Lament of an Older Mother

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On May 27th, it will officially be thirty years since the last time I gave birth. Yes, my baby is turning thirty. I have four children and the oldest is 36. I’m an old mother. I don’t just mean that I’m old in years; I mean that I’ve been at this a long, long time. I’m an old hand at motherhood.

But years on the job doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t know if you ever get better at motherhood.  Because with your children you never get to start over. (That’s what being a grandmother is for.) Being a mother is like being on a roller coaster ride that you’re never allowed to embark from. Ever. No matter how scared you get or how badly you need to pee, you’re stuck, for life.

You may have noticed that this isn’t your usual sappy Mother’s Day post.

Every time I write in a profile or a bio that I’m a mother, I look at those words and think, “I am??” When did that happen? How did that happen? Not that I don’t know the way it works. After four children, I better have figured it out.

No, what I mean is: how did that become so much a part of my identity that I mention it before anything else?  Frankly, I’m surprised that it’s the first thing I think to tell people about myself.  Because most of the time I don’t think about being a mother, not consciously anyway. It’s not as if I wake up every morning and think to myself, “I’m a mother.” (In case that’s inconceivable to you whose children are still at home, just wait, you’ll get there.) But somewhere inside me, I must be constantly aware that I have children out there somewhere.

I didn’t make that pledge for nothing.

You know what I mean, those of you who are mothers. The pledge you make each time you become a mother, that you will do everything in your power to make sure this child is happy and safe. It’s your sacred duty. That’s why it’s so hard on you when you realize that you’re not all that good at it. And why it’s so disheartening when others don’t get why it means so much to you. Being a mother is the most significant thing you will ever do with your life.

So why am I constantly plagued by feelings that I haven’t accomplished enough? Isn’t motherhood enough? On one level, yes, it is. But I hate to tell you, folks, motherhood doesn’t solve all your problems; it’s a lot better at creating them. And yet maybe that’s what makes us who we are: the problems that we face in life and how we respond to them.

A while back, when I was writing a post about the men in my life, I wrote that outside of my daughters, women haven’t had as big an influence on my life as men have. What I was saying was that my daughters have molded me more than being a daughter has. That’s not to say that my mother wasn’t a huge influence. But she only sculpted the basic shape of my being; my daughters have chipped, and are still chipping, away the rough edges.

Sometimes I think I’m a worse person since my children all flew the nest. Certainly I’m more selfish. I tell myself that I deserve to be after so many years constantly at the beck and call of four demanding baby birds. But you know what? In the broad scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long a time. 24 years out of 58. Less than half of my lifetime so far.

And the years without them under my feet just keep stacking up. I don’t mean that they don’t still need me. They do. It’s just in a different way than they used to. They need to know that I’m there (and the operative word is “there“). They need me on their terms, not on mine.

One reason why I’ve become such a detached mother is out of self-preservation. You see, there are many ways of being selfish. And for all the exasperation it brought, the years when my children were home with me were the best years of my life. Because I felt needed, every single day (okay, every single second). It made me feel connected to something bigger than myself. I used to love going places with my girls, having them all around me. They were my brood. I was obviously a mother.

These days no one wants to hear about my children beyond the fact that I have some. No one asks to see pictures of them. No one wants to hear little anecdotes about their lives. It’s as if being an older mother is like being put out to pasture. You can’t have children anymore, so you’re all washed up.

That’s one of the hardest things about being an older mother. People don’t care anymore.

Except for your children, if you’re lucky. And you know what? That’s enough for me.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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