Sometimes, when I’m drifting in that murky twilight space between consciousness and sleep, a scene plays out before my eyes. It’s sepia-toned and eight-millimeter-grainy, the way my dreams often are, but it’s also as emotionally crisp and sharp to me as the day it happened. We are outside by a flower bed at a nursing home on a summer day: my mother, my grandmother in a wheelchair, my youngest child, me. Arranged in a half circle in the warm sun like a fragile crescent gently arcing between past and future, ordered by age, we pose together: my mother’s strong hand on her mother’s frail arm, my sweet daughter leaning her head on my shoulder. It’s so vivid, it’s as if someone took our portrait, a picture of the four of us alongside a graceful, laughing shadow only I can see. Sometimes I wish I had that photo; sometimes I don’t.
My grandmother had my mother, her first child, when she was just shy of twenty years old; she would go on to have four more. Twenty-two years later, my mother had me and then soon my brother. We are close-knit, we are southern, we are small-town, and through the generations, our family has often balanced precariously on that line between the lower-middle class and all that lies beneath it. Unsurprisingly, we have a lot of blue collars, but also more than a few scholars. All of us have been well-trained from childhood in the idea that family takes care of one another from birth to old age to death. That’s why, in the weeks after my grandmother hurt herself, my mother stayed at her side constantly, and why I was there to help my mother.
There was nothing new about this; this same scene had played out many times before (sometimes even at the very same facility)—when I watched my grandparents take care of my great-grandparents, and then my parents taking care of theirs—so I don’t know why this day jolted me so painfully, except that I was especially exhausted that afternoon, and my grandmother was emotional and frustrated at her lack of progress, and my mother looked thin, which she always does at times of stress. I knew she’d been so busy that she probably hadn’t been eating as much as she should, and as I was standing there tiredly by those flowers, I kept thinking, We just need one more set of hands. And that’s when the math rolled out before my eyes as the breath left my body in a painful whoosh.
I ended up as a far older mom than I ever wanted to be because, either through a quirk of fate or through a twisted sense of divine humor, I turned out to be the lesbian vegetarian daughter of Southern Baptist deer hunters. I know, right? Don’t worry, I think it’s funny too. Every now and again I think even my parents do, although I’m not sure they would admit it.
In my experience, most straight people who talk to me have at least a vague understanding that being a queer person impacts my life as a parent in the present day. However, I find that very few realize how the past upheaval of my coming-out process (particularly in the US South, particularly in a fundamentalist church, particularly in the era in which I did so) mightily constrained when and how I would be able to have my children in the first place. Thus, straight people rarely stop to think about the tangible ways that a difficult coming-out experience can easily derail a queer person a decade or more from the business of finding a partner and having children. In my case, those lost years meant all the difference between what, according to my doctor, would have been a fairly easy conception when I was younger, and what actually happened: years lost on the expensive, excruciating roller-coaster of infertility, miscarriage, and the multiple rounds of IVF that finally led to the birth of my first daughter when I was thirty-eight and the second when I was forty-one.
Recently, a young mother walked out to my car beside me after we dropped our children off at preschool, and she said, rather enviously, “It must be so nice that you chose to be an older mom; you’re so settled in your career. You know exactly who you are.” In a lot of ways, she wasn’t wrong. Those things are true, and they are nice. In fact, I’m beyond grateful for those things every day. Where she missed the mark is her assumption that being an older mom is a choice I made: it emphatically wasn’t. The question posed by this book, “How old is too old to become a parent?” is a good one, even though I don’t have a good answer to it. However, I think an equally important question is whether an older parent became one by choice or because of some barrier that made the clock run out a little differently than they really wanted. And if older parenthood isn’t always a choice, that means a lot of us are still working through our grief about it, even in the midst of all the joys it can bring.
That grief was exactly what I felt with my mother and grandmother at the nursing home that afternoon, a grief that I didn’t know until then could literally physically hurt. What suddenly clicked for me in that instant was that if I was forty-three that day, my mother sixty-five, and my grandmother eighty-five, according to the traditional age most women in my family and culture have their kids, my almost, could-have-been, would-have-been, should-have-been daughter—that laughing, graceful shadow who suddenly leaned in there beside me, as real and as close as if I could touch her—probably would have been twenty-one or twenty-two that day, plenty old enough to be that beautiful, much-needed set of hands. My actual daughter had just turned one. If I had followed suit and had a daughter who was twenty-one, she likewise would have been just old enough to have her first, wouldn’t she?
The thought of that made me turn away quickly, so that no one would see that much to my surprise, I was crying. All I could think in that moment was, Oh my God. We are missing a whole person who could have been here. I have cost my family a whole person.
If you had kept the film rolling on the nursing home scene that day, in a few moments, you’d have seen my wife, who is in her fifties, pulling up in our minivan, pushing the bifocals that always annoy her up onto her head, and lifting out our oldest child, who soon stopped my weepy reflections about imaginary grown daughters because she was talking ninety miles an hour about whether a certain dinosaur belonged in the Jurassic or the Triassic. (Don’t ask me. I’m an English teacher and have no clue. I just nod wisely a lot so she thinks I do).
So that’s us. We’re old(ish) lesbians with two kids we adore but who never, ever sleep. The other day, we spent about eight hours debating whether we should get long-term care insurance now, before my wife turns fifty-six and the price goes up, or whether we can wait until our youngest is out of daycare because, as teachers, we sure as heck cannot afford both of those things at once. These are our scintillating conversations these days.
It was my wife, by the way, who, upon reading the previous paragraph over my shoulder just now, made me add the “ish” to the word “old.” I don’t really argue with her much about anything since she’s pretty critical to the parenting enterprise around here, not least since she recently reached what I have long considered the holy grail of older parenthood: at IHOP, she can order our children chocolate smiley-face pancakes off the kids’ menu while simultaneously qualifying those pancakes for the senior discount. I’ll pause to let you take that in and be suitably impressed with how well I married.
As you’re hopefully able to tell, we have a good time around here. We laugh a lot (because what else are we going to do?), and like most parents of any age, we feel that our kids are the center of our universe, and there’s nothing in this universe or any beyond it that would make us trade them for anything. And yet it’s exactly this overwhelming, otherworldly love for my daughters that makes me most mourn how many fewer years I am likely to have with them than my mother and her mother had with each other. I know I would have been just as sad about losing those years if my wife and I had intentionally chosen to be older moms, but I realize more and more that there is an extra element of anger and grief for me, tied to the fact that I didn’t choose this—would never have chosen this—but that my culture’s response to my queerness set so many extra hurdles in my path that the age I was able to have children was delayed beyond anything I knew how to control.
To be honest, I resent those lost years. I hate them. It makes me so angry, that very real amount of time and energy it took to assert my identity over and over to a family and a community who wanted me to be someone else; to wade through countless conversations, trying to reassure and explain things to my loved ones; to find a way forward with friends. What was most emotionally exhausting was the time and energy it took to repair my relationship with my parents, which had imploded on big gay impact. Not to mention how much more time it took me, as a lesbian in the late ’90s/early 2000s, to find a suitable partner to parent with at all, since there were significant (and sometimes even dangerous) barriers to asking someone for a date in those days, in a small town in the South before widespread use of the internet.
My straight friends simply did not face (or even think about) these types of obstacles as they unconsciously and breezily utilized the privilege of meeting plenty of eligible partners through church, family, friends, and social networks. Meanwhile, the one other maybe-lesbian in my tiny town and I just kept sitting on the sidelines, looking at each other doubtfully.
As a mother in my forties, this is the thing I have had to struggle with most—my grief over how this all took so much time. These aren’t abstract concepts. For me, these things are easily measured in real hours I spent, real days I lost, real moments that interfered with me doing what my friends were doing: dating, self-exploration, hobbies, marriage, pregnancy, parenthood. Those were really long years, and I have had to mourn most for what they stole, not just from me, but from my children: more years together. My straight friends have grandchildren now. I look at them and envy how they have had twenty or more years with their children—to watch over them, to help them, to nourish and cherish them. And now they glow in photos with new grandbabies to snuggle. What I wouldn’t give for those almost-twenty extra years with my daughters.
For that matter, what I wouldn’t give for them to have that much more time with my mother and her mother. Just this morning, in fact, I watched our three-year-old giggling on FaceTime with my mom and my grandmother, and I found myself, as I often do, begging the universe for more time, whispering my mantras: please let my grandmother live long enough for my youngest kiddo to turn four, so that she might have a chance at remembering this woman who delights her so. Please let my parents live as long as my grandparents, so that they’ll be there for the graduations, the weddings, the family beach trips. I worry about these things all the time, and I mourn how my wife and I might never live long enough to see our own grandchildren, much less our great-grandchildren.
I think this anxiety hits me more as someone from a blue-collar culture in the South, where it is the unquestioned norm to have your children young. My more urban friends don’t think I’m so old to be a mother, and so I tell myself I’m not. But to my hometown friends and family (and even to myself), I am as much an oddity as a forty-four-year-old with a toddler and a kindergartener as I am for being queer, maybe even more so. I love the children I have and the ages they are; I love my wife; I love so many things about being a queer woman. I am a better person and a far stronger, wiser, more grateful, and more empathetic mother because of those lost years, and I certainly have a well-earned sense of humor because of them too. I am proud to have become the person and mother I have grown into, encompassing forty-plus years of complex identities: queer, southern, feminist, blue-collar academic, chief pancake eater.
And yet, daily, even if no one else ever sees or knows, I’m also engaged in a simultaneous lament of sorrow and bittersweet regret over precious time lost. Those shadows are always there—that imaginary grown daughter I pictured so vividly that day, helping me and my mom and my grandmother. The other (very real) child I met only through ultrasounds one long first trimester, only to watch him falter, fade, and die at the beginning of the second because my eggs were too old to have divided correctly enough to give him a chance at this beautiful, messy life. This, too, is parenting over forty, or at least it is for me.
Currently, I work in a department of interdisciplinary scholars, where several colleagues study reproductive justice, and down the hall a bit farther are a few who study LGBTQ issues. I find myself amused as I sit in my office literally in between them, wondering if they realize that I embody an intersection of their two fields. It strikes me as ironic that reproductive justice work and work by queer scholars is usually separated like this, when, in my experience, my reproductive rights were always entangled with my lack of LGBTQ rights. I wish there was more written about how a lack of safety, marriage rights, or even mere acceptance as a queer person can lead directly to a loss of reproductive freedom.
I wish I’d had more queer foremothers to teach me how to come to terms with my identity, come out to my community, find a partner, figure out the emotional and legal challenges of finding a sperm donor, and leap the medical and financial hurdles of getting pregnant without simultaneously running out of reproductive time the way I did. But of course, those foremothers didn’t have those experiences to share with me because so many of the queer parents a generation or two before me were fighting even harder problems, often losing their children completely if they were able to come out at all.
Thus, I tell myself that things could be worse, and, without question, I know that is the truth. I have the precious children I ached for all those years, and no one is trying to take them. I’m old enough to know that nothing is guaranteed to anyone of any age, and that makes me, as a mom, determined to wallow with joy at every part of this experience. I will eat all the pancakes, I will learn all the dinosaurs, and I will try to pretend we are too young(ish) to need long-term care.
I will reflect tiredly with my wife over coffee that if our children continue to stay up in twenty-four-hour shifts, hey, we will have had just about as much awake time with them as if we’d had them ten years before we did, and we will laugh and laugh the way only truly delirious parents of young children can. But then, two seconds later, I will again let myself mourn, and I will find myself thinking, still, about how things might have been different if I had lived in a culture that hadn’t convinced me, my parents, and my friends that being gay was so terrible.
What if they (and I) had only needed a day, or a week, or a month to work through my being queer? What if coming out never again meant running out of so much else—out of time, out of eggs, out of years? What if?
Excerpted from Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40 edited by Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin (Dottir Press, 2021).