Monday, October 24, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3 ...

Today is my birthday. I am now 39-years old and 20-weeks’ pregnant, which means it’s time for a champagne-free celebration and some words about maternal maturity.

“Elderly primigravida” is a term for women who have their first child at 35 or older. I learned this during my first pregnancy, and it made me feel sci-fi dangerous. I imagined myself strapped to a table in a post-apocalyptic lab with mad scientists toiling away at me, mankind’s last hope.

But I’m not such a rare breed. Twenty percent of women in the United States have their first baby after 35, and an increasing number are waiting into their 40s and beyond. This time around, I don’t let jargon scare me. You say “post-mature,” I say, “finally mature enough.” You “obstetrically senescent,” I say, “look, I’ve been busy with other stuff.”

For me, deciding the best time to have a baby wasn’t a matter of science or statistics, but of lifestyle and personal development. Parenting is something I only wanted to do if I was ready and able to make it my priority, to commit my time and focus. But there were other things I felt I had to do first, and I don’t regret waiting.

I’m not suggesting I did anything extraordinary instead of having children in the last decade, but I’m satisfied that I gave myself enough years to explore my options. If I haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro or gone to law school by now, it’s certainly not because I didn’t have the time.

My life has balance today that it didn’t have when I was younger, and I have the privilege of being a working mother who is not overly tormented by logistical tangles, emotional conflicts, major financial strains, or laments for what could have been.

But with me at 39 and the Irish fella 52, we are hardly “babies having babies,” and there are of course downsides to that, too: older women carry higher risks of having children with genetic and chromosomal abnormalities, such as cystic fibrosis and Downs syndrome.

At my last midwife appointment, I was asked whether I wanted an amniocentesis, a test for fetal defects. It’s a procedure in which a long narrow needle is inserted into the uterus and a fluid sample is taken. I opted to do it in my last pregnancy, because I was curious about everything to do with my fetus, and because it sounded straightforward enough.

But the uterus is the Fort Knox of organs. It is formed mostly of muscle and is fiercely protective of its contents. Puncturing it with a needle took a fair bit of force and was met with an angry contraction (well played, uterus!), and, moreover, it hurt.

Still, far more disturbing for us was watching our baby on the ultrasound screen scurry away from the pointy intruder, and being told afterward that if I didn’t bleed for two weeks, I probably wouldn’t miscarry.

The test can trigger miscarriage, and this gives a lot of women pause—particularly older women who worry about their declining chances of conceiving again. And because any abnormalities identified are untreatable in the womb if at all, your only options if a problem is identified are to continue on or terminate the pregnancy.

For these reasons, some argue that the test would have more benefit to younger women, who generally have more childbearing years ahead of them—and to whom more babies with Downs are actually born, simply because younger women have more babies overall.

We decided against the test this time. We don't want to take any level of risk with this baby—not because I fear looming menopause, but because learning of an abnormality would not be a deal breaker anyway.

Of course I want my baby to be healthy, and I already know my chances. A simple Google search will tell you that a woman of 39—regardless of health history or any other factor but age—has a 1 in 250 chance of having a baby with Downs. But I don’t think of this as a game of odds. I doubt any parent raising a child with this or any chromosomal disorder would tell you they gambled and lost.

So I’m celebrating my birthday with a bit of irony: I am statistically more likely to have a child with birth defects than I was ten years ago, but I also feel more personally, financially, and emotionally prepared to provide my child whatever he or she needs, for however long. Even if I'm the oldest mommy waiting in the schoolyard.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Parenthood: Because change is good

Today is my son's first birthday—happy birthday, baby boy. We spent the morning marveling at our wobbling, babbling, chubby-legged fellow, and at how fast the time has gone and at how far we've all come in the last year. This afternoon there will be presents and cake and photos and fun. But for now, in the spirit of blogger self-indulgence, I'm going to make it about me.

Parenthood is something I always figured I'd enter into later in life, if at all. Although I knew it would be enriching in many ways, I assumed it would be limiting in others, a sort of wing-clipping, and I wasn't ready for that in my 20s or early (or even mid) 30s.

I've been reflecting this morning on how my first year of motherhood has changed me. I can report that life is definitely not what it was before my son was born, and so far, that's overwhelmingly a good thing.

I have broadened, rather than narrowed, my social circle.

When you have a baby, you get to know a lot of other moms, just as when you have a dog, you get to know a lot of dog owners, and, to steal a line from a friend, if you have a beer, you get to know a lot of drinkers. I’ve always considered “mommy friends” a pejorative term, and envisioned a social life reduced to discussions of feeding schedules and diaper rash cures. And I was not entirely wrong: I have met a lot of other moms, and we do discuss these things, but it’s anything but dull. And at the risk of getting all mommies are people on you, among the moms I’ve met over the last year is a program director for a major Amsterdam classical music venue, a project manager for a development consultancy, and a clothing designer with her own line at an international firm. The pram may be the icebreaker, but what I have to discuss with and learn from the mom friends I’ve made goes far beyond that.

I am becoming more interesting, or at least I'm trying.

One of my first jobs was with a San Francisco-based book publisher. As each weekend approached, the kitchen bulletin board would be covered in flyers inviting staff to various events involving my creative genius colleagues: so-and-so would be reading from his book of haikus this Friday, such-and-such would be performing in a musical Saturday night. It made me feel so dull, having nothing to counter with but that I’d be sitting on my ass drinking beer all weekend. Pregnancy and motherhood have forced me to broaden my horizons, in part because I don't want my son to think I’m useless, but also because you have to get more inventive with how you spend your time when you can’t just hang out at the pub. You also have more hours in the day. For example, before my son was born, 9 am on Saturday was technically a time, but it went largely unseen and unused. Now it’s when I am available for coffee or yoga. I was inspired to do more in the last year, including participating in a writing group, a cooking class, a belly dance workshop, and intensive Dutch study, as well as earning my first by-lines as a freelance journalist.

I sleep better.

As a night owl with a day job and an enthusiasm for the, shall we say, cafĂ© culture, I have never been a good sleeper. Everyone says that parenthood is the death of sleep, but for me, I’ve never been so well rested—probably because I've never been so genuinely tired at the end of the day. I always worked a lot and I always worked hard, but work was really all I had to do. Now I have just four hours of baby-free time to work each morning, and I am far more focused and efficient. Afternoons with my son aren’t billable, but they are no less busy, especially with a child who thinks naps are for suckers. I am grateful that I can divide my days between work and motherhood, and I try to do both at full capacity. It’s tiring, in a satisfying way. And while I used to struggle to wind down at night, there’s no tossing and turning now, only deep, lovely sleep.

I am a better partner.

I learned a lot from my divorce, including that successful relationships rely on accountability as much as romance. Most divorces are not sudden—every action strengthens or weakens a relationship, and before reaching a crescendo of inelegance and despair, a failing marriage begins its demise with subtle apathy. You stay up late watching TV by yourself. You leave your dishes in the sink. You cancel weekend plans to catch up on work. Not occasionally but most of the time. I love my Irish fella, and we are plenty romantic. But some of the best ways to show your appreciation for your partner are completely void of passion, like scrubbing the toilet because it’s your turn, or turning off your laptop to engage in what’s going on around you rather than feel irritated by it. That we are now parents makes it all the more important that we be strong as a couple. The Irish fella and I both love a boy whose life we want to make great, and we adore being parents so much we’re having another baby. But at the core of our family is our partnership, and not wanting that to fail makes my priorities clear.

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