by Victoria Barrett
I parent in a village of four. Two of the four are recently hatched.
This is part of what happens when you have babies in middle age. You've missed the chance to become friends with other parents your age, because their kids were little 10 years ago. Your parents and in-laws are aging, or you've had enough therapy to realize the full extent of your family's toxicity and run screaming from that dumpster fire. The people you've loved forever live in far-flung places. You are, as support systems go, largely on your own. (I hope you are not. I know that some of you are not. I, however, am.)
So here's where we are: I am 42. My husband is about to turn 40. We have two babies under the age of two. With one very lovely exception, I'd as soon leave my children with a member of my family of origin as throw them into a scorpion-infested crater. My father-in-law died much too young from kidney cancer and my mother-in-law lives 60 miles away and won't drive to the city. Even the sitter we loved has moved away.
Most days, I long for adult company — but also miss my babies fiercely every minute we are apart.
This is probably as good a time as any to admit that lacking a support system gave us serious pause about having kids, and then we did it anyway. We did not think that grandparents or aunts would be on the scene, begging for babysitting shifts, when we did the deed. We mostly knew what we were getting into.
What we got into: Long days of toddler and newborn care punctuated by the very rare occasion when they nap at the same time for an hour or two. Alternating teaching schedules that will save us thousands of dollars (that we don't have) on childcare but will also ensure that we are never in the same room at the same time, like some kind of parallel universe family. The intellectual lives that we cultivated for so many years are now fragmented into slivers of stolen time. And the isolation is astounding; I feel like we crawled into a bunker where no other adults will fit.
My husband and I are both, simultaneously, full-time employees and full-time parents. Working from home sounds great in the abstract — no costs for childcare! — until you realize that you are the childcare. You are also the writer, editor, professor, and general badass that you've always been. Somehow, you have to be all of these things.
What I do, then, is not sleep enough. Not shower most days. Fire the new sitter when the toddler gets hurt on her watch, and then fail to find the time to schedule interviews with potential future sitters. Consider sending the dog to a farm because as a house pet, he demands too much. Feel guilty about the dog. Feel even guiltier about blaming the babies for my dirty hair, when surely I could stay up another half hour to take a shower if I really wanted to. Daydream about a body that doesn't require sleep, and contemplate another pot of coffee at 11:45 p.m.
But then, just as I'm about to break, the newborn sleeps almost all the way through the night, or the toddler starts saying "Mama!" joyfully over and over like he's singing a song, or miracle of miracles, they nap for the same two hours in one day and I begin to feel I might survive — I might be all right.
People say that it's best to have kids while you're young because you have energy then. I didn't, though. I am stronger and more powerful with each year away from my upbringing. My power — my age, my acquired wisdom — might turn out to be as valuable to my sons as it is to me.
For now, though, this is a struggle. It's not a struggle like staying out of the house to avoid my violent older brother was a struggle when I was a pre-teen, or like dealing with my mother's searing temper was a struggle in high school. As choosing battles go, this is one I finally, at this late age, have the weapons to fight.
This is the true advantage of being a new parent in middle age: Maybe that identity isn't so flexible any more, but I know who I am, and I know how I want my children to grow up. I dare anyone to try to shame me for deciding not to breastfeed, or for any other choice I might make about how to raise my children. I invite them to face the wrath of the middle-aged mom.
Victoria Barrett's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salon, PANK, and other outlets. She lives and writes in a house full of men and boys (even the pets), and tries not to feel too bad about it.