Since I am This Old Mom, and today marks me as a whole year older– the unsurprisingly unsexy age of 53– I am going to make a birthday confession.
When we first adopted Grace, I felt like I was pretending to be a mother. While the physical aspect of the baby transplant was a success– a brave young pregnant woman walked into a hospital, induced labor and walked out alone a day later, knowing her baby was in my arms and being busily absorbed into my family– the emotional/psychological reality of becoming a mother at 49 was harder to grasp.
Love wasn’t the issue– the overwhelming love that flooded my whole being was an automatic response to being handed a fresh human that I had been chosen to mother only a month before. Despite all the love I didn’t know I could contain, I was embarrassed about being an old mom. We were asked in the elevator to the maternity ward if we were new grandparents. By a nurse. A maternity nurse. While we were embarrassed, we still corrected her, then she was much more so mortified. But she also looked aghast, as in, who was I to pretend to be of child-rearing age?
But the fact is, and it just won’t go away, (no matter how much I exercise my already overdeveloped denial muscle), I am of the age where my child should be entering college, not preschool. My younger sister (In and On Jeopardy) has a daughter two years out of college, one firmly ensconced in Penn State and another about to apply to many colleges who will all be lucky to have her attend.
Almost daily I grapple with the inappropriateness of my daring to mother at my age, but then I have to put that shame aside and actually parent Grace—who remains blissfully unaware of my age and (hopefully) the subsequent shame spiral. Today I’m grappling with it more than ever, and not just because it’s my birthday, which lately feels like it happens every six weeks or so – (is it just me or is time accelerating merely because I’ve been alive too long?)
Today I gain a year but lose a nephew- tomorrow he launches his new life in college in Chicago. And it’s hitting me very hard. Harder than it’s hitting my sister or her husband, who are about to come over for a barbecue because I’m forcing them to make a big deal out of sending their oldest son, my nephew off into the world. Everyone in their house is ready for Jack to go. I’m the one who’s not ready.
Leaving to go to my first college in Rhode Island was so expected and planned for I only recall being stunned by
my roommate– the Boston version of me– same sassy short red hair, same proclivity for Nikes and blazers and same tendency to fall in love with gay men. Visits back home were frequent–for holidays, summer breaks or when there wasn’t any other place to go (between relationships, I mean, apartments)– but with every passing birthday, the house I grew up in was no longer an active participant in my life- it was a wood photo album with bathrooms and windows. But my bedroom had become a museum to what I left behind and wasn’t sure I’d ever need again.
Now that I’m more age-appropriate to decorate-organize a dorm room rather than hunt down the last Minion lunch box available on earth, I can’t help but wonder what it’ll look like when I’m 68 (if I’m lucky to live that long) and dropping Grace off at college (cannot begin to imagine what college will COST then) (maybe I’ll be luckier to be dead). I’ll meet Grace’s roommate’s parents and they’ll be feeling a whole lot younger than they did beforehand.
I moved in with my sister when she was expecting Jack. She was huge with child–I was skinny from separation. I slept on her couch because my husband left me and I all I could do was move to Los Angeles and find kind-hearted couches to sleep on. Deep in separation grief, I listened to my sister endlessly debate the eco-footprint and cost-efficiency ratio of cloth vs disposable diapers, and watch my tall elegantly framed brother-in-law James hunch over a mid-century sewing machine, giving barnyard curtains a right proper green gingham border.
I already had two nieces that provided my first lesson in mandatory love sentences. Until Hannah and Molly appeared on earth I had no idea that you could simply look at a being and automatically– like an aneurysm or sudden stroke, (but nicer)– have no choice but to love them to a sacrificial degree until love no longer existed.
I devoted enormous amounts of free time to my nieces- again, not by choice- I was compelled to be simply with them—baking cookies, babysitting, Halloween make up-
Me: You want to be a witch, Hannah?
Hannah: Yeah. Make me REALLY ugly.
One day, I was babysitting them and marveling at how much poop actually come out of a three year old (it was enviably large) and how easy it is to transmit that poop to just about every towel and tile in a bathroom, while holding baby Molly in my arms—when my sister raced home, ashen-faced and silently grabbed Molly and held her, eyes screwed shut.
It took Deirdre time to be able to speak- someone had bombed a government building in Oklahoma City. Since the government building also housed a daycare center for employees, a number of little children didn’t survive the blast. Watching my sister hold her girls for dear life made me wonder if I was tough enough for parenting—I was scared to be that scared for another person’s life—or know that my life would be ruined if something tragic were to happen. My husband was annoyed with how much time I spent with my nieces, which should have been my first clue that he wasn’t really supposed to be my husband.
Someone smart like Dear Abby once said that in the immediate aftermath of a loss, one shouldn’t do anything rash, like move cross country or give up a rent controlled apartment. Well, I missed that column. As soon as my husband vacated our starter marriage and dumpy NYC apartment, I defaulted to Los Angeles. LA felt easier to fall apart in- I thought it would be a place to float in unrepentant sunlight and not feel time pass while grieving and learning how to email.
My parting gift from my first marriage was my first computer. That’s how old I am. We may very well have been the first divorce requested and completed via AOL. But more than the loss of the marriage, the rent-controlled apartment, custody of of our pooch Frida, I didn’t realize how much my abrupt cross-country move would cost me in terms of missing my four nieces grow up. I didn’t think I’d stay here. It took me seven years to even sign a lease, that’s how ambivalent I was about living in Los Angeles.
I travelled eagerly and often for my nieces’ big events, but after residing mere miles from my nephews, I know just how much being there for little non-events actually accrues into deep, reliable, and semi-complex relationships. Not being as routinely available to my sister and her four girls is my deepest regret about fleeing home all those years ago.
Of course it was fantastic to be close by for my other sister too- I was there when Jack was born, which was poignant, especially since my sister and her husband struggled for years to make a child. IVF achieved what their naughty bits didn’t, and as a nurse said a silent prayer, my sister was inseminated with life– in a crowd– a sterilized crowd, but a crowd nonetheless. They were rewarded with a shining blond boy, with the most improbable head of platinum blond hair since Donatella Versace. Delivery room nurses took pictures of Jack, in a time before omnipresent cellphone cameras– that’s how crazy long and blond his hair was.
Since no hospital room is complete without an always-on TV, I was holding hours-old Jack while learning Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombing. I was Jack’s first babysitter. He screamed longer than Sinead O’Connor sang at my sister and her husband’s first post-baby-date-night-concert. I painted his 5 year old face for Halloween:
Me: What do you want to be, Jack?
Jack: Terror. Make me the face of terror.
And so I dusted off the black eyeliner, giving an angelic snowdrift of a child deep black Franken-scars across his milky white cheeks. He looked like the love child of Billy Idol and Edward Scissorhands. I was there when he and his brother saw “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time and I was there when they needed to discuss twisters and witches and the unlikelihood of either of those entities visiting them any time soon.
We dyed Easter eggs together, I hid their Christmas present pooch Sam in my apartment until Christmas morning, and I held Jack when he split his head open and bled all over my outfit. I went to every preschool graduation, rock concert, school play and sporting event he and his brother performed at. I camped with them and threw them pool parties at the home of a man I used to live with—then I lived in their guest house after the man I used to live with invited me to live elsewhere. I practiced parenting on my nephews and nieces- and they (and my sisters) taught me a whole fricking lot. (see Old Yeller)
And now, Jack’s leaving home while I create a home that resides somewhere between my means and my daughter’s dreams. I love how Jack is ecstatic to venture out into the world beyond his childhoold home and how peaceful and calm my sister and her husband are in knowing it’s time for him to go.
But I shiver and sniffle because I also know how it truly all happens in the blink of an eye– which makes me hate how cliches are just super-worn-out truths. Jack, William, Hannah, Molly, Olivia, and Lucy—(not to mention the hundreds of nieces and nephews and half-siblings I have due to parental remarriage) all grew up when I was deciding where to live and who to be and whether I could ever be a mother at all.
When finally, my beloved and I found each other, we worked feverishly to become parents- adoption makes one a very intentional parent- we were blown sideways by the overwhelming love, support and enthusiasm bestowed on us by every nearly-grown niece, nephew, full, step- and half-siblings and ceaseless amounts of extended family members.
So, even though I’m old-momming a toddler, I know enough to know that when I next open my eyes, Grace will be taller than me and hopefully gentle with me, as she gracefully glides out of our home and into the world to find hers.