Nicholas and I had been trying to conceive for six months. Determined to do it naturally and not interested in the fertility-treatment route, I quit smoking, stopped consuming alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. I took an arsenal of vitamins. We scheduled sex as the calendar dictated. It wasn’t working. Then we went to a party. It was warm night, May 20th, 2015, we took MDMA, danced all night, and now I am pregnant. I am 42 years old.
Four years ago, I sold all my belongings off my stoop in Fort Greene and moved halfway around the world; leaving NYC, family, and friends, to resettle on the tiny island of Mallorca.
I had given up on conventional plans for any possibility of becoming the Brooklyn clog mom or the New York it girl. A bad breakup, family tragedy, and rejection from graduate school had me popping xanax daily and crying openly on the subway.
The move seemed to be the right one. I had never been so happy. I met an American artist and fell in love. I opened a beautiful store, learned to love swimming in the sea and recognized birdcalls. I felt free: comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.
Baby makes 3, the end. Shirley Valentine meets Eat, Pray, Love. I should have been ecstatic, but I was suffocating with sadness. Maybe, I had made a terrible mistake. My beautiful life suddenly felt truncated—closed in by the prospects of high chairs and diapers.
In confidence, I sobbed on the phone to my friend Anne. She lowered her voice when answering.
“Don’t be so negative, be positive.” She whispered.
“I’m trying, but I just can’t.” I said.
“Try harder.” she urged.
Deep in mourning for my old life, I found myself listening to Ryan Adams songs and wishing I were back in my 5th floor walk up from college where I lived in the East Village.I started talking about moving to India, where I had always dreamed of living. I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and began to apply for “serious“ job positions back in the USA, determined I would not let having a child get in the way of my professional career. I read Isak Dinesen and anything I could get my hands on about Georgia O’Keefe. These were women I aspired to live like. But, they had no kids.
I spent my days googling, pregnant/not sure, seeking like-minded mothers-in-waiting who would reassure me. What I found is there are endless earth mama blogs talking about what a beautiful experience expecting is, and a diatribe of rules: nail polish and hair coloring? Absolutely not. A sip of red wine, debatable. Yogic sun salutations? Mandatory. I found hundreds of personal stories in blogs: Cheerful women detailing every doctor appointment and explicating their emotional synchronicity with their unborn fetus. I read countless discussion groups in which women ask their anxious questions about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, but never once did I find an admission of ambivalence or regret about the pregnancy itself.
I noticed, throughout these discussions, articles, and blogs, pregnant women are depicted in just two ways. They are goofy cartoonish caricatures of pregnant women being forgetful, clumsy, and craving ice cream. Or they are young fresh-faced (primarily white) women holding their bellies and looking demure. Being unsure about a pregnancy was relegated to abortion discussions, not part of the mothering conversations I found. I felt isolated, freakish, and old.
So, I turned to memoirs where I heard voices I related to.
In Mary Karr’s Lit, the author writes of drinking herself into oblivion every night to avoid her feelings of disenchantment with motherhood. Joan Didion’s Blue Nights also comforted me, confirming my suspicion that you never know fear until you become a parent, and that once you have children you are terrified every minute. These women assured me that motherhood is not all finger-painting and hair braiding—and that I was not alone in my feelings of nostalgia and mourning for my old life, my solo self.
Women are told, starting at 35, by gynecologists, mothers, friends, and the media that IT IS TIME, the clock is ticking. “How old are you?” my gynecologist had asked, with a raised eyebrow. “You better get on it or you should freeze your eggs.” As each year passes, the inquiring increases, and the social pressure is enormous, until, around 40 when people stop asking. It is fairly safe to say, if you wait until your 40s, you have successfully resisted the pressure to have a baby. Perhaps you’ve had breakups over it. Perhaps you’ve determined it is not for you and had abortions. Or perhaps you’ve just never been sure it is for you. You may have felt held back by family traumas, career aspirations, financial worries or self-doubt.
And then perhaps you decide to try to get pregnant. As a woman in my early 40s, I am part of a generation of woman choosing to have children later in life, and many are doing it very differently than our mothers did. We’re told that anything is possible. We have more choices! We live longer! We can have it all!
Sheryl Sandberg, you have set the bar so high we are moving backwards in feminism, women are already expected to do too much. Comedian Ali Wong, performing pregnant at 7months quipped, “Lean in? I want to lay down.”
”Geriatric mothers” refers to anyone over 35 and expecting. We have had long and interesting lives without children. We work harder to have children (it requires patience or science or both to get knocked up in your 40s). We are older. We are presumably wiser. And we’re revising the paradigm of what it means to be a mother. In attempting to explain our feelings and experiences we are relegated to old language and very old ideas. The truths about motherhood have changed, but the way we talk about our experiences has not. We are still only independent women until we become mothers, and then this apparently supersedes everything.
For two decades before I became pregnant I watched my generation of women make very different decisions about marriage, children and family than our parents made. I have heard confessions of doubts about motherhood in restaurants, at parties, and the gym: always in hushed tones or via texts that were guiltily deleted. To me, motherhood always sounded like competitive martyrdom, so much pressure to do for your child. Who would not long for their old lives, full of sleep and sex and freedom? My good friend Gillian became a mother at 40 and put it this way; “Dream vacation? To go somewhere alone.”
Those of us who have waited, watched friends raise their families and heard first hand from our peers about the difficulties of motherhood. But I’m not talking about good parenting—the real issue is how to be a mother who maintains her own identity without guilt. Perhaps, as Jennifer Senior imparts in All Joy and No Fun, being a little more neglectful as mothers in fact, would be better for our kids as well as for us.
Fifty years after the second wave of the feminist revolution, why is our idea of what it means to be a ‘good’ mother, so narrow, so contrived? Why is there so little talk about how moms can be great examples for their children by not being perfect mothers? Wasn’t that what the feminist revolution was about, in part? The truth is, maybe older mothers are more selfish, more intolerant, less giving. Maybe we hold onto our identities as women and don’t want to trade them in wholesale for motherhood. Take Samantha, 40, a psychiatrist, and a brilliant woman. She has two small kids, a loving husband and is financially well off. When I told her I was pregnant and miserable she told me, “I get it. Sometimes, when I am headed home, I just want to make a U-turn. There is something wilder, braver, freer out there for me.” She had tasted another life pre-motherhood and naturally, mourns for it.
The recent controversial study of 23 Israeli mothers by German sociologist Orna Donath, Regretting Motherhood, discusses how regretful mothers “by wishing to undo the maternal experience are opposing the very essentialist presumption of a fixed female identity.” Her article has inspired a #regrettingmotherhood movement internationally that has led to anonymous threads in which mothers share their mixed emotions about motherhood, and their honest regrets. As women have children later and later in life, what they give up to be parents becomes greater, and the corollary of mixed emotions is eminent. Socially, regret is used to uphold cultural norms therefore regretting motherhood is regretting being a woman, somehow.
But to understand regret as a rejection of motherhood is to oversimplify it’s meaning. The regret is symbolic of the loss of freedom, loss of self that comes with becoming a mother. “Regret” has its roots in the Scandinavian word grata, meaning “to weep,” and specifically to weep for something that has been irretrievably lost. However, Donath in her groundbreaking work on motherhood has cracked the code; she has redefined regret into something more complex then just wishing away a choice. As Donath brings to light, our definition of regret is over-simplified. The regret women feel around motherhood is mourning for the loss of identity that comes from becoming a mother.
In an interview with Andrew Solomon, he explains the shift: “Altogether, as we move gradually toward a system where most women are employed outside the home and most men are involved in childcare more then their fathers were, there is a large and significant shift in what those identities mean, but there is overall a lot of confusion about what they mean so while the formulaic notions of what motherhood were 50 years ago, were more oppressive, they were at least clear. Now there’s a lack of clarity as to what a mother is supposed to do and what exactly is expected of her and how to reconcile it with her complicated life”.
The only way we can come into our own as twenty-first century mothers is to understand that part of how we define our equality is through allowing honest feelings around the subject of mothering. Maybe every pregnant woman is not as full of ambivalence and regret as I am, but I know I am not alone. This is an incredibly confusing and contradictory time we live in. As our life expectancy lengthens, so does our opportunity to bear children, what this means is yet to be seen.