I started fertility treatment at the age of thirty-nine, and was forty-five when our twins were born. Part way thru treatment, one of my doctors urged us to hurry and not waste time with treatments that had low probability of success. He was himself an older parent, and was warning us that it was physically challenging for older parents with young kids.
At the time, my husband and I were avid bicyclist who would train for long challenging rides. We weight lifted at the gym after work. We loved long hilly hikes. I was plump and slow, as I’ve always been, but fit and long on endurance. And my husband is all long lean muscle with endless aerobic capacity. So, we scoffed at the doctor’s warning that we’d find it hard to keep up with young kids. But pregnancy and its aftermath were HARD on our bodies.
People have different experiences of the world. Some of us come with genetics of longevity and health and others struggle with genetics that bring risks of illness or infirmity. For most of my life, I’d kept the “obesity demon” marginally at bay with high levels of exercise. Six days a week. Hiking, running, biking, swimming, weight lifting, roller blading, kayaking, dance, aerobics…they have all been part of my daily life. But things have changed.
Since the kids were born, via C-section, I’ve had carpel tunnel surgery on both wrists. Reconstructive ankle surgery on both ankles. Surgical repair of my left rotator cuff. Both right and left thumb joints are bone-on-bone and need surgery. My right knee flared up and has had several steroid injections. I have a new bunionette of my little toe that developed while hiking. I’ve had countless injections in my heel for plantar fasciitis.
So, 5 years out from a twin pregnancy, I found myself managing chair aerobics and one arm swimming! And…I’m perimenopausal with horrendous night sweats that are barely mitigated by hormone replacement therapy. And…the gestational diabetes that reared its head during my pregnancy is lingering as pre-diabetes.
So how much of this is from pregnancy and how much my genetic destiny? Who knows. I come from a family were many of us struggle with weight control. Most of us need to maintain a very high level of physical activity to manage pudgy and anything less will let us rapidly trend towards fat. I look a lot like my mom and she’s short and round and has bad joints.
But there is no doubt in my mind that pregnancy at the age of forty-five, and the demands of young twins has delivered a hard, hard hit to my body. If you come from a family where you’re all slim runners who rack up the miles into your 80’s then you might not have as hard a time. But don’t be fooled by all the magazine covers of fifty year old new moms who look flawless and thirty. Whether airbrushed or whitewashed magazines are about fantasy and often have a tenuous to nonexistent grasp on reality.
Pregnancy and childrearing can be hard on the body. When my son was five years old he weighed 50 lbs! (He’s super tall.) I’d sit him on my lap and hold him in my arms to rock gently and my rotator cuff would protest. But he needed that snuggling. Your kids won’t stop needing you just because your joints and tendons are going bad.
It’s also not just moms who struggle with the physical challenges of being an older parent. My husband won the genetic lottery when it comes to body type and metabolism. He’s now back to going out for 70 mile bike rides up and down the steep coastal hills.
But even he had put on a little weight and lost some fitness during “our” pregnancy. He also herniated a disc in his back from picking up the kids. He’s struggling with several years of chronic pain in his foot from arch problems that developed during the years of bouncing heavy kids on his knee. He needed hernia surgery when the kids were four, and he has a bum shoulder.
More and more we both have difficulty wrestling on the floor with the kids. He’ll be guarding his back and I’ll be guarding a myriad of stiff tender joints. And we both routinely pass out on the couch, jaws slack and snoring, within an hour or so of putting the kids down at 7:30. He too admits that the doctor who warned us about the physical strain of caring for young kids was right. It’s hard on older bodies. Even very fit older bodies, and fifty is an older body when it comes to parenting young kids.
So, what to do if you find yourself struggling to keep up with your kids? Well first, I suggest you forgive yourself for not being perfect! No parent is perfect. No parent can give all things to their children. If you were in a wheelchair, would you berate yourself for not being their karate teacher? No. You’d find them a karate teacher and teach your kids something else that you are good at.
If you can’t backpack anymore, you can still go car camping or hire a mule train! If hiking is hard on you joints, then maybe go kayaking instead. I had imagined long treks with my kids on my favorite steep granite trails in Kings Canyon. Instead, I have ankles and knees that can only do short walks on flat dirt trails. So, this summer we got kayaks for everyone and ventured into the wilderness by floating on our butts instead of using my ankles!
In addition to the physical challenges there are other issues many older parents can face. Going thru a midlife crisis or “midcourse readjustment” takes a great deal of energy and is often accompanied by a fair amount of emotional intensity. Much of this transitional life energy is directed inward at one’s own wants, desires, and needs from life as we glimpse our mortality.
Now, throw a couple of needy helpless infants or toddlers into the equation and you’re pretty well set up for conflict that’s riddled with angst. You can’t sacrifice your kids’ needs so you sacrifice your own. Then that hurts too much so you try to find a balance that you never successfully find.
Meanwhile other people your age will have kids that are grown. They will be traveling, starting new careers, eating out with spouses…at nice restaurants…without juggling toddlers. They are noodling away whole afternoons with a book, making sudden changes in plans, taking sailing lessons, rekindling loves and friendships, reviewing their bucket list.
You, on the other hand, may be wondering if you’ll still be physically able to enjoy those years? Maybe you’ll be too old to get around? I try to focus on staying fit but my joints are failing and my kids have needs. There is never any balance.
So, I fear this. The possibility that by the time we’ve gotten the kids thru college and launched, I’ll be too old or incapacitated to enjoy those last years of freedom. Life is “now” of course but you really do give up much of your own life interests when your kids are young.
This pressure to abdicate your own needs in favor of meeting you kid’s needs is a challenge for any adult. But I think, it can often be particularly hard for first time older parents. You’re just so used to a different lifestyle and view of the world. As much as you want the new challenges of parenthood, the degree to which you need to sublimate your life for theirs is surprising.
I also think this is especially true with twins and second children. The demands of two infants crying, needing, cooing and pooping… simultaneously, day after day after day after night after night after night, does not allow much, if any, time for adults to breath let alone pursue an interest. In addition, getting out of the house with two babies and only one or two adults is, shall we say, challenging. The ratio of adults to kids is way off in that scenario. And if one kid naps, in the car and the other doesn’t, well… You. Are. Screwed. Now their napping is out of sync and that means you get no break whatsoever.
So, the sublimation of your adult life is often fairly extreme until your kids get a bit older, say four to five years old, and they are easier to get out and about with…or send off to school for a few hours a day.
But part of the maturation process of becoming a parent is the gut level knowledge that it’s not all about YOU. It is in fact all about the babies’ needs first and all consumingly foremost. So, on the one hand, I encourage you to try to hold onto some little thing that feeds your soul. Thirty minutes twice a week with a book or music or painting or gardening or yoga…whatever touches your deepest soul. On the other hand, try embracing the fact that it IS all about the kids right now. You will be more able to fight for time for yourself when they are older.
Saving for retirement and putting kids thru college at the same time is also not a trivial challenge. And many older parents are not only caring for their kids but also for their own aging parents. How to you swing the needs of a frail parent who is on a long slow glide into dementia, while at the same time caring for two infants or hyper toddlers?
If there is an older adult who is delicate or impaired in your home, you might want to make a fenced area that is safe for them. Then they can have some peace and still be present. But do think about how to protect them. Human bites from little Neanderthals are loaded with bacteria. If your elder is frail they may need some protection for a year or 3 until the “cavemen” begin to gain some of the skills of civilization.
And if that grandparent is not financially well set then how do you add the cost of their care to retirement and college savings? Might be a good idea if everyone had life insurance, huh.
There are of course advantages to being an older parent too. There is no doubt that my husband has come to fatherhood with the full focused attention of a man grateful for the opportunity to have children. So, if like my husband, you spent your youth in wild endeavors, you may be content to settle in and focus on family. If, like me, you were too timid to be wild in your youth then you may find yourself plotting how to have wild adventures with young kids in tow.
But either way you will have been around the block a time or two. You will be familiar with the ebb and flow of easy times and harder times. You may bring more patience and tolerance to your marriage and kids than you might have in your youth. And that sense of mortality appearing on the, hopefully, distant horizon has its benefits for your kids too. You will greatly value the time you have with these wonderful young beings. You will know that young and old alike get hit by cars, felled by aneurysms, and killed by melanomas every day. We can’t predict the future. Much of it is truly not controllable. Knowing this, on the deep gut level that comes from life experience, will help you really embrace the little people evolving before you.
Remember, No Parent is an Island!