When I got pregnant at 41, a week after my wedding, I freaked out just a teensy bit. I’d wanted a little time to enjoy life, finally, as a wife. But when I complained to one of my friends, a mom of two, she pointed out, “What else do you need to do?”
She was right. I’d already been with my husband for a year-and-a-half, living together for most of it (he was quick to move in but a bit slower to propose), and we’d seen every show, visited every restaurant, and hiked every mountain – even Machu Picchu for our honeymoon (if that’s not true love, what is?). And before him, I’d had almost two decades of dating to experience life on my own.
However, I had no reason to freak out. I had enough life experience to move on to the next step. Little did I know how hard taking those steps would be.
Infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood is so, so overwhelming — not only for the toll it takes on your body, but the space it takes in your brain. “The transition to motherhood is a life-changing event,” reads a 2019 study published in the Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis. “…Changes to maternal identity confirm an existential view of self; that the sense of self is a process of becoming rather than a fixed identity.” It’s not uncommon for many women to experience feelings of shock at their changing — or loss of — identity beyond “mother.”
“Infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood is so, so overwhelming — not only for the toll it takes on your body, but the space it takes in your brain.”
That didn’t happen for me — maybe that’s because it took me another three years and three more pregnancies to have a baby, but at no point during any of this bumpy ride did I wonder, Who am I? Nor when I had a baby at 44, staying at home for the first year and a half to nurse and nurture our daughter did I wonder, Am I only a mom? A housekeeper? A milk maker? What will people think of me?
While there are some downsides to delayed motherhood — namely fertility challenges — a loss of identity wasn’t one of them for me. While fertility in general is declining in the U.S., with fewer women having children, the 40-44 and 44-49 age group of first-time mothers is growing. And it’s not unusual for many older moms like me to have more money, more wisdom, and dare I say, more confidence in ourselves.
Sometimes, during my infertility journey, I wondered about the roads not taken. What if I had married my boyfriend when I was 28? I would have had a child – probably a few children – something I wasn’t sure was going to happen while I was undergoing IVF. But would I have been happy? In that case, I may have been beset by panic: What am I doing with my life? Will I ever be someone other than someone’s wife and mother? Who am I?
“Sometimes, during my infertility journey, I wondered about the roads not taken.”
Ever since I was young, I had this outsized ambition that I wanted to be someone, do something great with my life: be a lawyer defending the poor, an activist who changed the world, someone who could make a difference. Lost in baby bottles and pumping machines, sleepless nights, and preschool hunts, I do not believe I would have been able to think any lofty thoughts. (I know that many young women manage to have both a career and family, but as an older person, I can definitely say that would not have been me.)
It’s not like I purposely waited to have a baby in order to build my career. I really hate that terrible stereotype of the “selfish, career-obsessed woman” who puts the world on hold and hopes her biological clock will comply. (Although these days, women can freeze their eggs until they’re ready to be a mom — an option that wasn’t really available to me in my 20s and early 30s). I did not “wait.” That’s just the way life worked out. I did not meet my husband until I was almost 40 – and we tried to start a family shortly after.
But over that decade between my serious boyfriend and husband, I managed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, to hone my skills as an editor and writer, to go deep into myself and figure out what I was good at and what I was not. While I haven’t exactly changed the world, I managed to influence my little corner of it, with a career in journalism, writing hundreds of articles about religion, politics, business, health, adventure, and travel – something I wouldn’t have been able to do while starting a family.
Writing about my experiences — whether it was leaving my religion, dating in my 30s, or infertility — is not just a career, but my calling. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and go out in the world.
And it’s also the reason I was okay staying home with our daughter for the first 16 months of her life. I knew it was okay to take a break, to slow down and figure out motherhood (and breastfeeding — so much breastfeeding!). All of my wrinkles had taught me how to take care of myself, take what I needed, and now give it to our new daughter.
Yes, when I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a sleep-deprived, makeup-less zombie with milk stains on my braless T-shirt, but I still saw myself: a mother, a wife, and also a writer. My decades of work made sure that would never be erased by motherhood.
I am definitely not one of those women who say that motherhood made them more productive — you know, more focused, less prone to procrastination, yada, yada yada. I still put off my deadlines, ignore the laundry, and start my day with Spelling Bee and now Wordle; yet somehow, I did manage to put a book proposal together when my daughter was two (and in daycare) and submit it to publishers before COVID forced us into lockdown when she was four.
The pandemic has changed parenting and working for most of us moms. Being a full-time caretaker has hampered my ability to think, to create, to write, as well as my daughter’s independence. (If you’re looking for her, she’s attached to my hip.) Some days, especially on those with remote learning, I can’t seem to jump out of bed to tackle another stay-at-home day. I wonder when this weird Contagion world we live in will be over, when our six-year-old’s life will return to normal, when I can finally relax.
What I do not ponder, not with a new book out and another in process, is who I am. I just want to get back to her, since I’ve worked so hard to become her.
Childbirth is nothing like in the movies, as these beautiful photos show.
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