By Judith Wynhausen
"I didn't know women your age could have babies," the young woman blurted out. We were both looking at crib quilts at a church bazaar, and she had asked me who was going to have a baby. "I am," I replied, thinking she couldn't miss my pregnant belly, swollen large in the eighth month. Yes, admittedly my hair was quite gray for my 49 years, but I didn't feel that old.
After that encounter, I went to the beauty shop and had my hair dyed. At least then I didn't look 50 at first glance, and everybody didn't immediately assume that my baby daughter was my granddaughter. Now, five years later, I've gone back to my natural gray, and the grandmother comments don't bother me any more. After all, I am old enough to be Veronica's grandmother.
This baby was a complete surprise. I'd tried to have another baby after my son was born when I was 41, but after four miscarriages I finally gave up hope that I would have another child. My periods stopped abruptly when I moved to the East Coast to take a new teaching job, and I accepted the fact that I had started menopause.
My husband, John, and I were in New York for a weekend workshop when I noticed that my breasts had started swelling and felt tender. "Maybe I'm pregnant," I quipped to John, not really believing it. Then I squeezed a nipple and got a little milky fluid. "Oops! This doesn't feel like menopause!" I said.
I felt very ambivalent about being pregnant again. If the pregnancy continues, I thought, fine; I'll have another baby. If it doesn't, that's fine, too, because I can pursue my new career. After four miscarriages, I was afraid to get very excited. I didn't want to be disappointed again.
I felt a little embarrassed going to the doctor and admitting I was pregnant at my age. Then I asked the important question: "Given my history of miscarriage, do you think I can carry this baby to term?" The doctor was matter-of-fact: "I don't see why not." I asked her about checking my progesterone level to make sure it was high enough to maintain the pregnancy during the first trimester. She didn't seem very concerned. However, I was; so every time I felt a twinge that resembled a cramp, I rubbed natural progesterone cream on my belly. I have no idea if it helped prevent an early miscarriage, but it did ease my mind somewhat.
At 11 weeks gestation I had a CVS test to see if the fetus had normal chromosomes. (Statistically the chances are one in seven that a woman my age could have a Downs Syndrome child.) In all my eight pregnancies, I had never had an ultrasound. What a thrill to see that little peanut shaped being moving around on the ultrasound monitor! There really was something alive inside me!
When I received the call from the genetic laboratory with the results of the test, I held my breath. Was the baby going to be all right? What if it wasn't? Would I decide to abort? The fact that I was pregnant was miracle enough; would I dare to reject this gift from heaven because it wasn't society's idea of normal?
The fetus was all right, the lab woman told me. I let out my breath, and tears formed in my eyes. "Do you want to know the sex?" she asked. "Yes!" A girl! I was ecstatic. Maybe this pregnancy would continue! I hadn't had any cramping or bleeding from the CVS test, as they had warned I might. I was already past the first trimester, when most miscarriages occur. John and I began thinking of this baby as a real entity and inviting her into our lives.
Our family moved back to my hometown in the Midwest, and I found a skilled and intuitive midwife who guided me through the easiest pregnancy of all. This was my fourth full-term pregnancy--the first two in my mid-20s, the last two in my 40s. My midwife was completely supportive of my desire to have the baby at home, despite my age and previous miscarriages. As long as I followed her nutritional advice I should stay healthy, and she saw no reason to plan a hospital birth. I couldn't find a doctor to agree to be a back-up to a lay midwife, so I had no doctor at all. My midwife worked with a medical doctor in a small town close to her residence, and he would be available in an emergency.
A few days before I gave birth, my midwife prepared me for the possibility that we might have to use that doctor, as the cord seemed to be wrapped around the baby's neck, preventing her from descending into the birth canal. However, we were successful in getting the baby to turn around enough to loosen the cord, so we went ahead with the homebirth. We planned an underwater birth in a big inflatable spa, and the labor and birth were the most comfortable I have had.
My recovery also went well. I'd like to say this was due to my impeccable exercise program, but I was actually less diligent during this pregnancy than previously. I did return to a regular yoga practice after Veronica's birth, which has firmed and slimmed my body. Although I didn't have the abundance of milk I'd had with my first two children, my supply was adequate, and Veronica grew quite chubby on breast milk exclusively. She continued to nurse for 38 months! During the pregnancy I got used to a more youthful appearance due to increased blood and water in my tissues, which tends to smooth out hairline wrinkles. I was sorry to see those little wrinkles reappear a few months after the birth.
The reaction of friends and family members has been mixed, but mostly very supportive of my being an older mom. Several family members were quite concerned about my choice to have a homebirth, especially because the medical profession automatically labels pregnancies over age 35 "high risk." I think my pregnancy and birth were not riskier than any other, thanks to a high-quality diet and excellent prenatal care.
My two older children, neither of whom have children of their own, are delighted with their new sister. My older son said, "Thanks for having your grandchildren for us, Mom." My younger son, who was nine when Veronica was born, had problems adjusting to being a sibling instead of the only child in the family; but even though he still complains about his "annoying" little sister, I can tell that he loves her.
There are times I think, "I'll be 68 when she turns 18!" but luckily I have some wonderful older role models in my life, so that doesn't sound so very old. I expect to live until Veronica is at least 50 years old herself! One activity I love is traveling, and at first I was concerned that having a young child would curtail my ability to travel. However, Veronica has been to Russia twice with us, and she loves to travel. She and I are already planning an extended trip to Europe when she is 15 or 16.
I think the foremost asset of being an older mother is my greater perspective on the importance of paying attention to children when they are little. I know how fast the years go. Veronica will only be a baby/toddler/child for a very short time, and I want to relish every moment. When my first two children were small, I was impatient for them to grow up so that I could pursue other interests. Indeed, I was so involved in other interests and projects when they were little that I missed some of their childhood! I now know that I can always return to those interests when Veronica is older, but I can never return to her young childhood.
Malvina Reynolds wrote a song, called "I Wish You Were Here," that expresses this thought beautifully:
I wish you were here to get underfoot,
I wish you were here to get in my way;
To call me from work, to call me to play.
I wish you were here again.
Oh what did I do that had to be done?
And what did I read that had to be read?
When I could have turned to watch you instead?
I wish you were here again1
Whenever I find myself getting impatient, or wishing I could be doing something other than caring for my precious child, I sing that song to myself and thank God that I was given yet another baby to care for.
1. Malvina Reynolds, "I Wish You Were Here," published in The Malvina Reynolds Songbook (Berkeley, CA: Schroder Press), 1984.
Judith Wynhausen has been a folksinger, natural food store manager, consumer advocate, actress, director, kindergarten teacher, storyteller, and yoga instructor. She lives in Joplin, Missouri, with her husband, John, son Aaron (14), daughter Veronica (5), one dog, one cat, and 15 baby chicks. Her other two children are Kristin (31) and Erich (29).