“Mommy, how old are you?” my youngest daughter Madeleine asks me every month or so. I always get the feeling she’s worried, and Madeleine worried is truly something to give one pause—she is the most consistently cheerful, upbeat, and enthusiastic person I’ve ever met.
“I’m fifty-five sweetheart,” I reply casually, as though it’s just the most normal thing for a woman who, a century ago, might have already been a memory to her children.
It’s not that I got a late start. My first daughters, Samantha Sunshine and Jasmine Moondance, were born in 1969 and 1975 respectively, almost like bookends to my intensely political antiwar and radical feminist years in Washington, D.C. Shortly before Jasmine came along, I had moved to San Francisco for a little personal R&R; it rather quickly slid into serious social decline.
By the time I met and married Tripp, who shouldered responsibility for my daughters, I was ready for a normal family. However, our family would prove to be not very normal after all.
Did I mention I was also pregnant? This was rather strange because complications from my worst excesses had led doctors to declare me sterile. And when Tripp and I kept producing children, we began to feel this must be our calling.
The truth is we found we were enjoying being parents. Maybe it was because we had both come from unhappy backgrounds. Creating a happy home with lots of children was like a healing balm.
It was also an intensely personal expression of the same yearning to transform society that had led to my education as a Montessori teacher as well as my involvement in politics. As “megaparents,” Tripp and I can flex a lot of political muscle, giving not two or three, but eleven children a solid grounding in the truths we hold self-evident. Leaving this kind of legacy gives us great hope for the future.
Then there is the now. Bearing children over a couple decades has led to some hilarious situations—like being pregnant at the same time as my daughter and swapping maternity clothes. Sober ones too—like breaking the news to her that her newborn brother Jonny had Down syndrome when she was expecting her own first son.
I guess sometimes people think I’m her grandmother, but these days it’s hard to tell, what with so many graying new moms who let their biological clocks keep ticking until seconds before the final alarm. They’re now sitting at back-to-school night in those teensy-tiny chairs, surrounded by parents young enough to be their children, too.
Stages of motherhood
Last summer, while on vacation at a family camp, Madeleine asked me why I was older than the other mommies. What made it worse was that I actually was feeling old—plus a little tired and cranky about schlepping all those kids up and down the hills for meals and crafts and swimming. I was muttering things like, “I know you had a plan, God, but what could you have been thinking?” Madeleine’s words made me wish, for a moment, that I could be like all the other mothers—young and pretty and full of energy.
Then I remembered that once I had been a young and pretty and energetic mother. And I remembered how back then it was always about me. Now I’ve learned it’s not about me at all—and that’s the difference between being a mother of young children in your twenties and in your fifties, especially if you haven’t had a break for 34 years.
Now there’s another contingent of mommy come latelies. It’s not that they are “megamoms” or late bloomers. These are women who stepped into the breach when their own children had children and were unable to be good parents. I hope they, too, find hope, healing, and rejuvenation—the unexpected benefits package that comes from spending time with kids. I hope they have someone like Madeleine, who brings me pictures of “You, Mommy, when you were a little girl!”
In her picture there I am, smiling wide, cruising up a hill on a skateboard. Her pictures never have a normal flat horizon, but one which rises determinedly up the page. In the upper right hand corner radiates the sun. With a joyful smile, her subject faces the viewer, arms outspread, skateboarding up the hill toward the light.
I needed this person in my life, with her positive outlook and joyful vision. Obviously, Madeleine doesn’t see life as a cakewalk. After all, she draws us going uphill, not down. But her art seems to say that there’s a lot to be thrilled about as long as our wheels continue to spin.
I guess that’s the upside of being an older mother. I’m just becoming aware of how much there still is to learn. I’m beginning to see how much some things I hadn’t noticed matter, things like skateboards and the angle of the horizon. It gives me an inkling of what God may have been thinking after all—giving someone like Madeleine to someone like me, right at the perfect time!