The Challenges of 40+ Parenting
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Now and then my 7 year old daughter tells me that she simply can’t wait to be a mother.
For me, this conversation often sparks a kind of delicious thrill as I imagine holding my beloved grandchild in my arms and feeling into my own personal version of the circle of life. Which reminds me of that lovely fact that each female human is born with all the eggs that she will ever need throughout her entire life. That means that whilst I lay nestled in my mothers womb, the eggs that would become her grandchildren were all there. All within me. And all within her; like some kind of intergenerational Russian doll. It also makes me think of some kind of fractal-like pattern, where we’re all turning and whirling like Sufi dancers, unfurling together into a unknown future.
Back to that conversation with my daughter. I notice that sometimes some of those warm fluffy “grandmother-in-waiting” feelings are sharply countered by echoes of the feminist narrative I cleaved to so passionately throughout my 20’s. I hear them now: “…better tell her that there’s a whole lotta living to be done before you start thinking about babies!!” it screeches, almost banshee-like. “Yeah, tell her that having babies too early changes your whole life; and also tell her that it limits a lot of the choices available to you…” (I’m 44 and had my first child at 24, right after I graduated from university).
As she speaks of her future-mama excitement, closing her eyes and dreaming of her own little child in her arms, sometimes our eyes will meet: little-mother-in waiting smiling at me, excited-grandmother-in-waiting. Those moments are full of beauty and I have learned just to let them be; ignoring the other chatter in my head. There’s plenty of time for me to pass on some of the wisdoms I’ve learned about babies and the right time time to have them.
Best Time To Have Babies? Changing Thoughts…
The truth is, my thinking on this has changed.
Nowadays I completely surprise myself by saying to the young women around me things like “If you want to have kids, don’t wait too long to have your babies now, will you!”. This bucks strongly against a whole lot of stuff I used to believe (women really can have it ALL!), and also against the general trend that sees women having their children later and later.
So, why have I changed my thinking around this? Part of it comes from my own life experience of having been parenting young children for 20 years now. Obviously my feelings, beliefs and values are coloured by this. I sometimes find myself wishing that I’d had all three of them in my 20’s. If I had done so, I’d have three teenagers now and in some ways this (and the kind of parenting that calls for) would feel – how can I say it – more congruent with the life-stage I now find myself in.
You see, at the age of 44, I can feel the developmental issues of the mid-life transition beginning to work their special brand of magic (and discomfort!) within my consciousness. I feel infused with very similar developmental challenges to those that I faced as an adolescent, and many of them are focussed around identity. I find myseslf asking myself lots of questions like: Who am I? Like, really? What am I here to do in the world? And now (different to the adolescent stage) there is an added sense of urgency, with the good ol’ “mid-life life review” which can sometimes feel difficult as I tease through regrets, missed opportnities and sometimes a good dose of self-criticism for some of those things. I’m defintely more egocentric than I felt in my 30’s, and my focus feels like it is drawing back much much more into myself after the years of being focussed outwardly on my children.
So – is this discomfort within me simply a result of my having had my three children over a longer time period than most other people I know? Or is there something more archetypal going on here?
My core questions are these:
- Is there a developmental life-stage clash between the midlife transition and the parenting of young children?
- Is the very fact that I am in the mid-life transition as a life-span developmental stage mean that I am less able to meet the needs of my younger children?
- Does being in this stage pull me more into myself, which at the same time pulls me further away from them?
These are some deep questions I have.
Midlife: It’s All About ME (Just Like In Adolescence)
So. I’m sitting here writing about these issues, acutely aware now of feeling some discomfort when I put these questions to you. I know that many women are having their children later – many well into their 40’s. If I was considering the question of when is the best time to have babies if I was a first time mother in my 40’s, I’d imagine that it could evoke a few defensive feelings. You might be one of these women, and maybe you think I’m going to accuse you of somehow being past it, and unable to be a good mother. I want to assure you that this is absolutely not what this is all about. And hey, I know that my thoughts around this stuff may be way off the mark for you.
Truly, I’m not here to claim any grand theory of 40+ motherhood.
But, what I notice in me when I consider me and my experience of parenting my younger kids in my mid 40’s, is that (along with all the wonderfulness) I also feel a sense of sadness. I wish that I didn’t feel like I do, but I do.
And how I feel is this:
I feel like this stage of my life is supposed to be more focussed on ME. I can feel all the distilled energies, skills and experiences of 20+ years of adulthood all merging together within my soul into this person that I call me. At this life stage, I now feel ready to pour all that out into the world in a more tangible way. What I find is that the time commitments that I still have with my younger children (which are REALLY important to me to be there for) create a tension within me in a way that was no-where near this big when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. I believe that the mid-life transition has changed my experience of being-in-parenting. It would have been great to have had some kind of preparation for these feelings.
I had thoughts about what kind of mama I would be, as I became a more experienced parent. I certainly imagined that by the time I was onto my third child that I would be so much more patient, wise and engaged. What I find is not so much the opposite but that its just “different” to what I was expecting. Yes I have more wisdom. I also have less energy. I am far more relaxed and have an appreciation for what is really important, and also of what it’s good to let of.
I find I also have less ‘interest’. That sounds somewhat harsh. Perhaps a better way to describe it is this: I feel the pull of what I want to do in the world pulling me away from them – and it’s this which makes me feel the sadness.
Really, it’s a useless question – “When is the best age to have babies?” As we all know, life unfolds in such unexpected ways. No matter what age we bear our children, it goes without saying that there will always be challenges. We move through life impacted by all kinds of variables: age, circumstance, environment, personality, choices, preferences; we all know that that list is long.
Our children actively shape the experience of our lives, and just as I am impacted by the life-stage I am in, so are they shaping my life experience, and I theirs. All of us are like grains of sand within each others shells, providing the essential life friction we need to shape the pearl of the well-lived life.
Parenting – The Inner Journey
We feel happier and more at ease when we can truly inhabit the lives that we have, and discover what takes us away from ourselves. Please visit my parenting mentor page at www.hilaryjackson.co.nz.
40+ Parenting: Research Participants Wanted
If you’d like to explore the issues around midlife parenting further and would be open to sharing your experiences, please click here to go to our short survey.
Results will be shared in a follow-up article . All responses will be treated confidentially.
The most important lead I can offer you out of my experience, during which I have also wondered the “what ifs” and “what advice could I give my sister? my kids when they are grown?” and in seeing the myriad ways in which humans construct their lifestyles (“life unfolds in such unexpected ways” as you said), is that you might look into taking “Biography” work/classes, which you would verify is based on the work of Rudolph Steiner. I have a wonderful Biography teacher in Minneapolis, but there are many out there. This work looks at the 7 year stages of human development and how the later stages refer back in some ways to the earlier stages. While there are patterns you may find of interest in this inquiry of yours, every human life is different and that’s why we each may do our own biography work to discover our own place in the cosmos.
I had my first child when I was on the cusp of 30 years old. I had another 2 years later. I feel like the tasks of parenting are arduous for me (moreso for me than for my peers). Then again, there are other factors in my life that also add to that struggle (multiple home moves, no local family, spouse who travels a lot, etc.), so that I cannot say particularly my slightly older age has anything to do with the struggle. I admit that I blame myself and my personality a lot of the time. I’m also in a community of people who are usually older parents, so that I see my struggles as being something other than age-related. But, your statement that, “I feel the pull of what I want to do in the world pulling me away from them,” is one with which I resonate. I read a quote from some famous psychologist (who knows, maybe it was Jung or someone famous like that) said that the work of the child is something about how his mother gives up her life for his. That sometimes sticks to me. But, then something in Biography work may help me balance the part of my life that is all about caretaking with the “other work” that maybe wants to emerge out of my passions. I cannot say that I have made sense of this yet. In fact, I do feel some angst or sometimes wistful about the fact that we caretakers are the Atlases, holding the world on our shoulders, while others have more visible, perhaps glamourous work in the world. People who have children and also have jobs just amaze me. People who have accomplished something like being a Waldorf teacher while they are raising children of their own just mystify and amaze me. If you would like me to take your poll, please let me know by emailing me. Or, to just chat some more about the Biography work.
I really enjoyed reading your comments, thanks so much! I have had a lot of involvement with Steiner education over the years, and am aware of the Biography process. Its so important to make sense of our lives, and as humans we respond to stories. So storytelling helps with this process.
Yes I’d love you to take the survey. 🙂
Hilary in NZ
The challenges I have faced having 2 children over the age of 40 and trying for our last child…..Wow, where do I start?? And yet I end with the same conclusion, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Twenty-one years ago I was completing my doctorate degree with a infant daughter and no partner. I ended up quitting school and decided to return when she finished high school. So life went on and I finally met my husband and felt the possibility to have another child. So I read all the reports which told me that my chances of getting pregnant at 41 was slim to none. With that fact in mind we decided we would just try for a few months and see what happens. So “what happens” happened the first month and our Natasha was born. I think one of the challenges for me was just having enough energy to take care of her. Finally, it was determined that I had low iron and needed a iron infusion. Well, after the birth of our daughter we thought it would be a shame to make her a only child. So because our chances of getting pregnant were so low we started 4 months after having Natasha. And guess what happened again??? Pregnant on the 5th month with our youngest daughter. Two babies under the age of 14 months!!!!! So today I am completing my doctorate degree and have made some strategic choices in my professional career. Similar to other industries there appears to be a bias against graduate students who have young children. I have made choices to make our children a priority and if it makes me less of a serious student, so be it. One advantage to being in my 40s is that I’ve had the chance to learn how not to sweat the small stuff. We are both very calm and patient and spend more time enjoying our children, rather than being consumed with raising them. Thanks,