry, making everyone uncomfortable, it didn’t matter what people thought about me or my role in my family.” Many things factored into Dougher’s decision to have children late, and her road to motherhood was long. The statistics in this collection are staggering, and it’s sobering to read the stories these men and women share—often while maintaining careers in a culture that can resent and render uncomfortable, if not impossible, a woman’s pursuit of late pregnancy, ART (assisted reproductive technology), or adoption. Ultimately, Dougher chose donation, a term she finds “mislabeled” since she was essentially paying a younger woman for her eggs.
In the third section, “Does Age Matter if I Adopt?” single mom Judith Ugelow Blak champions our assumptions that it’s not the mothers who are taking too long, it’s the system and lack of adequate services like accessible healthcare, affordable childcare, equal pay, and maternity/paternity leave that holds would-be mothers back. In her essay “States of Mind” she writes, “I didn’t wait a long time to have children; it took a long time to have children.” Finding that many adoption agencies limited the age difference between parent and child to forty years—even in Denmark, where she lives—she navigated cross-Atlantic to find a solution, ultimately managing to adopt, with her husband, a days-old baby when she was 48 and he was 45. She, too, is often mistaken for her boys’ grandmother (they ultimately adopted a second child) and points out that making friends among other parents is difficult in that the other mothers are so young, which only added to the divide and guilt at being older. The fear and guilt at what we older parents might miss—notably our children’s children—runs like a chorus throughout this collection. Blak concludes:
So how old is too old? It depends on who you ask: the state, the community, the children, me. . . The journey I’ve described wasn’t the dream I started with, nor was it the path I envisioned along the way. I’ve garnered a sensitivity to age, color, diversity, family construction, childless families, parenting styles, and to the impact of the question.
Another writer in this section became a mom at 45. In her essay “25% Pure Gold” Barbara Herel sums up becoming a parent later in life perfectly: “There is nothing I’d rather be doing in my sixties than planning my girl’s sweet sixteen party, visiting college campuses, or exploring new countries with her.”
In the fourth section, “Parenting After Forty,” Robert Bence, in his essay “Never Too Old to Be a Father—Again” writes how “fatherhood was often exhausting, painful, and emotionally draining.” The idea of becoming a father again later in life felt daunting, but once he got past the fear of parenting late—and what we all fear as parents: that we will make mistakes—he “felt not only relief, but a rare joy.”
Paige Averett’s essay “Who Is That? Becoming a Bonus Mom at Age Forty-Five” advocates for marginalized parenting to kickstart new terminology that is more inclusive. Averett sees herself not as a stepmom, but as a “bonus mom.” This seems particularly important in an era of more split and shared partnerships and non-traditional families. Averett sites a Pew study that rates non-traditional family structures as more common than traditional (traditional being defined as having two biological, heterosexual parents). She says it is a constant challenge to be a parent who “isn’t legally or biologically connected to a child” noting schools and other parents often render her nonexistent. She writes: “I bathed and fed [my stepson]. I helped put him to bed. I guided, played, and was involved in organizing his life. I supervised homework. I arranged playdates.” Taking on the role of parent wasn’t a problem for her, yet she found out “it was problematic to others.” That communities make it so difficult for non-traditional parents and families seems counterintuitive to our trajectory forward as a cohesive society. Averett, who continues to introduce herself as her son’s “bonus mom,” hopes that as Gen Z catalogues new terminology for sexual orientation, that new family formations will come into play that have more inclusive and representative labeling. “Our society doesn’t seem to acknowledge any of these shifts,” she observes, “We aren’t getting with the times.” Catherine Arnst, in her upbeat essay about late parenthood “What is Hard?” also notes how important it is to stick with the times. As a single mom, who adopted a child from China at the age of 45, she celebrates all the help she received that allowed her to continue her successful career. “It doesn’t just take a village,” she writes, “it takes the world.”
Indeed, that need for the greater community to recognize and support geriatric parents is key to the last section, “Building a Community and Changing the Narrative.” In her essay “The Single, Most Important Community,” Alia Tyner-Mullings, who found herself a “pregnant, Black, thirty-seven-year-old single woman professor,” writes how “the intersectionality of my race, gender, and class have their own unique place.” She notes how marginalized mothers, especially African-American mothers, work a “triple day” by often contributing not only at work and at home, but also in the community in order to “produce the social mechanisms necessary for survival.” Sound exhausting? Tyner-Mullings found that what she learned most was that “a single mom can never be too anything to ask for help.” Often depleted but always devoted, she searched for fulfilling communities for herself, only finding that these communities were also instrumental for her daughter.
Finally, Elizabeth Gregory’s essay “Late-Onset Motherhood: Many Stories, One Radical Plot Change” champions the trend of “delayed parenthood” in “rewriting the plot of our lives” so women can have the chance/choice to continue to take on policy-making roles at this time of enormous environmental, technological and global health changes.
I saw myself in this collection: as the struggling single mom who sets her alarm pre-dawn in order to write but spends the time washing pee-soaked sheets as she coaxes her child back to sleep like in Katherine Rand’s charming essay “Being All the Things”. Rand observes that we who have children older tend to be privileged white women with more opportunities to have chosen to do so: “becoming a parent after forty is reserved only for those with social and economic privilege.” I fall into this category, as I turned 41 two weeks after my daughter was born. The pregnancy was planned and relatively easy, although I was nervous every second as my uterus was “compromised” (as one male doctor put it) by a previous myomectomy to remove benign tumors, and a C-section would be mandatory.
Like many stories in this collection, the adventure didn’t stop there: I moved overseas with my fiancé while I was five months pregnant. The “compromised” uterus aside, doctors on both sides of the Atlantic said I could have more children. But three years later I found myself a single mom in the foreign country of my daughter’s birth. Moving overseas to become a single mom is not something I recommend— or do I? In Germany, my daughter and I had excellent healthcare regardless of our circumstances, and I wasn’t expected to return to work immediately (staying two years at home was the norm—and any previously held job is guaranteed after pregnancy leave). Whether choosing to have a family sooner or later, this collection makes one thing clear: a strong community of services is needed. In the U.S., parents return to work too soon after welcoming a new child, and childcare options are too few. In Germany, for example, as in other EU countries, parental leave is available (without pay, but with government stipends) until the child turns three (this is in place for each child). Both parents are eligible–even to take it at the same time–and both retain the right to return to work at the same level as before. With an option like that in the U.S., one can imagine that more parents–including non-traditional and older parents, might find more freedoms in expanding their families. Moreover, think of all the ways the children might benefit.
After reading this collection I realize how expansive this “foreign country” of “geriatric” mothers is—whether we elected to have children naturally or with (costly) ART, by adoption, whether by ourselves or with partners—what matters is that we made the choice to take the path that we wanted and at the time that we wanted, and that we did it with joy, with determination, and—as the writers in this collection show—with grace and grit. Let’s hope those choices aren’t taken away.