There are two schools of thought when it comes to having children over 40. One – You’re mad to be considering it – irresponsible even. Backed by statements heavily loaded with statistics. Two – 40 is the new 30, with references to celebrities such as Halle Berry, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney. As though that is the benchmark for prenatal success.
I don’t fit into either of these camps. Fortunately. I’m not mad (everything is relative) and I’m definitely not a celebrity – unless you count the time I walked across the set of All Saints, dressed as a nurse carrying a bedpan. Nonetheless, despite being 43, single and enjoying the life I live, there are still times when I think about having children. A lot of children. Ideally six girls who I can raise to be strong Amazonian women who right the balance of gender equity.
To be clear though, I rarely think about having kids as romantic (and to be doubly clear – gender equality is not a romantic notion). One of the benefits of being over 40 and surrounded by others who have kids, is that I am all too often witness to how difficult, exhausting, messy, noisy and chaotic raising kids can be. I’ve seen what it does to the body and, therefore, to women’s egos. I’ve watched how it devours weekends, cuts into sleep-ins and in fact into sleeping time in general. I know how hard it hits the budget – shoes for you or shoes for those ever growing feet… I’ve smelt the smells and I’ve seen the projectile vomiting. I’ve also seen the worry in the eyes of parents sitting next to their kids in hospital or as they monitor temperatures or try to soothe pain. I’ve seen how much space you have to give up in your own handbag – including valuable lipgloss space. I’ve seen first-hand the disciplinary melt-downs, and the tantrums and the tears, which always seems to be accompanied by an excessive amount of snot. When put in that context, being a parent is far from romantic – it ain’t even pretty.
But I’ve also seen the great balancers – the joy, the laughter, the wonder and the milestones. I’ve hugged and held and soothed almost all of those kids. I’ve had them burp on my shoulder (and sometimes just vomit), eat from the spoon I hold out and say ‘nom nom’, share my ice-cream with a giggle, snuggle into my arms and bump my forehead for their special way of kissing or saying hello. I’ve read them stories and rocked them. I’ve sung them lullabies and taught them to play the ukelele. Together we’ve hunted for treasure on the beach, baked cupcakes, put band-aides on cuts, watched movies, taken polaroids, kicked the ball around the yard, and then fallen asleep on the lounge. I’ve been part of their meal time rituals, their bath time shenanigans, their bed time preparation. I’ve been part of the evolution of memories.
But in the end, I always have to hand these little ones back and wave goodbye. My imprint is fleeting. I am recalled only as “Aunty Fluffy”, as “LaLa”, as “Mummy’s friend”. I call in, I am fun, I leave – repeat.
So what am I waiting for? Some days I know the answer to that without hesitation – I’m waiting for my chance at the full package. ‘Him’ by my side to share all of the above with. Those are the days when the idea of doing it on my own feels like taking one more holiday to destination spectacular and turning around to find that there is no one there to share the experience with. I’ve always been an all or nothing girl and that includes the family meal deal. On other days though, the spare room seems to be screaming to be filled and I spend hours pouring over the details of fertility clinic websites, domestic adoption agencies, looking into foster care options and researching the bilateral agreements in place with other countries in relation to adoption.
Being single and over 40 my options for adoption and fostering, however, are limited and / or restricted. In Australia there are 40,000 children in need of foster care, so you would think it would be relatively simple and straight forward. But police and background checks aside – it’s not. While I wade my way through red tape and bureaucracy for what seems like the sake of bureaucracy, children sit waiting for temporary and permanent homes. I could cut away the red tape and give them one, if I was willing to give up my job for 6 months to a year. But even then it could take up to a year to be accepted. (In the meantime I could have had a child and be raising it – without any background checks or “training”).
The leave I would take also shouldn’t be mistaken for maternity leave. It would be unpaid, although there would be an “allowance”. I try to put it into perspective and think about my friends in the US who don’t even get paid maternity leave. Their stories of how they use their ‘sick’ leave and sometimes even receive donations of sick leave from other colleagues is a wake-up. But I still grapple with the advice that ‘my’ child might not even be at home – they might be school-aged and I might just be sitting at home waiting around “in case they need me”. As though not all children need their parents all the time and without predictability, and as though any parent wouldn’t have a game plan for leaving work if required. I understand that in some cases there are mitigating circumstances, but it would seem to me that this is yet another archaic way of looking at the roles and functions of ‘parents’ – particularly of ‘mothers’. I.e. that as women our careers are expendable. Rather than considering the possibility that not one model fits all and perhaps we should start looking at this case by case, child by child, parent by parent.
As for adoption – a word I love because in my head it is two words: ad + option – every alley is a dead end. Overseas adoption is impossible unless I am willing to take a child with unspecified “special needs” or go against international conventions, which are there to protect both children and potential parents. Putting aside the obscene, almost immoral costs of international adoptions, the idea that single women over 40 can often only adopt children with “special needs”, outrages me – on behalf of both the women and the children. Parenting is hard enough with two adults contributing, but it’s as though a decision has been made that if a single woman really wants a child she will take what she is given and be thankful. And that, likewise, children with “special needs” are damaged goods to be palmed off to thee single woman desperate for a baby – often at a reduced rate. It’s a volatile topic, with many layers, but in my gut I know that both sides are being undervalued and treated as second class. It’s offensive for both of us.
And so I remain Aunty Fluffy to many, Mummy to none, single and 43. With time flying by and 45 looming. I joke to people that my body clock is so loud that it keeps me awake at night – tick tick – BOOM! I remember when I turned 30 making the commitment to myself that if I still hadn’t met anyone by the time I was 35, I would go ahead and have a child on my own. Then 35 happened and I adjusted the clock to 40 – despite my ovaries and my doctor telling me that I probably didn’t have the luxury of time. Then 40 slipped by, so quietly that one day I woke and found I was 43 and at the end of another cycle and nothing had changed. Other than I knew now what I wanted and that having held out for “Him” I had probably also missed the door closing behind me on “Baby”. And that I was ok with that. Mostly.
And so I head to my healthcare fund to review my insurance, with the main question being, how much extra is it costing me to be covered for this dream of pregnancy and childbirth. I joke to the representative that given I get more massages than sex, perhaps that’s what I should be asking my healthcare fund to give me a better rebate on. She finds it funny, as I meant it to be – but then she’s not 43 and single, with shrinking ovaries.
She calculates the difference to be $30 a month. Depending on how you look at it, that’s three quarters of a bottle of Mumm (ironically)… or a whole lot of hope. I find myself getting teary as she crunches the numbers on her little calculator. A dollar here and piece of my heart there. I tell her I need to go away and think about it. She prints off my options and I shove them to the bottom of my handbag as I push through the doors and back into the sunlight.
I call Junket and she tells me that when it happens I’ll be glad I kept the full insurance cover – that I won’t want to still be on that 12 month waiting list when I am 7 months pregnant and can no longer see my toes. I love her for this – because it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. When I call mum later that night she tells me that it’s less than the cost of her cable TV – and this on a pension.
I realise then that for the time being I’m willing to keep paying that extra $30 a month. And that it doesn’t matter if I’m unsure I want children from one day to the next.
I give myself a new ‘review’ date: 45.
That night as I fall asleep Emily Dickinson comes to mind: