The Unbearable Heaviness of Being an ‘Old Mom’

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

As a parent, I do a lot of math in my head. I make constant calculations about how many ounces of milk is enough or too much, try and negotiate if my toddler is 23-37 pounds for the size-four diapers or 37 pounds or more for the size up. I weigh ages in months versus weight versus pounds to make sure my babies aren’t getting too much fever medicine but still getting better. And I negotiate drop off and pick up times at school and day care down to the second. But the number crunching I obsess over most, the unsolvable arithmetic that I’ve been doing since the day I got pregnant, has been about age.

The numbers I run have nothing to do with reproductive ability, or egg counts, or anything so scientific. It’s time. When my kids are teenagers, I’ll be in my 50s. Sixty will be around the corner as they graduate college and into new lives. And if they ever decide to have kids, and wait until their mid-30s like I did, I’ll be in my 70s. We all want more time with the people we love, to be loved by them, care for and celebrate them and see them take shape. And this time is so finite, so un-promised, so unbelievably and predictably short, that once you start adding the numbers up, well, it’s easy to get hung up on the math.

I got pregnant with my first child at 34, on the cusp of what doctors so kindly refer to as a “geriatric pregnancy.” The term — which immediately conjures an image of my grandmother with a swollen, wrinkled belly and arthritic knees, waddling up to an OB/GYN office — is used to describe pregnant people 35 and older. It’s a dated, painful phrase that even when replaced by the more contemporary “advanced maternal age” always serves to sharply remind me that at 39, with two kids under 4, I am considered an “old mom.”

Sometimes I feel the cruel contours of that idea very literally, like when my toddler demands to be picked up and carried just as my back screams out after a long day of sitting in a bony but aesthetically pleasing plastic office chair for eight-plus hours, preceded and followed by hauling around and cleaning after two kids. It molds my experience as a parent, every pain, every physical limitation is another calculation, another elastic snap jolting me back to reality, reminding me that my insides don’t always match my outsides, especially when it comes to the demands of my little kids.

More often though, it’s more esoteric, more existential, than that. Lately, my social media Explore and For You feeds, cursed as they are, have been relentlessly feeding me content from young moms in their early and mid-20s. They are beautiful, healthy, vibrant and so seemingly un-tired. They have two, sometimes three kids and yet remain beatific, smiling the serene smiles of the well-slept and unstressed. I envy both their energy and the illusion of time they seem to have, that extra bit of ledger that always seems to me to be running out a little bit quicker on my end of things. I know this is exactly the intentional cruelty of social media, that Instagram and TikTok are designed to maim — mothers especially — catching us in our most vulnerable of moments, front-facing cameras accidentally on, late in the night and boobs-deep in comparison and jealousy mode.

I know it’s not real, or at least I know it’s as simulated as anything on social media will always be, but it works on me here. And even though I fundamentally understand their problems and my problems are mostly the same and that our contrasting ages give us different and necessary advantages from each other, I still wince. It reminds me of how badly I want more time with my kids, this one thing that is the most impossible to grasp, age being so immutable. Like kinetic sands through the hourglass, so go the days of my life, I think, as I scroll past these saccharine, earth-toned feeds. I can feel it reshaping my relationship to motherhood, making me feel more panicked than patient these days.

When I first even started to entertain the idea of having kids, I was already in my 30s and even then it scared the shit out of me. How would I know how to be, and who would I have to become in order to do it right? I wasn’t alone amongst my group of friends either, no one I knew had kids then, save for a few outliers who, quite ungenerously, seemed like aliens to me. Not only were my teens and 20s and yes, my 30s, reserved for languishing and partying and sleeping, but they were also a battleground of selfishness and solipsism, of depression and frustration and bad boyfriends and then even worse ones. Had I gotten pregnant back then, I unreservedly would have terminated it.

Once I did want kids, having met someone I loved and trusted to fully engage in the process with me, I found out I was infertile. I struggled for years to conceive and each year that passed without a baby felt like lost time. That’s not fair to say, of course. It’s not true and certainly not the way life really works — still, it’s exactly how I felt. Like time, like my life was slipping away and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

And now that I have these tiny, sweet, loving kids, all I want is more time with them, to hit pause, not on their growing and changing, but on me and the version of myself as a parent that I am right now. To pause the back and knee pain that grows a little more sharply every year, to halt the gray hairs and the high cholesterol, skip over the inevitable medical scares and exhaustion that seem to envelope more and more of my days.

Having kids is like pressing fast-forward in high speed on your sense of mortality, on the keen, ever-present idea that death is not only guaranteed but always near. Giving birth is like a window into that liminal space between life and nothingness and every day since doing so I feel myself grasping to both run away from that place and get as close to it as I possibly can. Maybe it’s why I want another baby so badly I can sometimes feel it close up my throat with emotion, to feel closer to that sense of youth that pregnancy and fertility can convey. To convince myself that I can make time stop with my body.

But I know that time isn’t promised to anyone, young mom or “old.” I know I had kids at the exact right time, with the exact right person, that the version of myself I did become knew just what to do with this experience. And yet … I wish I had more time with her too.

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The Unbearable Heaviness of Being an ‘Old Mom’