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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
GENERAL WOMEN/FEMINISM

HOT FLASHES, WARM BOTTLES: FIRST-TIME MOTHERS OVER FORTY
by Nancy London

The following is an excerpt from Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty by Nancy London, MSW, published by Celestial Arts/ Ten Speed Press, April 2001

About the author: Nancy London was one of the original authors of "Our Bodies, Ourselves". She is a licensed therapist specializing in women's issues, and runs support groups nationally for older first-time mothers. She has been a featured speaker at the California Governor's Conference for Women, as well as a guest on over one hundred radio shows, including National Public Radio. She holds cum laude degrees in English and Philosophy, and a Master of Social Work. She lives with her husband and daughter in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


The need for this book became apparent to me the night I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion before I could leave my nine-year-old daughter, Sasha, a gift from the tooth fairy. I loved being the tooth fairy when she was little. I used to keep a stash of gifts on hand for these times, and especially enjoyed writing and decorating letters to her from the tooth fairy, admiring her tooth, and telling her and how proud I was of her. We had our routine. Sasha would leave her tooth and a note to the fairy, often with a small token of affection, like a seashell or bead, and I would replace her offering with mine. So it was a huge jolt to me the morning my daughter came sobbing into the kitchen because the tooth fairy hadn't come. She felt abandoned and betrayed her friend from the spirit world who had, up until now, delivered some pretty fair booty. "Good grief," I thought, abashed and a little alarmed, "I'm too tired to be the tooth fairy."

After five emotionally devastating and physically depleting miscarriages in my thirties, I had given birth to my first and only child three months shy of my forty-forth birthday. At the time, I felt young, vital and capable of juggling parenting, marriage and a fulfilling career as a therapist specializing in women's issues. Now, nine years later I was struggling with exhaustion, impatience, irritability and a growing desire for solitude.

What happened to my intention to be the Perfect Mother? The Perfect Mother was patient. She didn't resort to yelling. She didn't have violent mood swings. But I did. Unlike a younger mother, my fantasies and expectations of myself and the virtues I would bring to parenting had had decades to solidify; now my inability to live up to this self-created myth was causing me secret shame and confusion. And so I took courage and my own good advice as a therapist and began to explore and accept all the conflicting voices clamoring inside of me. In the hopes of finding some confirmation that I wasn't cracking up in my own private universe, I started searching bookstores for clues - had other women ever felt what I was feeling? I started with books on motherhood, but they offered no insight. What I found next astonished me: everything I had been feeling - peace, grief, teeth-clenching impatience, cell-tingling joy, bone deep exhaustion, (often all in one day), all the nameless yearning, ambivalence, body changes - they were all described exactly as I was experiencing them in books BY WOMEN GOING THROUGH MENOPAUSE. I was elated. I had stumbled out of my own dark room into a brilliantly lit banquet hall. I was entering menopause but had been too busy raising a young child to notice! Certainly finding this confirmation and reassurance was the "good news." The "bad news" was that all these books were written for women whose children were already grown. The self-help suggestions were geared towards women who had large chunks of discretionary time they could lavish on themselves: time to retreat and nurture oneself during periods of heightened fatigue and irritability, time to explore new avenues of creativity in silence, time and space for artful flower arrangements in pristine environments long beyond needing to be "kid proof." In short, these books assumed I had time to journey through the mid-life transition focused wholly on a new set of developmentally appropriate needs and desires. "But what about me?" I heard myself almost bleat in the bookstore. "What about my transition that includes these needs and desires and a small child that I adore?"

Suspecting that I wasn't alone in this dilemma, I ran a small ad in the local paper seeking first time moms over forty interested in forming a support group to explore the spiritual, emotional and physical challenges of raising children as mature women. For the next ten days I was deluged with phone calls from dozens of older mothers. When these women realized that I wanted to explore both the joys and the challenges of parenting at our age, they cried, begged and bribed to attend. The night of our first support group I came prepared, like a good therapist, with several ice-breaking exercises. But before I could pass out nametags, before they had their coats off, they were sharing their experiences as older mothers with each other in the deepest, most intimate fashion imaginable.

Since that night, I have been privileged to hear the stories of countless other older mothers ranging in age from forty to sixty, with children six months to sixteen years. These women are either married or single, are lesbian or straight, gave birth or adopted, work at home or outside the home, used infertility treatments to conceive, or started second families after forty. We are as much unlike younger mothers as we are unlike older mothers with grown children.

The following are the issues that surface again and again in support groups, and which provide the framework for this book:

**Older mothers may enter perimenopause soon after giving birth, and the developmentally appropriate needs that surface for her at this time are often at odds with the developmentally appropriate needs of her young child. This is what I call The Clash of the Titans.

**The older woman who gives birth in her forties undergoes a rapid and potentially disturbing shift in self-image, from, "I still feel and look like twenty-nine and I'm ready for sex" before childbirth, to "How can this be me crawling to bed at nine p.m. in my flannel pajamas?" In many cases, the mothers of her child's friends are ten to fifteen years younger than she is. She feels tired and bedraggled by comparison, and often struggles to maintain her self-esteem and sense of desirability in a culture that worships youth.

**Older mothers often feel forced to choose between a career they have cultivated for decades which may now be in mid-bloom, or staying at home with a much anticipated child. This is significantly different from the younger woman who may have worked for only a few years before starting a family, and has much less time, identity and meaning invested in her career.

**Older mothers are often sandwiched between caring for their elderly parents and meeting the needs of their young child. Too often, there's no time or energy left to meet their own needs, and the support their elderly parents might have been able to offer a decade ago is no longer available.

**Because the chances of successfully conceiving decrease with age, many women who postponed having children until their forties are now resorting to a variety of infertility treatments. While the literature focuses on the cutting edge advances of these technologies, the emotional, psychological and financial repercussions are often overlooked.

**Increasingly, older women are turning to domestic and foreign adoption as a means of becoming parents. Many of these children are from cultures light years different from ours, and are often old enough to have suffered abuse and neglect.

** The psychological and physical demands of successfully ushering a teenager into adulthood are enormous, and no matter how well she takes care of herself, an older mother will be in her 50s when her child is a hormone-driven adolescent.

HOW WE CAME TO BE FIRST TIME MOMS OVER FORTY

While the total births for women in the United States has steadily decreased since 1980, it has risen sharply among older women: between 1980 and 1995, the birth rate for women forty to forty-four increased an astonishing 81 percent. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that we will have entered the new millennium with one in every twelve babies being born to women aged thirty-five and older.

Several factors have contributed to this extension of a woman's "fertility deadline" from her early thirties to early forties: our society as a whole is enjoying improved health and extended longevity, women now have reliable birth control and access to legal abortions, and the impact of the Women's Movement and the politics of sexual equality which encouraged a whole generation of girls to challenge the notion that biology was destiny, and step out of the traditionally defined roles of wife and mother into a brave new world where all things seemed possible.

In the course of interviewing hundreds of older first- time mothers, I always ask how they came to motherhood in their forties rather than their thirties or even twenties, and have found their answers as interesting and varied as the women themselves. The stories reflect not only their personal circumstances, but also the heady political and social climate of the times in which they came of age.

Lynn told the support group: "Even when I was a kid setting the dinner table, I knew I never wanted to be like my mom. She worked as a secretary all day and then came home and put in another eight-hour shift. She never even had a choice. I resented my dad because of the inequality, because he had the power and his work was valued in the world. Did I want to be powerless or powerful? It was a real no-brainer. The Women's Movement gave me the license to be who I really was and to make the choice not to get married at eighteen. I went into computer science, and was the only girl in my class."

Many women put off childbearing to distance themselves from early family responsibilities. Others wanted children, and started trying to have them in their thirties but couldn't… women who had their fertility compromised by drugs like DES that their mothers took when they were in utero, or by contraception like the Dalkon Shield, which caused infections and made conception impossible because of scarring.

Some women postponed motherhood until they had the financial resources to parent alone, some waited while they established themselves more securely in careers. Some women used their fortieth birthday as a deadline: if Mr. or Ms. Right hadn't shown up by then, they'd pursue motherhood on their own. Others, caught up in living in the moment, didn't even know they were waiting.

I have heard many stories from women who wisely postponed motherhood until pressing personal issues were resolved. "I came out as a lesbian in my thirties," Becca offered. "My sexual identity had to be in place before I became a parent."

Ultimately, all these women chose motherhood out of instinct, intuition, and a deeply held knowledge that parenting was their heart's desire. Out of the hundreds of first- time mothers over forty I have met, I have never spoken with one who regretted her decision. Never. But what I have heard is: "Oh my God…if I had only known how exhausted I was going to be I would have done it sooner." Or: "If I had had my baby earlier my father would still be alive to meet his grandson." Or: "My infertility treatments cost me my entire life savings. Maybe none of this would have been necessary if I had tried to have kids in my thirties." Or: "I love my daughter. Adopting was the best thing I've ever done. But sometimes I feel really sad thinking about my genetic line coming to an end with me."

These are women reflecting in hindsight on the decision to postpone motherhood until their forties. Lest the scales seemed tipped, what they also say in overwhelming numbers is: "Having a baby when I was older was the greatest pleasure of my life." And: "I had less difficulty figuring out what was the priority and what was trivial." And: "I had more realistic expectations, I was more relaxed." And: "I was so much more self aware than I was in my twenties and thirties. I would have made a lousy parent if I had done it any sooner." They are saying it's a trade-off. For the most part, they are exhausted and pushed to their physical limits, but are reveling in the long sought experience of being a mother even as they fold like a bad poker hand in the early hours of the night.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR CHOICES

I had the life-changing good fortune of being in the right place at the right time: Cambridge MA during the late sixties. I was invited to join a small group of women gathering together once a week to discuss - radical notion - the unique experience of being a woman. This was the first East Coast women's consciousness raising group, out of which grew the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, and the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, of which I was a contributing writer. I mention this so that you will understand that as an early card-carrying member of the Women's Movement, I believed we could have it all, be it all, and do it all. Given that predisposition, it has been a gradual awakening on my part to understand that the choices we make do bear consequences, despite what our culture's addiction to immediate gratification would have us believe. Working with older women who postponed childbearing until their forties is a lesson in these natural consequences: fertility and life force irrevocably decline with age. Those women who did conceive consider themselves fortunate, as most of them have friends who weren't so lucky and are now facing a childless future. Those who resolved their infertility by adopting say that their inability to conceive, no matter what high-tech treatment they employed, or how much money they spent, was their first brush with the real lessons of life: "It doesn't always matter how much you want it. Some things are out of your control."

It is my fervent hope that this book not be used by the Family Values crew as an I-told-you-so sneer to uppity women everywhere. Rather, it is my intention to offer support, guidance, advice and an occasional groan of recognition to women in their forties already up to their eyeballs in the experience of being an older first time mom, and to provide food for thought to younger women who are currently weighing their options.


The above is an excerpt from
Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty by Nancy London, MSW, published by Celestial Arts/ Ten Speed Press, April 2001.

To contact Nancy London, you can e-mail her at: nlondon@swcp.com


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