The scene: May, 1985. My childhood bedroom in Everett, Washington. I am about a month shy of turning eleven and wrapping up what I can only describe as a harrowing sixth-grade year (it was the first year of Middle School in our district and I was still recovering from having to get naked in front of other people after PE class). During this difficult period, I would frequently retreat to my room for some solitude and space from my younger sister, then age 9.
My mom enters the room, smiling. Mom rarely comes to my room not holding something that belongs in it, like clean laundry or items I left in the living room, so I know this is a Special Visit. I look up at her, wondering what’s going on.
“I have a secret,” she whispers, grinning conspiratorially. I am hooked. I love secrets! Especially secrets that Mom is telling me and nobody else! What could it be?!
Then, “I think I’m pregnant.”
I don’t remember exactly what I said or did next, but I imagine it disappointed Mom just a little. Because I do recall that all I could think was, “This can’t be happening. A BABY?! No way. She’s probably just been feeling sick. That’s it. A little stomach flu.”
But most of all, I thought, “She is WAY too old to be having a baby!” Mom had just celebrated her 37th birthday.
The ensuing months proved that Mom hadn’t just had the flu. As her belly grew and we prepared for the arrival of our new family member, the defining characteristic of her pregnancy continued to be her age. Somewhere in the middle of her pregnancy, she had a new procedure called a sonogram,which produced an unintelligible printout of white dots on a black background. And later, amniocentesis. When I asked what that was, she explained that it would allow the doctor to determine whether the baby had certain diseases that were more common when the mother was older. That didn’t sound good. But we’d get to know the sex of the baby, which appealed to my curiosity (since the sonogram certainly wasn’t telling us anything).
The amniocentesis was a bust. They couldn’t push the needle through her uterine wall – too thick. I thought, “It’s because she’s so old.” The doctors were frustrated and worried. Mom didn’t seem too concerned; in fact, I think she was relieved not to face the decisions she would have had to make if the tests had come back positive. We bought green and yellow baby things and waited.
My very healthy baby sister arrived at the end of Christmas vacation, just after New Year’s. And still, my mother’s age continued to draw comment. It didn’t help that Mom had a full head of gray hair, which often led people to think she was older than she really was. She finally began coloring it again when she could no longer stand people thinking she was the baby’s grandmother. Once someone even asked if the baby was mine – granted, it was a kid in a McDonald’s playground, but I flushed with embarrassment just the same.
When the baby was six months old, we took a trip to California for my parents’ 20th high school reunion. “Twenty years!” I thought. “That is such a long time. I can’t believe they have a baby.” Apparently, neither could their classmates. My parents were the talk of the reunion. They were absolutely unique among their classmates (in a large public school) in making this life choice.
When I realized I was pregnant, it was not lost on me that I’d be having my third child at the same age my mother was when she had hers. My mother passed away nine years ago, when I was pregnant with my oldest, but I am sure that she is having a good laugh at my expense.
I almost gave the entire blog the title “37 and Pregnant” – but then I realized that I will have a very different experience from my mother. My husband and I attended my 20th high school reunion this summer and it was literally crawling with babies and toddlers. Tina Fey describes having babies over forty as “a commonplace fool’s errand” nowadays. My parents were just ahead of their time, I guess.
And yet, the risks of complications and birth defects go up exponentially after 35. The little flyer I got from the doctor’s office outlined just a few: Down Syndrome and other chromosomal birth defects, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, placenta previa. Thoughts about these do needle me a little bit – when my son asks me if I might die when the baby is born, or when I think, “I have 2 healthy and able-bodied kids. What if this one isn’t? How will that affect our family?”
And yet, I think back to my mom’s final pregnancy and her sanguine attitude. She seemed to think, “I was meant to have this baby, I was made to have this baby, and whatever this baby is or is not, I will love it.”
That will be my meditation for the next few months.