An essay by Sarah Dougher
The first time a stranger called me grandmother of my own child, I was in a midwestern airport, hauling my two-yearold to a connecting flight. I was purchasing a bottle of water; the baby was having a tantrum. I put her on the floor to let her shriek and flop around, as you sometimes have to do, and calmly made my purchase. The clerk, giving me a sororal smile, leaned over the counter, peered at my snotty creature, and said, “Grandchildren are a handful, that’s for sure. I’ve got four of my own!” I smiled and said, “Yep, a real handful!” Then I picked up my daughter, who arched her back like she was possessed and shrieked “NO!” again and again as we walked out.
The clerk’s misunderstanding of my relationship to my kid is one that will be repeated for the rest of my life, I’m fairly certain. This is one of the consequences of having my first child at forty-five, and my second at forty-nine.
You can be a grandma at thirty-eight. You can be a mom and a teenager. Saying that I have small children makes me seem younger to people. People have children during a wide age range, but our cultural conception of the correct age for a new mother is somewhere between twenty and forty. Someone might think I’m fifty-ish but when they see me breastfeeding, dial it back to forty-five. Because I’ve never been a younger mother, I can’t say what is different about being an older one. I can say that I did not seriously consider children until I was in my early thirties. I had the privilege of easy access to birth control, as well as to abortion had I needed it. Not having a child when I was younger allowed me to focus on the things I wanted to do then: I got a doctoral degree, for instance. I traveled, lived communally, and toured as a musician.
My initial plans for children with my then girlfriend were disrupted by a breast cancer diagnosis at thirty-five. Getting a form of cancer that doesn’t hurt, except when excised, has a different impact than do other, more sudden and exhilarating brushes with death. It exacerbated what felt impossible: that I would ever live long enough to parent children successfully in a loving partnership. Dependent on this same philandering partner ’s health insurance for treatment, my approach to mortality was shot through with tradeoffs; I stay with her and keep the insurance, look away when she fucks other people, drink myself to sleep and pretend I’ve had a healing night’s rest. Instead of compelling me to live each moment with a clear-eyed zest for life, I was a lackluster cancerbattler. My alcohol dependence increased as my friends and family tried to rally me from deep depression. My drunkenness was an inarticulate demand: “Recognize my suffering! See me!” But no one could see my cancer and my physical debilitation and drinking was read as a moral failing. I had radiation treatment on one cancerous breast, and five years of the estrogen-suppressant, tamoxifen. Eventually, I was in remission, and I quit drinking. By then I was forty.
My children are the result of a partnership I never thought I would be so lucky to have, with a man whose commitment to family matched my own. We determined we’d have children on our third date, when I was forty-one. By the spring of my fortysecond year, I was making notes in a book about “Clomid mood swings” and “Follistim,”—the drugs that stimulate follicles to produce multiple eggs per cycle. The reality is that even between forty-one and forty-two, your reproductive odds drop sharply, and your egg supply is low. We optimistically started with intrauterine injection, which basically just saves the sperm part of the trip to the fallopian tubes. After this failed, we ratcheted up quickly, to IVF, and my notes became more dire: “anxious,” “aching,” “weepy,” “overwhelmed,” “thirsty,” “dumb,” “headache-y,” “spaced-out,” “crampy,” “sleepy,” “fragile,” “gassy,” “tender,” “bloated,” “insomniac,” “crazy.” As unpleasant as this all was, it was less horrific than my life as a drunk cancer victim had been. When you do IVF, you think you are going to be the miracle person whose eggs just needed a little prodding. I learned I am no miracle person: after two IVF rounds, we decided to pay someone young for her eggs, a process gently mislabeled “donation.”
Through an agency, we chose a person whose family history did not include breast cancer, alcoholism, or mental illness. She looked sort of like us, northern Europeans, and her photographs demonstrated a penchant for dressing in costume— pirate lass, fortune-teller, clown. The reasons people value extremely good looking, high achieving egg donors seemed strange to me, but the whole thing was very strange so we thought we would choose someone who at least liked to have fun. We didn’t know why she wanted to get paid for undergoing a physically uncomfortable, time-consuming, and, in the scheme of things, not-that-lucrative process. Platitudes about helping others with the gift of life? Maybe to pay for community college? Or to buy the best fortune-telling costume of all time? This mysterious blonde person had a crucial part in making our family possible, but I know her just from blurry snapshots on the egg donation database. She could just as easily be that person with the baby crying the next time I board a plane.
I know that I am more patient and tolerant of both my own foibles and the shortcomings of others than I was when I was young, and this is a very useful trait as both a parent and as a person. I care a great deal less now about what others think of me, but care very deeply about the needs and opinions of my family. I’m more concerned with regular practices related to health and well-being, and prioritize this. I have very limited time to myself but that time is exceedingly well-spent.
How others gauge my fitness for parenting is really their concern based on their own biases. If they choose to look upon the choice as unfair to my children, who will eventually (as we all will) become parentless, they need only look to the experiences of people whose parents are already out of the picture because of fundamental disagreements, addictions, or tragic circumstances. Sometimes, for millions of reasons, parents and adult children don’t get along to the point of estrangement, and yet these people often thrive and make excellent parents themselves. How we lose and gain family is never ordinary.
Motherhood ushered in a sudden connection to other, much younger, women with kids. This was not something I had anticipated. I’m a college professor who works in public high schools teaching in a dualcredit program, so I am in regular contact with young people. This new, specific closeness I feel to younger moms in my classes is not something I verbalize to them; it is, however, something I try to support structurally. I don’t need to understand the details of their lives, but I want to use what small powers I have to give them options—I can be in touch by email when they can’t come in; I can lend them the school computer and encourage them to write about their experiences in the context of our class. I try to use my role as their teacher to help them value the work they are doing as moms, and to let them know I see that work, and I see them, too. I can’t forget the elation and relief in the face of a mom who sees her seventeen-year-old daughter graduate as she holds her daughter’s baby, all three generations younger than me. Maybe this identification is what the shop clerk felt when she treated me kindly at the airport.
Sometimes when I tell the story of the clerk in the airport, friends remark that I should have gotten angry for her assumption, “How rude!” they say. Other times when I tell this story, my friends will assure me that I don’t look at all like a grandmother. But what, really, does this look like after all?
I remind them that what happened in that exchange was only that I was pegged for what I am, an older woman. Hers was a verbalized example of the ways in which we all use visual, socialized cues to size each other up, and operate in the flow of received ideas of gender and role. To interrupt that to say, “No, I’m not her grandmother, I’m her mom!” would have rejected the kindness that the person thought she was offering. Do I have a responsibility to let the clerk know that older women can be excellent mothers? This must be proven only to my children. Do I have to represent, call her out on her assumptions about femininity or reproductive fitness? This would only cast unneeded doubt on the support she was trying to communicate, trite and pro forma as it was.
I choose to hold on to the kindness of this woman, not her misreading. Is it really on her that reproductive science is not cheaper and more widely accessible, or more common? Her fault, unloading Cosmo and Shape magazines all day, that she might have conventional assumptions about age, reproductive capacity, and vitality? That she might view my slightly androgynous, cardiganwearing, and greying form as a “grandma”?
I came to understand the airport incident as a consequence of my unique path: I will be misread; my experiences will be assumed, not seen, unknown. Contained within this path is an opportunity to experience deep empathy and connection. In that harried airport moment, when I put my child down on a dirty floor and let her scream and cry, making everyone uncomfortable, it didn’t matter what people thought about me or my role in my family. For her part, the clerk’s comments suggested to the other people (who were likely uncomfortable or irritated by us) that it is difficult to care for a screaming child, and that a screaming child is not out of the ordinary. She signaled that she knew this was a challenging situation for any person, and that she saw my work. Grandmother or not, I was seen.
Sarah Dougher is a writer, teacher, and musician, currently working in the University Studies program at Portland State University and writing short stories in the early mornings.