When my son arrived home from his second year of college with his laundry bags stuffed to capacity, it hit me, once again, how unconventional my life is now. My three children are 20, 15 and 10 months. As my friends are slowly seeing their nests emptying, mine continues to get more full with all the gear and adorable clothing that goes along with having a baby.
In developmental psychology we talk about normative and non-normative events that shape our lives. Well, having a baby the week before you turn 48 certainly qualifies as non-normative. I vividly remember introducing the topic of midlife several years ago while teaching my Developmental Psychology class. All of the sudden it hit me, like an out-of-body experience, that I fit the definition and I was shocked. It didn’t seem possible that I was old enough to be considered middle aged. Middle aged was how I always thought of my parents and now I was old enough to be the parent of my college students.
With people living longer today than in past generations, the length of time spent in “midlife” is longer as well. However, many aspects of middle age have not changed, specifically the decline in physical function and the visible signs of aging. I can no longer convince myself that those gray hairs are blonde highlights and now I have wrinkles that remind me that my mother was right when she sprayed me with the hose as I sunbathed and warned me that I would be sorry one day.
One concept that aptly describes people in midlife is the sandwich generation- the phenomenon of being squished between the responsibilities of taking care of their aging parents and their (usually adolescent) children. I see this now with so many of my friends: the one whose 93-year-old father moved in with them from Florida (did I mention he is very crotchety?), the ones whose mothers moved to assisted living facilities nearby and who feel the constant guilt of not going over often enough to visit, even though one of them is not even sure if she will remember if she was there. Then there are those who have experienced the painful loss of a parent and by now, increasingly common, both parents. I remember seeing my colleagues agonize over placing their parents in nursing homes and later, planning their memorial services when I was hired in my mid-twenties after graduate school, but I never imagined how fast time would fly, and that before I knew it, I would be facing similar situations. When my father was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, I was in shock when I received the phone call from my mother. How could my father, the one who joked that he would be around forever drooling on us, possibly be sick? He used to remind us that longevity ran in his family because he had a grandmother who lived to be 105 and we all just figured that he would, too.
Through all of this, it has been a breath of fresh air to experience the joy of a baby again. Taking a leave of absence this year has afforded me the time to reconnect with old friends and spend time enjoying this beautiful daughter of mine. Just today I was reminiscing with a friend I met at my son’s day care about how neurotic we were as young mothers trying to “do it all.” Another friend, a physician, relayed the story of how her only emotion for the first several years of her children’s lives was sheer exhaustion. Our cohort was told that women can do it all, but we eventually realized that this was only partially true. Yes, you can do it all, but something has to give. Having a baby in your late forties is such a gift. You gain the wisdom of seeing the big picture and realizing what really matters. Who cares if the nursery is color coordinated? Heck our child doesn’t even have her own room. We were just so relieved to have a healthy baby to take home, that nothing else mattered. It looks like she will be using the office until our oldest is launched and that’s okay. She knows she is loved and that is what’s most important. She will always be a special part of the double-decker sandwich that is our family.
(In many ways, having a baby in your late forties is very economical, because everyone else is eager to rid their attics and basements of clutter, and even more excited to play with a little one again. So finding a babysitter is not a problem. )
Julie McIntyre is the wife of Parent Pages Publisher John McIntyre.