Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

By Ann Whitfield Powers

spring2008_powersMy mother’s visit is supposed to be low-key. This is the third time she’s traveled across the country to help us since we adopted Zachary, and it’s the first without a nerve-wracking event on the agenda: no trip to the hospital to get the baby, no visit with the birth parents, no visit to the lactation consultant to learn how to nurse an adopted baby.

We’re just living life, taking the kids to the park, grocery shopping with Zachary while my older son, Patrick, takes a dance class. And so we’re back to being a good team and tolerating the familiar low-level tensions, letting the little things slide.

As we wait in the grocery store checkout line, my mother eyes an Outside magazine without pulling it off the rack. I unload the groceries with one hand, cup baby Zachary’s bare foot with the other, and admire our cashier–an older woman with a mane of long, gray ringlets, dramatic jewelry, and a steady patter with the customers. The cashier ohs and ahs over Zachary as she swipes cans and boxes and weighs the oranges mechanically (organic oranges are so expensive! I can almost hear my mother thinking). Then the cashier pauses and gives my mother and me an appraising stare.

“Let me guess. You’re the two grandmothers, aren’t you?”

My smile freezes.

She grins. “I just think it’s great when the grandmas get along.”

The store seems ultra bright, and everything moves in slow motion, especially my thinking. I try to grasp what she just said. I look like the other grandmother? How can that be? People usually guess that we are mother and daughter, we look so much alike. It’s obvious, they say.

The cashier concentrates on the groceries, suddenly silent. I feel pressure to say something. But what?

Should I try to put her at ease, excuse her for the mistake that I think she knows she made. Should I make light of it, make a joke? Or should I tell her straight up, slam dunk, the message that not only young women have children? Should I make a point of claiming my child as my own? Is it disloyal this way I am standing here silently, grin frozen on my face, letting it slide? And laced through it all, the stunned question: Do I really look as old as my mother?

We walk out. As the automatic doors slide silently shut behind us, my mother says, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” I say, but we both hear a tinge of bitterness in my voice.

“I take it as quite the compliment,” she adds hopefully. Then she sighs. “But it probably doesn’t make you happy.”

I smile and shrug. Never before has anyone suggested that I am my mother’s peer. She is a beautiful woman, but she looks, well, she looks old.

That night, I turn on all the bathroom lights and look closely in the mirror and see them–a series of V-shaped lines etched on both sides of my mouth, like lines of geese flying north. As I turn my face, the lines fade and reappear depending on how the light hits them. I think of Tennessee Williams’s fading beauty Blanche DuBois putting a lampshade on the bare bulb in her sister’s apartment. That always seemed like a reasonable plan to me–it made the apartment more attractive. Was it such a crime to choose flattering light? Apparently so, according to Stanley and Mitch and my students. I taught A Streetcar Named Desire to college sophomores, and God, they hated Blanche (delicate, destitute, desperate to hold onto a refined plantation elegance that has long since slipped through her grasp).

Anyway, I have to admit that at this point, I look more like an aging Stella–the practical, earthy sister–than Blanche. I’m chubby, matronly, obviously more of a mom than a Southern belle. I wonder, idly, if I could create a merged version of both women. But then I’d be named Blella … or worse, Stanche.

One day, in my last semester teaching English literature–when we were about three years into our quest for a second child and I had finally succumbed to the pressure to take the entry-level fertility drug, Clomid–the class was discussing a novel in which a middle-aged woman pondered getting pregnant. A cute, usually silent boy piped up to say, “Isn’t forty kind of old for that?”

A few of the girls tittered nervously and glanced my way. I said nothing. I hadn’t mentioned my quest, and yet somehow it seemed that they knew. And then it dawned on me: They didn’t know about the second child I was trying to conceive. They were embarrassed for me because they knew about my first child. Yes, a six-year-old at my age. Imagine. Maybe they knew this because the previous spring I had brought Patrick to campus on Take Your Child to Work Day. Walking back to my office with Patrick, one of my former students had shouted to me from across the street:

“Hey, Professor Powers!”

I waved. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered her as upbeat and sweet and always willing to participate in discussions.

“Is that your grandson?” she shouted.

“No,” I shouted back. “He’s my son.”

“I didn’t know you had a kid so young!” she said in the same chipper voice, and then swept her arm in a happy good-bye wave. “See you!”

A sour taste seeped into my mouth. Patrick walked silently by my side. It was impossible to guess what he thought of the interchange. (Years later, he told me that he thought she was “a complete and total weirdo.”) When he was, oh, maybe four years old, he used to brag gleefully to the other kids in his preschool: “My mom’s older than your mom!”

He hasn’t done that lately.

Recently when I was waiting for Patrick to finish class, I overheard one mom ask another: “At what age did we stop wearing makeup to look older and start wearing makeup to look younger?” I smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything. I was fifteen years older than them, easily, and I wasn’t wearing makeup. I hadn’t worn makeup in a long time.

But now, standing in front of my bathroom mirror it occurs to me that I might still have a green tube of wrinkle-covering Clinique cream in the cabinet. I resist the impulse to pull it out. I wish I could say this is a feminist decision–a proud claiming of my age, wrinkles and all–but really it’s only because I am sure that the cream won’t work. My wrinkles are too plentiful and too deep. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them.

I have chosen the path of the older mother. I have fought against the odds and peer pressure and common sense to get right here: a forty-nine-year-old mother of two young boys. Now I’m going to have to live with it, for better and for worse. And usually it’s better.

Neither of our children came easily, and parenting them is as much a challenge as it is a joy; but now the occasional hurtful comment notwithstanding, my life feels right.

I turn off the light and stand in the dark waiting for the bulbs to cool. Then I reach up over the sink and feel my way to the middle light bulb, unscrew it, then for good measure unscrew the bulb next to it. When I turn the lights back on my wrinkles barely show. Call me Blanche. Blella. Stanche. I’m walking away from this mirror and back into my life.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008) 

Ann Whitfield Powers lives in Joseph, Oregon where she serves as the Executive Director of Fishtrap, a literary arts organization.

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  • Lorri

    Oh,I can so relate to this. I had my children at 33, 35, and 37. All “too old” for rural NC. The first time I was mistaken for my oldest child’s grandmother I was driving home from my step-father’s funeral and weekend with my newly widowed mother–emotionally wrung-out, no make-up, hair a messy ponytail. We stopped at a gas station and went in for snacks. My son, about 5 at the time, started begging for this and that. I kept saying, “No, not that.” The clerk said, “Listen to your grandma, son!” I felt that feeling you describe so well–what did he just say? Should I correct him? Let it go? It’s happened several more times since then, but hey, once in a while I get carded at Walmart. They have to check now if you look under 40, and that’s gravy, because I’m 44! Great piece of writing.

  • Kayz

    There is no way you are too old to be a mother of young boys. Would it have been better if you gave birth to a child as a 15 year old, so now you could be the “young” grandma? The grocery store lady I can’t excuse, but I think college students think 30 year olds are ancient. I do have a question, only because I really don’t know, and think it’s great. How are you able to nurse an adopted child, how are you lactating?

  • Cassi

    What a great essay –it speaks to me, as a 50 year old mother of a 12 year old daughter. I had more energy when I was younger, but the trade-off is I have more wisdom now.

  • Pamela

    It’s annoying (and surprising, these days, given the availability of IVF) when people “assume” that you’re the grandma. I had my kids at 43 and 47 (and yes, the second one was an unplanned, but much hoped for, happy surprise). I know how lucky I was to be able to have two healthy kids in my 40s (my sister was unable to have children when she tried in her late 30s and early 40s). I would have liked to have had kids at a younger age, but I didn’t meet my husband till I was 41, so it just wasn’t possible. But just as I don’t judge people who choose to have their children young, I wish people wouldn’t judge me for being an older mom.

  • fortysfine

    I’ve gotten this about three times with my daughter, and I always find it really difficult. But I also find it dumb: if you can’t tell if someone is the mother or the grandmother, the OBVIOUS thing to do is guess the former, which can only delight and compliment the person if you’re wrong, rather than the latter, which can only insult them.

  • Terry

    I had my daughter when I was 37. While I was pregnant, I went to a garage sale and got some 2nd hand baby stuff. The lady asked me if I was picking up things for my granddaughter. I was at a complete loss as to what to say… I was 7 months and huge! Then a about a year later, I was in a store with my daughter and my mom when the cashier commented how nice it was to see grandma and great grandma shopping with their grand daughter! I am scared to think what I am going to hear once she is old enought to go to school!

  • Christine

    I had my girls naturally and planned at 37 and 42. This article hits home. I go to buy my kids toys and get offered the grandparent discount. When I was 8 months pregnant and huge with baby I was walking with my then 4 year old and someone actually told me how cute my grandaughter was. When I nicely explained that not only was she my daughter but the child in my very round hard pregnant stomach was as well, she actually was shocked into silence, walked away without saying another word.
    I never assume someone is a grandparent. I always say “oh your kids are so cute”. If they are the grandparent they blush with pleasure and smilingly corrent me, if they are the parent than we just have a normal conversation and no one gets hurt.

  • Lauren A

    I had my children at 40 and 43, and thankfully was only called their grandmother once (to my face anyway). But I’ve definitely felt the age difference with other mothers over the years – at playgroup I discovered I finished high school the year one mother started school – and my son’s best friend’s grandmother is one month YOUNGER than me! I used to worry that my age would be a source of embarrassment for my now high school age children, and still keep my gray hairs dyed for their sake, but my kids are apparently happy to have me as their Mum, wrinkles and all!

  • Emily Boronkay

    My mother had me at age 42 in the 50s. Unusual then. I was about 8 when, in a store, a stupid salesman asked me if my grandmother was going to buy anything. I was so angry that I bit him!!! My mother decided it was time to start dying her beautiful silver hair.

  • Kendra

    To all the moms who had first babies in their 40’s yeah 40 is kind of old for that. You will be mistaken for the grandmother because by mid 40’s most parents are eagerly awaiting the day when kiddos head off to college leaving an empty bedroom; to now be their “naked” rooms. LOL. But waiting does have its advantages financial security and knowing who you are as a person among them. unfortunately it is off the beaten path most women follow into first time motherhood.

  • KayB

    I know many great slightly older mothers and I have never thought negatively about their ages. I am on the other end of motherhood extremes. I have felt the play date awkwardness and the criticism for not fitting into the socially acceptable parameters for when you should have a child. I had to drop out of college to have my daughter at 19. I honestly don’t envy mothers having their first in their late 20’s and earlier 30’s, I envy mothers more in your age group. It just seems so perfect that you’ve already had so much time for your education and pursuing your career and now you can start family life. For me I’ve been slowly inching, in a pace that allows me time to enjoy being a mother, toward finishing my degree but its okay for me because my daughters going to me more grown and independent when I put work on the front burner and start building my career. I like the idea of splitting your years between work and family rather than having kids in the middle of everything, but that is just an opinion of mine and not something I hold other women to. When a woman decides to have her children shouldn’t be scrutinized so long as she is capable of loving and caring for their needs. P.S: I’m in total admiration of breastfeeding adopted children, what an awesome way to share a special bond with your new baby!