During the spring of 2017, my boyfriend and I broke up. I was 41. We began dating when I was 29 and he 28. I’m 43 now, creeping up on what folks call middle age — which somehow conjures an image of a desiccated corn husk — but I can still see myself as a little girl running through the woods, scooping tadpoles into a jar and reading “Pippi Longstocking.”
Motherhood wasn’t a word in my lexicon. Now, the question of whether or not to have children has become a routine topic of conversation. I have friends who don’t want children and others who track their biological clock like steps on a Fitbit. But there is another group of us whose thoughts are: If they come, they come. We determined an age deadline — somewhere in our 40s — and proceeded to live our lives.
This is how it worked: I assumed I’d be a young wife and mother because my parents married and had me in their early 20s. Motherhood would be my rite of passage to womanhood. But I took a different route, beginning with college in New York, then California after graduation and back to Maryland at 26 in the midst of a full-blown quarterlife crisis. I worked part time, lived with my parents and had no clue what I wanted out of life.
Enter boy. Fun. Feelings. Girlfriend status. Motherhood?
When I was 33, my father died, leaving me unmoored and anxious about my mortality. My ex and I were in the midst of what would be an almost three-year hiatus. He had moved out of state, but we talked often and saw each other when he was in town. I was single but not dating. It was during this time I decided 40 would be my pregnancy deadline. It felt like a mature age. Then he returned. We drifted back together. He moved in. We set zero intentions.
Curious now about my unmarried friends’ journeys, I called up two of them. Had they set a deadline for kids? If so, what was the age? Ayiko, who grew up helping raise her little sister, wasn’t in a hurry to be a mother. She wanted the relationship first and then the child. She had set a cut-off age, she admits, and it was 40. But at that age, she was single and childless. Kim, a self-professed tomboy, remembers feeling as a teenager that having a kid would make her feel more like a woman. In her mid-30s, she set a deadline of 45. “I feel like it’s a huge responsibility that I personally want with a companion. I want it to be 100/100,” she says. But then she’s quick to clarify: “If I had to do it by myself, I could. But I don’t want to.”
Just over a year after my boyfriend and I moved in together, his oldest son moved in with us for three years. I was a girlfriend — not a wife or fiancée — so I didn’t think I had a right to call myself stepmom, plus I loathe the term “step”; it reminds me of “Cinderella.” I much prefer how Jada Pinkett Smith refers to her husband’s oldest child as her “bonus son.” Those words resonate.
Bonus is enrichment. He was part of our lives, but my boyfriend and I didn’t have children of our own.
After the breakup, friends asked if I resented forfeiting my prime childbearing years to be with a man who didn’t want any more kids. The answer is yes and no. I have indulged in regret, but spending too much time in that space can freeze you in place. When my ex and I met, he was a separated father of four boys and clear that he would not have any more children, so much so that he had had a vasectomy. I had spent my college years avoiding pregnancy, so not having to worry felt like stepping into a glitter-filled snow globe. I would tease him and ask if he would ever reverse it and joked about how the women in my family had girls first. But his answer was always no.
Alone, I would look at my silhouette in the mirror imagining a pregnant belly. I’d daydream about our plump baby girl with my almond-shaped eyes and his long dark lashes. I don’t resent him. I deluded myself. Staying in the relationship meant I had made a decision. How could I say, if they come, they come, if there was zero chance of pregnancy?
I can’t turn back time, and I don’t know what’s ahead, but I will remain open. Ayiko taught me this when, to my surprise, she announced that she was pregnant at 44. She met her fiance at 41, and he really wanted to have children.
She’s secure in her decision and quick to acknowledge she’ll face challenges but asserts that with age comes wisdom. “You have to be ready in a real way. To be present and a real mother takes a lot. I grew up as a Buddhist, and they say 40 is really when you’re an adult.”
I, on the other hand, will not have a biological child. But seven months after his father and I broke up, my bonus son called just to chat. We talked for more than an hour, and for the first time in months, I felt joyful. My relationship with his father was over, but my bonus son gave me permission to be his bonus mom.
So, I’ve learned that womanhood and motherhood are not synonymous. I am an auntie, a bonus mom, a daughter and a friend. I am seeking that fearless little girl I was who explored the world with eager curiosity. Middle age is here, but without corn husks. I am blossoming, like a tulip in spring.