“Is that your grandbaby?” asks the too-friendly Wal-Mart clerk.
Julia shifts on my hip and I smell the silky down that is her hair. “No, this is my youngest.”
The clerk isn’t rude, it’s just that Julia is 12 months old and I am 46, an age when many of my contemporaries do have grandchildren. “You’re brave,” said one, trying valiantly to say something polite. I suspect she wanted to say “You’re crazy.” I think I’m incredibly blessed.
I hope my story helps other parents move more quickly from trepidation to exultation in their choice to have late-in-life children. The average age for menopause is 51; many couples who thought they were through with toothless grins, dimpled fists, and first words are longing for and seriously considering more children, like my husband and I were a few years ago. Our daughters Mary and Abigail were 12 and 7 when Robert was born, then we had Julia four years later. The only crazy thing about his situation is how wonderful it is. My joy in the youngest is unadulterated by the anxiety I felt as a new mother, and is not tempered by that fresh and ill-fitting burden of responsibility. The constant concern for the well-being of my children is a part of me now, and like a snake handler who’s been bitten a hundred times, I’m immune to motherhood’s infinite indignities.
Simultaneously raising a college freshman and a 12-month-old earns me a uniquely long-term perspective. I remember with my oldest, sitting on the floor reading to her for hours, but wondering “is this really doing any good?” I don’t question the value of those hours now. One does not become a National Merit Scholar with lucky guesses. Watching Mary graduate and head to college, it’s like I’ve opened the book and pulled some time-traveler’s magic to peek at the penultimate chapter of Julia.
Seventeen years ago, I despaired that the clingy stages of toddlerhood would last forever. “I can’t even put this baby down to go to the bathroom without her crying!” I would wail, but since then, I’ve calmly managed a dazzling array of daily tasks with one hand and a baby on my hip, including folding laundry, putting my contacts in, and typing email (it’s not bragging if it’s true).
Sometimes I feel more like Julia’s grandparent than her parent. I’m not worried that she’ll be spoiled, I just pick her up whenever she asks and the devil take the hindmost. I know from experience there is nothing sweeter than giving a little child all the attention she wants. I also know from experience that she will not want to be carried around forever.
I tried my best with my older children, and still am, but the fact is that they made me a significantly better parent for the younger two. I’ve learned a lot about which disciplinary hills to die on, and when to back off. They made me a wiser, more patient mother, and a nicer person. My husband and I have had plenty of time to become comfortable with our division of labor, and have come to respect one another’s role in the family. It would seem a shame to me if there were no little ones around to reap the hard-won benefits of all that knowledge. I’m far from the perfect parent, just ask Mary and Abigail, and I’m sure I’ll learn even more from Robert and Julia. Maybe by that time, I’ll actually be a grandparent.
But what about the risk of having a baby at this age? Chromosomal abnormalities are not the only concern, but they worried me the most. Such abnormalities, including Down Syndrome, are much more likely with advanced maternal age, and are found in about:
• 1 out of 132 women age 35.
• 1 out of 83 women age 37.
• 1 out of 40 women age 40.
• 1 out of 12 women age 45
Our Catholic faith meant that we would accept whatever child God sent us, but I confess I prayed ours would have the usual number of chromosomes. I had to have faith that we would be provided the grace to love and raise any child. I looked at it this way – the odds were 11 out of 12 against the abnormality, I am otherwise healthy, everything will probably be fine.
If you’re on the fence about another baby, know that a very special kind of joy lives down this road. I hope you go ahead with it, if only so I’m not always the oldest mom at the playground.