In the new year, we allow ourselves greater latitude in contemplation, in resetting direction, in capitalizing on the sense of a clean slate to start fresh. This is a time for finding the courage to look at ourselves and our families with a clear eye.
I am pondering what it means to be an older mother. I am considering my future – mine – rather than that of my sons. And I am doing so wavering between feeling fit and fabulous – and exasperatingly exhausted.
As an older single mother, establishing lasting romantic relationships – and even friendships – has been challenging. As a midlife mother of college students, the likelihood that I will live to see and enjoy an extended family is less than if I’d had my children in my twenties or even at thirty. As an older single mother in midlife, the costs associated with 20 years of child-rearing are more than apparent in my finances, and naturally, there is less time to “recoup.”
So these are my realizations with which I wake, and thus this musing: I may never live to see grandchildren (or a larger family), and my finances may always be something of a mess.
These indisputable facts of my circumstances (not necessarily yours) sit side-by-side with the joys of parenting, even as I find myself newly tickled and tired by the presence of my children and their friends in our home.
Midlife Mothers, Far More Common
According to the Pew Research Center, fewer women in the U.S. bear children now than a generation or two ago. Specifically, 2010 data reflects that one in five American women is childless, whereas that figure was one in ten in the 1970s.
While fewer women are bearing children, statistically speaking, it’s no surprise that the number and acceptance of older mothers (over the age of 40) is on the rise, and while we might raise an eyebrow or two, so is the phenomenon of new (bio) mothers, over the age of 50.
Yet most of what I’ve seen in the media focuses on conceiving and possibly dealing with infants, rather than the roughly 18-year commitment which is active parenthood.
Healthy babies are happy news for most of us, regardless of the age we have them (through birth or adoption). And I admit right here and now, as difficult as it would have been (and seemingly a contradiction), if I could have had one or two more children by 40 or 41, I would have been thrilled.
That’s either a testament to my insanity (all things considered), or to just how deeply I love my sons, have adored raising them, and by proxy, have delighted in their broad circle of friends.
Raising Children Solo
I did not start out to raise a family essentially alone; it’s simply how things turned out. My spouse traveled, there were no parents, siblings, or other relatives to assist, and while I had a network of divorced moms as friends when I was married (ironically), when I found myself divorcing, most were moving or remarrying.
It’s worth noting that those women friends were typically 10 years – or more – younger than myself. Seemingly overnight, I was 40-something with elementary-aged children, an ex who lived hundreds of miles away, and no support system to help – much less the money to afford one.
It has been more of a struggle than I can ever say, and certainly less of a struggle than for millions of single parents in this country, regardless of age.
I am proud of my sons, and yet having them home I am more aware of my aging, of what they still expect of me, and the haziness of my own future. And I know is this:
Midlife mom and divorced or widowed? You need a boatload of support.
Entering older motherhood by choice or by circumstance? I believe that forearmed is forewarned, and helps you to manage what is to come.
Factors in Midlife Parenting
I am not an expert; I am writing from my experience and that of other solo midlife mothers I know. Nonetheless, I believe these are reasonable factors to consider when embarking on older motherhood or finding yourself holding the midlife parenting bag on your own.
- In your 40s or 50s you may indeed have the stamina to deal with six weeks or six months of sleepless nights, a teary toddler, the terrible twos, and even make it through to preschool. You should feel pleased, proud, and grateful – of yourself and your child(ren).
- You may be fortunate in having a spouse, partner, or ex-partner who takes some of the load, or a family member that does so. Even a few days or nights here and there can help you recoup. Create a network! You’re going to need it!
- Don’t underestimate the physical and logistical burdens that come next: kids fight and you must referee; there are carpool lines and homework help; babysitters go mysteriously MIA; if you date, you need to manage everyone’s expectations gingerly; sports and music and activities require driving; tweens and teens can eat like bottomless pits; work trips you must go on will likely leave you worrying about what’s happening back home.
- If marriage or other partnership comes to an end, it’s inevitable that splitting into two households will leave both financially worse for wear; the one with primary duty for children is likely to take more hits over the long run.
Older Mother, Midlife Divorce, Raising Kids
The cost of raising children can seem mind-boggling, but momentarily setting that aside, I’d like to speak to the emotional, physical, and social toll. I do not regret a minute of the time I’ve shared with my children, but I will clearly state that in my circumstances with my particular ex, at times it’s felt nightmarish. Had I been able to share more of the responsibilities with another adult or adults, and had I been younger while raising my children (infancy and preschool years being the easiest in my opinion), I believe the experience of family would have been richer, less stressful, and more readily savored.
Dealing with tweens and teens can be grueling, and more so at a time when you’re more likely to be living with some sort of illness, possibly fatigue, and no doubt some hormonal or other physical changes of your own.
Kids are rebelling (as they must), confronting the seductions of drugs and alcohol (don’t think they aren’t), fighting off or succumbing to peer pressure in all sorts of ways; they are exploring their sexuality and we can only hope – safely – and in general, testing limits.
School places additional pressures as do we, attempting to prepare our children for their future. Again, enlisting help (friends, family, neighbors, teachers) is a good idea. And returning to expenses for a moment – and this is especially important to the single parents in the crowd – don’t forget about the big ticket items that come along before college: braces, wisdom teeth that may need to come out, school trips, substantial out-of-pocket costs even for public schools, special (summer) classes, SAT prep courses, driver’s education, car insurance, college applications – and more.
And if you’re part of the Sandwich generation?
Not only are you juggling work and raising your children, but you’re dutifully caring for aging parents. It’s stressful. Wildly stressful. The strain on your time and your wallet is coming from all directions – your own needs in midlife, the growing costs of growing children, and care-giving to the elders who raised you.
Maybe you’ve been blessed with one – a good one. Your children have accepted him or her, and you recognize that finding love, respect, and passion in a compatible partner as a midlife woman is no small feat. But your partner may come along with aging elders as well.
You are living the benefits and sweetness of a larger extended family, yes – and also, a more complex set of responsibilities.
The Future As I See It
I don’t tangibly imagine my future. I haven’t in years. I’ve spent a decade taking each day as it comes in order to raise my children well.
This past week with my sons has sparked strange wrinkles in time as years have folded in on themselves, and I’ve revisited moments that occurred ten and twenty years ago. I’ve been propelled through dream as well as recollection, and encouraged to “let go” of what I can, and perhaps what I must.
So I return to my morning’s preoccupation: the importance (to me) of family (and indirectly, my sense of being alone), and practical considerations like money.
It is a reasonable assumption that my sons will take their time in settling down. It is an equally reasonable assumption that I may never know the pleasures of seeing my grandchildren, if there are grandchildren. It is a reasonable assumption that I will never fully recover from these years of disproportionately shared parenting expenses.
Oh, the former (grandchildren) is hardly a raging concern at this moment; I’ve barely embarked on Empty Nest and I’m still adjusting. I come to this stage with the knowledge of mixed blessings, including a good relationship which I hope to enjoy – however long it may last.
But the latter? Money? It’s a hard reality. One I’m still chewing on, as a midlife “freelance” mother, in a roiling recessionary world.
Count on Nothing, But Count Your Blessings
My life experience has taught me to count on nothing, and yet, I certainly do count my blessings.
My boys and I are healthy, but that doesn’t mean that this little midlife momma isn’t tired! I must take the clarity of who I am now and what I know to be my challenges as well as my strengths, and focus on creating my future.
By being smart. By taking calculated risk. By trusting my gut.
As an older mother, a mature woman, and one who confesses to intermittent irritability at the moment, I also believe unequivocally that yes is a powerful word and even more, a powerful attitude. So I will mix my maternal musings with that dash of positive perspective, and I will see what I can conjure – preferably, something meaningful.
After all, I remind myself that I may be fifty-something and a little worse for wear, but I’m also feisty and flirty, and fearless when the need arises! With that knowledge firmly in hand, any number of futures brighten – don’t you think?