Monday, February 25, 2013

Geriatric Mom

We had The Talk again. 

“Mommy.  Can you pleeeeease have another baby?  It doesn’t have to be a sister.  It could be a brother.” 

We are, where else, in the car, where all of our intimate conversations occur.  Her willingness to introduce another male into the household betrays her desperation.  She has considerably lowered her standards.

Unfortunately, they are not low enough. 

“Darlin, I’ve told you.  Mommy is finished making babies.”

“But wby?” she presses.

“I’ve just gotten too old, honey.”  I realize I am going extra heavy with the terms of endearment.  Slathering the bad news with honey.  Trying to make it more palatable. 

“But you’re not too old, mommy.  Grandma’s old.”

But I am. 

And I am more aware of my age than ever.  I may still attack the day with the same youthful energy I had in my twenties, but night rolls around and somnolence sets in.  Once, after dinner, I felt asleep sitting up in a chair.  I’ve finally bought face cream, to keep the lines creeping around my eyes at bay, but I have a sneaking suspicion it is too late.  Like running out to buy a new shovel after the snow has begun to fall.  And for the first time, I wonder about the appropriateness of my clothing.  Is this too young?  Too revealing?  Is somebody going to eye the barrette in my hair and think I am trying too hard? 

Kevin would argue this point—that I am too old—he has some strange faith that I still have the mammalian ability to bear life young, but my ovaries have taken to spitting out eggs at strange and random intervals, and I know they are fixing to retire. 

Middle age is at once cruel and kind.  There are benefits to the slowing that is taking place.  Much of the anxiety I felt for the past 42 years is dissipating.  I find myself wondering what the hell I was afraid of all that time.  All those hours wasted worrying, anticipating, when I might have been looking, listening, savoring.  I am here now.  And it is all so beautiful.  But just as I have arrived, I am aware of its end.   

Suddenly, the heads around me are gray.  People I know are getting divorced, having heart attacks, dying.  What once seemed to happen to other people or at least, several generations removed, too far to touch, has moved into the foreground. 

I realize, my parents will inevitably die. 

And all the while, inside I feel young, an indefinable number of years old.    Each time I step in front of a mirror I am surprised.  “That’s me?” I whisper.  Not that I’m terribly changed, but the woman staring back, her eyebrows raised, her forehead divided by four distinct furrows, doesn’t match the image of myself that I carry in my mind. 

Did it ever?  I think I recall, in my earliest professional days, thinking that I felt about seven inside.  An imposter, waiting to be discovered.  I had wanted, so badly, to be taken seriously.  I longed for a wrinkle or two that would lend me some credibility.  Does the inside ever catch up to the outside?

Sophie’s pleading takes me back out of my head and into the car.

“But Emily’s mom just had a baby.  And so did Madeline’s. And…” she rattles off the names of the thirty-something parents of her friends.  The women who got started a little earlier in life. 

I am tempted to tell her that she was my fourth pregnancy.  The one shining diamond dug from my empty mines.  That I will not tempt fate.  That I cannot risk the heartache.  That I no longer have the will to try. 

Instead, I tell her I am satisfied with what I have. But, if she wants, one day she can have as many babies as she can muster.

“I’m going to have triplets then,” she announces.

“Triplets?” I laugh. 

“Yes.  And I’ll marry two women.  We’ll each take care of one baby.” 

No wonder she thinks I can still have a baby.  This child thinks anything is possible.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

How to Succeed at Everything

At our refi-closing this week, I looked down at the bottom of my coat and saw a slip from a fortune cookie attached to it.  I peeled it off and read it:

“You have an iron will, which helps you succeed in everything.”  

Sophie had actually pulled it from a cookie a couple months ago.  I saved it because, well, let’s just say I think the right person got that cookie.

As we walked out of the office, I showed Kevin the fortune.  He glanced at it and said, “accurate.”

“No, not for me, this was Sophie’s.  I was going to frame it.”

“Still accurate,” said Kevin.


I was going to forgo homemade valentines this year. 

We’ve always done it in the past, getting doilies and construction paper and rubber stamps that say “love.”  But this year, grandma had taken Sophie out to the dollar store to purchase a batch, and given that life has been rather hectic of late, I decided to take the short cut.  After all, she had two classes to give to—my mother’s and our neighborhood school, which amounted to no less than 40 cards. 

But, of course, the day before Valentines Day, while staying with my mother, I realized that I had left the boxes of cheap scratch-and-sniff Valentines back at our house.  I could see right where I left them, on the microwave cart, where I kept all her art supplies.

Damn it.  Looked like we’d be making our own, again.

A friend, who also did homemade Valentines, accurately described her kitchen as a sweatshop.  We formed an assembly line, Sophie and I.  I drew hearts (because she didn’t like the way they came out when she did it), she decorated them, addressed them, and wrote “Love, Sophie” at the bottom. 

Oh, and we were doing this on the morning of the day that she would have to distribute them to her friends.  My mother used to call me “last-minute Melissa.”

At 9:00, we were only half-way done and were a half-an-hour late for school.

“Soph, we gotta go,” I said, packing things up.

“But mom!  I’m not finished!” cried Sophie, trying to wrestle the markers away from me.  She was determined to make all eighteen.

“I’m sure grandma will let you finish them when you get there.”  And that morning, while the other children colored and played in the housekeeping corner, and were elbows deep in the sand table, Sophie dutifully finished her cards.

“She’s been at it all morning,” my mother told me, at lunch, impressed with her fortitude.  Knowing Sophie, this did not surprise me. 

What did surprise me was that when we returned home that evening that she insisted on making homemade Valentines for her other class.  For the second time that day, Sophie set to work.  This time she had 22 to complete.  She started flagging on the 10th, falling out of her chair and whining. 

I stood over her, the evil taskmaster, “You have to finish them.  We can’t give them out to half the class and not the other half."  I paused, "Don’t make them quite so elaborate," I suggested.

She was tailoring each one to what she thought her friend would appreciate. 

“But mom!  I can’t!  My hand is tired!  You do them.”

“They can’t be in my handwriting Soph.  I can help you color them, but I can’t write the kids' names.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced, but she balked at my color choices.  “You have to give the boys blue and green, mom, not purple.”  God forbid we should give a boy a purple valentine. 

And so it went.  Sophie occasionally flinging herself on the floor and protesting that she was done, and me insisting that she get back up and finish the job.

We manufactured the 22nd valentine around 8 that night.  I hoped that we had accurately reconstructed the class list from memory and didn’t miss anyone. 

“Look, Soph!  We did it!” I stacked them in a neat pile and slipped them into a plastic bag.

“My friends are going to love them,” Sophie nodded, proud. 

I have to admit:  it did feel good to have done this.  To have personalized each one, color coordinating them according to sex.  They weren’t anything fancy, but they were sincere, the products of two iron wills. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Late Start

I am looking down at Sophia from the parents’ observation room, a small airless space atop a flight of stairs, where moms and dads jockey for the few cushioned seats positioned in front of plate glass windows offering a view of the gym.

She’s over by the trampolines, mouthing something to me and gesticulating wildly.  What is it she is trying to say? 

I shrug my shoulders and silently scream, “What?”

Sophie pantomimes, exaggerating each word as she does, “I” (points to her eye), “can’t” (shakes her head no) “hear” (points to her ear), “you” (points to me). 

“I’m not saying anything,” I mouth back.  It’s one of those conversations that is completely devoid of content.  “Go back to your class,” I add, pointing to the four girls who are each not sitting on a bench in their own unique way.

After all, this is why we bring them to gymnastics.   

Meanwhile, another child nearby is mouthing to his mother, “I’m hot!” Rachel, the mom next to me, says audibly, “You want me to bring you your t-shirt?”

“I’m hot,” her son silently complains back.”

“Do. You. Want. Me. To. Bring. Me. Your. Shirt?” she repeats, her mouth opening much wider with each word this time.

Her son ignores her, taking his turn on the trampoline.  Evan, a dad standing nearby says, “Let him be hot.  He’ll learn.  Next time he’ll change before class.  That’s what I do with Ella.  She never wants to wear a jacket, so I stopped making her.  When she got cold, she finally put it on.”  I nod in agreement.  I’m all for natural consequences.

“Parenting is exhausting,” Rachel says to us.  “This would be so much easier if I had started ten years earlier.”  Rachel is the forty-something mother of an only child.   Like me.    She spent her thirties building up to partner in a law firm.  With the hours she worked, there was no time for kids.  There wasn’t even time to get pregnant. 

Again I nod in agreement.  “I know.  I’m tired all the time.”  I lean closer to her.  We don’t know each other all that well, but I’m feeling a sense of solidarity.  “I think I’m going through the changes,” I confide.  Then I turn to Evan, “Sorry.” 

“It’s fine by me,” he says.  He’s the kind of dad who can hang with the moms.  I think he might even prefer it. 

“You too, huh?” says Rachel.  “My period’s been wacky for about a year now.” 

“Yes!  Well, just within the last five months.  But one month it’s three weeks, the next it’s five.  I used to be so regular.  Now I never know when it’s coming. So much for the app I just downloaded.”   The app is supposed to tell me when my monthly bill is due.  Finally, after forty-two years I should be able to have a tampon on me when I need one.  Except I don’t.  It’s like my body is doing this on purpose.  

“I know,” Rachel sympathized. 

It felt so good to talk to someone who did know. 

“I had my hormones tested,” she said in a low voice. 

“You did?”  I was thinking of getting my hormones tested.  We have so much in common.

“Yes, everything was down but my estrogen.” 

“What can you do for that?”

“Primrose oil.”

“Does it help with the mood stuff?”  I’ve been a little emotional of late.  Like everything else, I’m blaming it on the changes.

“I think it does.” 

“What a drag it is getting old,” I sigh.  Evan nods. 

“I just started needing reading glasses,” he admits.  “I need three different lenses.  One to see here.  One to see here.  And one to see here.”  His hand chops the air in front of him.

“Do you have to keep switching glasses?”  I asked.  It sounded awful.

“No, I have special lenses, kind of like bifocals.” 

“I think I might need glasses,” I told them.  “My husband says that I hold everything a few feet out in front of me to read it.”

“You need glasses,” Evan tells me.

“I know.  I just don’t want glasses.”

“Everybody needs glasses in their early 40’s.  That’s when it happens,” Rachel chimes in.  She pulls her long dark hair into a knot.  She doesn’t look forty.  Not even close. 

We are silent for a moment.

“We need a group, for older moms like us.  Women who got started later in life.”

“Isn’t that what this is?” I joke. “Maybe we should just run a group up here.  While the kids are turning cartwheels.”   Oh right.  The kids.  We all turn and wave to our children who are mouthing things we can’t hear. 

It’s not a bad idea, really.  I adore groups.  Not random clusters at parties, and not exclusive little cliques, but groups that come together with a purpose.  A mission.  I could picture a small gathering of women—grappling together with the issues unique to older mothers.  Recently I heard us referred to as the “sandwich generation”—caught between caring for our young children as we begin to care for our aging parents.  Another geriatric mom on NPR talked about us as “the grayest generation” –a cohort of people who have waited until their 30’s to have children—and the concurrent rise in developmental and neurocognitive disorders among our offspring. 

It would be nice to have some allies.

The next day I got a text from L.  “Still thinking about a group for elderly moms…”

Yeah, me too. 

This post was inspired by Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman. After being kicked out of her widow support group for being too young, Becky creates her own support group with an unusual twist. Join From Left to Write on February 14 as we discuss Saturday Night Widows. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life Lesson

In third grade, and then again in fifth, I had Mr. O’Brian for Language Arts.  Mr. O’Brien was different from any teacher I had ever had before.  For one, he was a man with a mustache (it was the 70’s).  But the reason we all loved him is that he stoked the flames of our curiosity. 

One day, he transformed the classroom into a courtroom.  He told us about an incident in the news where some kids had vandalized an old women’s house and then killed her.  We were appalled.  We send the kids up the river.  And after we did—he asked us if the story sounded familiar. 

None of us had recognized it as Hansel and Gretel. 

Whenever you asked Mr. O’Brien the spelling of a word, he always replied, “D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y.” 

And then there was the time Mr. O’Brien gave us a lesson in superlatives.  He singled me out, asking, with a twinkle in his eye, “Melissa, who’s your best friend?”

He knew full well who my best friends were.  We sat next to each other.  We did our projects together.  We got in trouble for talking together.  The three of us were inseparable.  “You know.” I told him, “I have two best friends:  Emily and Christine.” 

“No,” he corrected with a sadistic smile, “they might be two good friends, but you can only have one best friend.”

“They are both my best friends,” I insisted, refusing to choose, my eyes stinging with tears.  It didn’t take much to get me going. 

“Best is a superlative.  It refers to the greatest degree of something.   There can only be one best.”

“That’s not fair!” I complained.  (To be more exact, Mr. O’Brien wasn’t being fair.)

Then he said what he always said.  His greatest lesson of all:  “Life is unfair.”

It was frustrating then, this essential, disappointing truth.  And, now a grown-up myself, I carry the responsibility of passing along these painful words of wisdom.

After a strange warm spell, when the mercury climbed up to 60 in the middle of January, a meteorological gesture I can only take as a preview of the increasingly oppressive days to come, it settled back down into the below-freezing range.  Sophia, was as fooled by this sudden warmth as the green shoots that dared peek out from the semi-thawed Earth.  I slipped on my black, floor length coat and handed her a rainbow-colored ski jacket. 

“No, mom.  I want to wear my light, pink jacket.”  It was what I had allowed her to wear a few days ago, when, in anything else she would have broken a sweat. 

“Sorry, Soph, but it’s 28-degrees outside.  You have to put on something warmer.”  Temperature-appropriate is my only clothing requirement.

“But, mo-om!  You’re wearing a light jacket.” 

I begin to defend myself, “No, this is actually one of my winter coats—“

“No, it’s not!”  I realize, once again, I have been tricked into arguing with a five-year-old.  Drats! 

“Put your coat on.  It’s time to go.”  I tell her, and I open the door for emphasis.  A cold blast of air forces entry. 

“My coat is stronger than your coat,” she sobs, shivering, “ITS NOT FAIR!” 

It has arrived.  The belief that all things must be equal.  That life is predictable and makes sense.  That good is rewarded with good, and bad is punished with bad.  That she is entitled to fair. 

I wonder where she has heard these three little words.  Certainly not from me, who stopped long ago railing at the unfairness of life, nor from her father, who expects randomness.  Who once told me he was struck with the sense of his aunt’s response when she contracted a deadly cancer, “Why not me?” 

Is this, perhaps, a developmental stage, one we all pass through, where we come to believe that we should have exactly the same size cake—down to the crumb—as our siblings, have as many Beyblades as our best friends, stay up just as late as parents?  

Or is it a folk belief, handed down from kid-to-kid, much in the way that playground games are mysteriously transmitted from generation to generation, without the intervention of adult stewards.  

Here she is before me, saying what I have said so many times, with great indignance.  I wonder if she will remember this moment, the way I remember mine with Mr. O’Brien, or if it will take many, many more disappointments before the truth of it sinks in.

“Sophia, life is unfair,” I tell her.