Laura Lippman | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,090 words)
My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.
It was the second week of an unseasonably early Baltimore heat wave and I had managed to maneuver her stroller across my neighborhood’s bumpy, narrow sidewalks to my favorite coffee shop. Almost nine years later, I still remember the one spot on our street where the juxtaposition of a tree planter and a set of rowhouse steps made it physically impossible to push a stroller through at any angle. One either had to lift the stroller a foot in the air or bump it over the curb into the street, a solution I figured out only after much grunting and angling. By the time I arrived at the coffee shop, I was sweaty and unkempt.
A young man peered into the stroller, then glanced at my face: “Oh, are you her grandmother?” Only three days earlier, a woman had seen me boarding a plane with my newborn, eyed me approvingly and whispered: “You look amazing!” An unearned compliment — my daughter didn’t come out of my body and my body’s not that great, anyway — but I had been happy to take it. I’m not dumb. I knew the grandmother question would be asked again and again, and that compliments would be rare.
I tried out a simple, direct reply, the one I use to this day: “No, I’m her mother, but I am old enough to be her grandmother, so it’s understandable that you would ask.”
I thought my answer generous. But in the years since my daughter was born, I have discovered that people who ask rude questions feel terribly affronted if you say anything that implies they have just asked a rude question.
“But I’ve seen that baby with a young couple,” the man said. “Out and about in the neighborhood.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No, I absolutely have,” he insisted. “She’s been going around with a young couple.”
I let it go. I live in a city that, year in and year out, has a startlingly high teenage pregnancy rate, and consequently a high number of young grandmothers, some of whom end up raising their grandchildren. I’d be proud to be one of those women. But I am not. I’m just an old mom and I’m cool with that. Say a word or a phrase often enough, and it loses its power. I’m an old mom. I’m 60. I’m a 60-year-old woman with a third-grader. I am old. I am 60. I am old. I am old. I am old.
“You don’t look old to me,” my daughter has said on more than one occasion. “You could be in your 40s, your 30s, you could be in college, you could be in high school.”
Uber drivers say something similar, but at least I know why they’re blowing smoke up my ass. I’m not sure what my daughter wants, but she’s been eyeing the American Girl Doll spaceship, which lists at $449.99 on eBay. Good luck with that, honey. Mama’s got money, but she’s not crazy.
The case against late motherhood is obvious: the later you become a mother, the more likely you are to die while your child is young. Energy levels drop, or so they tell me; the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which I was forced to take by my former employer, labeled me abnormally energetic. But old age also brings a dip in oxytocin, the “nurturing” hormone. There must be a reason that nature cuts women off from reproducing, even as it allows men to keep going.
In the years since my daughter was born, I have discovered that people who ask rude questions feel terribly affronted if you say anything that implies they have just asked a rude question.
But nature has reasons for lots of thing that we cheerfully circumvent. (The global market for erectile dysfunction drugs is forecast to top $7 billion by 2024.) And while it wasn’t exactly my idea to become a mom at 51 — more on that in a moment — I think old motherhood has advantages if you’re a) relatively healthy and b) relatively wealthy. I am lucky enough to be both of those things. Even without my husband’s income, I could afford to raise a kid, although, like most Americans, I would be wiped out by a serious illness and college tuition would require most of my retirement fund. I was raised by Southerners who believe it’s tacky to talk about money, but to not talk about money in this situation is disingenuous. To become a mother at age 51 is the entitlement cherry on the privilege sundae. It’s greedy.
I’m not greedy. I didn’t want to have it all. To me, life was like a Skee Ball game at a boardwalk arcade: You banked your shots, collected your tickets, and redeemed them for the best prizes in your point range. I wanted a career (novelist) and a rowhouse (I’m a Baltimorean). And, assuming I had any tickets left over, an interesting, stimulating life partner. By 2002, I had all of those things.
Less than a decade later, motherhood came for me.
I chose the passive voice above, but motherhood at age 51 is anything but passive. If you become a mom after the age of 50, chances are you worked pretty hard. You and a whole army of people — an adoption agency, lawyers, a fertility clinic. Whatever path you choose, the baby is a commodity, something you buy. That sounds cold, but I appreciated the transparency — the delineated costs, the fees paid upfront. If you want to have a kid, you might as well get used to opening your wallet. I’m going to keep hammering at this topic, I’m afraid. Money made motherhood possible for me.
Here’s how motherhood happened to me. I was in my 40s, living with a man who had a delightful son, one of the best people I know. But my partner, now my husband, wanted another child. I feel obligated to mention this because people who don’t assume I’m a grandmother often assume I wanted my “own” baby. They said as much to my face, so lord knows what they said behind my back.
But the man who would become my second husband desired a child, so I made a child happen. That’s our dynamic. He writes checks; I make things happen. As noted, I have money of my own, but he out-earns me by a factor of 10-to-1 and he talks a good socialist game on Twitter, so our arrangement seems only fair.
It took me a while, though, to make a baby happen. It took six years, which I found daunting. With each passing year, the refrain in my head changed: I was going to be 59 at the bat mitzvah, then 60 at the bat mitzvah, then 61 at the bat mitzvah . . .
Now, God willing and with the help of a good Hebrew tutor, the bat mitzvah will be in four years, when I’m 64, and I find it hilarious that I ever cared. Will she still need me, will she still feed me? She insists the former will apply. She wants me to go to college with her. That idea has merit, although I assume it will be off the table when she’s actually 18.
Besides, I want to continue writing novels as long as I can. My father retired at 66 and it didn’t suit him. He died at age 85, but he hadn’t been his real self for at least five years. My mother, now 88 and terrifyingly healthy, says women are better suited to retirement. I don’t plan to find out, but then my entire life has been spent testing the old maxim, Man plans, God laughs.
I have to think God, in whom I don’t really believe, bust a gut when my daughter arrived. Lord knows, quite a few other people were laughing at me, filled with barely disguised glee at the belief that I had destroyed my career.
It was Mother’s Day, 2010, and I was going to be a mom in less than three weeks, although I didn’t know that at the time. But I knew it was imminent — after all, I had orchestrated everything. I had almost finished preparing my daughter’s room, making essential purchases. At a family gathering, I ventured an opinion about something I hoped to do as a parent and a sort-of relative grinned maliciously. “Oh we can’t wait to hear all your views on motherhood,” she said.
The woman who said this to me was one of the people who had accused me of wanting my “own” baby, who had, unsolicited, urged me not to become an older mother. (She considered herself one and had regrets.) Over lunch several months earlier, she had said: “I can tell you this much about having a kid: You won’t write a book a year anymore.”
At that moment, I became determined to keep writing a book a year, no matter what.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
Before I agreed to add a baby to our household, I had conducted a small inquiry in my field, crime fiction. It’s a profession that skews old or did, then. And, at the time, there were almost no working mothers among the writers I knew. I approached friends, women, who didn’t have children, but no one I asked had ruled kids out because they were career-enders. However the small coterie of crime writers with small children did end up slowing down their output if they were women. A brilliant young writer I knew had stopped publishing when her daughter was 3. “It was worth it,” she told me via email.
I wasn’t so sure. But then — I was almost a decade into my career and I was, am, crazy ambitious. I was 38 when my first book was published, an age some would have considered late for motherhood, and way too late for any literary wunderkind cred. By the time I agreed to have a child, I had published 10 books. In 2007, a year out from the year we expected to become parents — we hit a snag and we had to start over — I published my first New York Times bestseller. There was no way I was getting off that merry-go-round.
As we have seen, there’s a lot of math in older motherhood. Here’s some more: I used to be able to write a 90,000-word novel in 11 months. Since my daughter was born, I have written some novels at that pace, but I also have allowed myself up to 16 months to complete others. In her first eight years on the planet, I wrote seven novels and I should finish an eighth before she turns 10, knock wood. (I also wrote a children’s book, but it literally took 40 minutes.) So, no, I no longer write a book a year, but it’s fucking close. Besides, it’s not my kid who’s slowing me down, it’s my own ambition, my determination to try to write a different, better book every time.
And, yes, this schedule requires money and help: a fulltime babysitter for the first four years of my daughter’s life, then Montessori School and a part-time babysitter, now an aftercare program and an assistant who is my childcare fallback. I also depend on the give-and-take of other moms in my neighborhood, who come to each other’s aid all the time. On a February snow day, a friend asked if I wanted her to take my daughter to a drop-in art camp. I had already made arrangements, but the mere fact that another person was thinking of me made me want to break down in happy tears.
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This was a tough winter, with constant interruptions to my writing schedule, almost all of them child-centric. School closings, school delays, school holidays, illness. And, every regular day, there’s the sheer mental space given over to one’s child — meals, laundry, moods, homework. (You may wonder where my husband is during all of this. My husband’s work as a television producer means he is out of town, Monday through Friday, February to mid-September, a schedule he has maintained, more or less, since 2014. I hope you enjoy your premium cable content.)
But, somehow, my work gets done. And I think that, too, is a function of being older, of knowing that I’ve done this 23 times before, so why shouldn’t I be able to do it again? I wrote when I had a full-time job, I wrote when I was going through a divorce, I wrote when I was enduring such a terrible time at my day job that I ground my teeth until my back molars cracked and I spat them into my hand. I wrote when my dog died. I wrote on vacations. I wrote when my household was bouncing back and forth between two cities because of my husband’s job. I was back at my writing desk five days after my father died.
In 1999, I was on a panel with Mary Higgins Clark, the writer who basically invented domestic suspense, the subgenre that encompasses all the Girl/Woman/Wife/Sister/Daughter books of today. I was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and I was writing books by getting up at 6 and putting in two hours before heading to my job. I credited my then husband for his support, although he was far from the house husband I claimed he was. (That was the public face I put on our incomprehensible relationship.) In fact, our marriage was already pretty shaky.
A woman in the audience, her voice heavy with sarcasm, commented: “Well that’s very nice for you, but what do we do if we don’t have house husbands, if we have jobs and children?”
Clark, who had started writing as a young widow with five children, pounded the table cheerfully and said: “You get the work done when you can do it. You write at night, you get up at 4 a.m., but you get the job done.”
Clark is now 91 and still writing. And, in case it’s not clear, I fucking love her.
The year my daughter was born, I started buying robots fashioned from cast-off kitchen objects. I now have what I call my robot army, an assembly of soldiers made from old coffee cans and thermoses and flatware, many of them arrayed on a windowsill in my office. I identify with robots. When I was a child, my mother told me I was a Venusian robot who would be summoned back to my home planet when I turned 13. That made more sense to me than anything I heard in the Presbyterian church growing up. A good friend, who didn’t even know this story, teases me about my desire to be good, do right, make no mistakes. “You’re such a good little robot.”
Yet motherhood has made me less robotic, more inclined toward improvisation and spontaneity. We are told that people become rigid with age, fixed in their routines. Even in my 30s, I was so famously monotonous that I compared myself to a hamster. “I would be very happy,” I told my newspaper colleagues, “going around and around in my little wheel.” My husband gave me a battery-powered one that sits on my desk.
The man who would become my second husband desired a child, so I made a child happen. That’s our dynamic. He writes checks; I make things happen.
But when one has a young child, routine is a necessity and yet also a luxury. Life, God, whatever you want to call it, kicks my calendar in the shins on a regular basis. My favorite recent “emergency” was Valentine’s Day. Yes, I knew it was coming. I didn’t know my daughter was expected to bring 24 cards to class until I saw a post on the school’s Facebook page late on Feb. 12. That took three hours out of my workday on Feb. 13.
Still, somehow, the work gets done. And not just the work. I’m reading more for pleasure because my daughter and I read side-by-side at bedtime. I have taken up newish interests — tennis and Italian. I cook more, delighting in my newfound ability to improvise with whatever food is on hand. Old motherhood is clearly good for me.
I have no idea if it’s good for anyone else, including my daughter. Motherhood is a story where I don’t control the ending.
Earlier this year, I impulsively picked up three Nerf-like dart guns at the local crafts store. My family spent part of the afternoon chasing each other in circles, stockpiling ammunition, launching sneak attacks. THIS IS THE MOST FUN I’VE EVER HAD, my daughter said. I worry this is true, that there’s not enough aimless silliness in our lives. At the age of 8, she has been to Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Last summer, because of my job, she was on a week-long cruise to Alaska. This summer, because of my job, she will return to Tuscany, her fourth visit. She has stayed in luxury hotels, flown in business class, eaten at five-star restaurants, sat in premium seats at Broadway musicals.
But she says the most fun she ever had was the result of three off-brand dart guns that retailed for $9.99 each. I believe her.
On top of everything else this winter, the winter in which my writing schedule had been the universe’s favorite punching bag — one more “snow day” and Baltimore City schools would have started chipping away at spring break — I had been having an ongoing battle with the Department of Public Works, which neglected to pick up my trash three weeks running.
The first time, I yelled at my city councilman and he sent a lovely man from DPW, who seemed so nervous that I couldn’t bear doing that again. Shit rolls downhill and no one is more aware of this than the moms who stand sentry at the bottom of their households’ hills.
The third time, I stood on my steps in my bathrobe and screamed at the collectors to take my garbage. They insisted that only the block to the south of me was on their route, but I was relentless and they capitulated. I have now figured out that the sidewalk in front of my house falls into a dead zone outside both routes, so I drag my can to the corner.
But the story I want to tell is the one about the second time, when I threw my trash in the back of the car and started to drive to one of the city’s sanitation lots.
En route, I saw a crossing guard arrive at her post and remembered — Oh, yeah, early dismissal today. Not a problem for me because I pay $200 a month for a school-based aftercare program. But I had forgotten to pack an extra snack. Again, not a problem. I could grab something from the convenience store opposite the school, drop it off, continue on my way.
Then I thought — heck, I got my pages done today. Why not pick up my kid and take her to a matinee? We made it just in time for the 12:50 showing of The Kid Who Would be King; I was disappointed that I didn’t qualify for the senior fare, but it turns out that everyone pays $8 on Wednesdays. Although my daughter had gobbled a fast cafeteria lunch at school, I treated her to a personal pizza and a box of Sour Patch Kids, most of which ended up on the bottom of my purse, shedding sugar. We were the only two people in the theater, which gave us license to show our noisy appreciation for this updated version of the Arthurian legend. We laughed, we yelled, we high-fived.
In asserting for the unexpected pleasures of older motherhood, I am not arguing against motherhood at any other age. I’m not suggesting anyone else live my life.
At one point, the modern-day Arthur, Alex in this version, sits on a hillside, trying to absorb shattering news about his father, a less heroic figure than the boy had been led to believe. The abyss opened for me, as it does for us all from time to time. I’m going to die. I’m going to cease to exist and while I want to be wrong about this, I don’t think there is an afterlife. My afterlife will be in others’ memories, mainly my daughter’s, if I’m lucky. Who will I be in that story?
Again: No matter how many novels I write, I won’t get to write the end of this one.
Our favorite suburban multiplex has a small arcade with two crane machines, one impossible, one a sure bet. I gave my daughter many quarters — I had just stared into the abyss, after all — and she scored two rubber ducks from the easy machine with one grab. A triumphant day, but I still needed to get rid of the trash.
We headed to the sanitation yard, my original destination. It was cold; a light drizzle was starting. A young man, huddled next to a space heater in the makeshift office, showed me where to put my garbage and asked if I needed help.
No, I said, staring up at the receptacle, which had to be at least eight or nine feet high. No, I do not.
And mindful of my daughter’s eyes on me, I hoisted my bag of garbage — a week’s worth of trash — and swung it high and hard, giving it all the oomph that my 60-year-old biceps can pack. Which is, by the way, quite a bit. (I belong to a gym, I work out with a trainer, I’ve been taking tennis lessons — again, all reminders that health and wealth are amazing privileges.)
“What did that man say to you?” she asked when I got back in the car.
“He asked if I needed help.”
“Did you want help?”
“What did he think?”
“I always tell you, it’s a waste of time to try to guess what people are thinking.”
“What do you think he was thinking?”
“I think he was glad that he didn’t have to leave the warmth of his office. And that maybe I needed help because I’m old. But I didn’t.”
I hope this day lives in her memory — the impromptu movie, the rubber ducks, the rubbery movie theater pizza. But most of all, I hope she remembers her defiantly old mother with that garbage bag. I hope the memory expands and exaggerates, so that in her mind’s eye, I whipped that trash around and around in a circle over my head, shouting like a warrior before I let it fly. I hope it’s a story she tells her daughter one day and I don’t care how old she is when that happens. Because in asserting for the unexpected pleasures of older motherhood, I am not arguing against motherhood at any other age. I’m not suggesting anyone else live my life. I’m not saying I don’t sometimes seethe with resentment over the fact that I am a de facto single mother, but that situation has nothing to do with my age. I won’t deny that I have put my head in my hands and wept over another day of work lost. I’m not saying you should have children and I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Do what you wanna, as the song goes.
I have said throughout and will continue to say: Money helps. But maybe it’s not the big money. Maybe it’s the quarters that go into the crane machine, the $8 matinee ticket, the $9.99 off-brand dart gun, the coins stacked on my dining room table as my daughter tries to figure out how much money she needs to buy a faux American Girl school room with 76 pieces. (At only $139.99, it’s a relative bargain compared to the rocket ship, but I’m still not paying for it.) Maybe it’s also the money I don’t earn, the things I don’t write because I decide to play hooky for an afternoon. Heck, writing this piece was a loss leader; my per word rate for fiction is much higher than my rate for nonfiction.
And maybe the next time — there’s always a next time, trust me — someone says, “Are you her grandmother?” I’ll say: “No I’m her great-grandmother, I’m eighty-fucking-seven, but I look amazing for my age.”
I am old. I am 60. I am a 60-year-old woman with a third-grader. I am old. I am old. I am old. I am 60, my daughter is 8, and I will let her write the end of the story. What other choice do I have?
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Laura Lippman is an award-winning crime novelist and New York Times bestseller. She has published more than 20 novels, a novella, a short story anthology and a book for children. This summer, she will publish Lady in the Lake, a crime novel set in 1960s Baltimore.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time