Parenting — it’s a tough job, and parents often don’t want to admit that raising a child can be exasperating, that it’s not all moments of familial delight. “Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine” captures those moments and much more through candid nonfiction essays about the hard and funny truth of raising children. In this excerpt, actress and comedienne Dani Klein Modisett captures the essence of having a child later in life.
Not Enough Good Old Days
“What’s this fancy envelope?” I ask Gideon, my seven-month-old, as I spoon vegetable mush into his mouth. I decided to open the mail this morning between swallows because even though caring for an infant in my forties has me so exhausted my head feels numb a lot of the day, I still feel compelled to multitask.
Gideon opens his mouth like a blond bird begging for more grubworms. I give him a lump of squash while I slide my thumb underneath the seal of what appears to be an invitation. I think, But no one we know is getting married.
“Twenty-five Years Strong” the raised print reads announces.
Oh my God, my high school reunion. Twenty-five years? Is that possible?
“Bring your kids, fun for all,” it says underneath
“Fun for all?” Blech. And of course it doesn’t say “Bring your babies.”
Because who has a baby twenty-five years after graduating from high school? Other than me and my in-vitro fertilization support group. I give Gideon more pabulum and dial my sister.
“There’s no way I’m going to this,” I tell her.
“Why not?” she asks. “Go! You can show off your beautiful family to all those people who thought you’d never settle down.”
“I’m forty-four. With an infant.” I say, “I’m a circus freak to them. Again.”
“Who cares? Listen, you can’t dodge high school memories forever, my dear. Wait ‘til the boys are in high school.”
“I’ll be eighty by then,” I joke, “and hopefully senile.”
I hang up and look over at Gideon, the front of his shirt now soaked.
“I won’t really be eighty when you graduate high school, buddy, don’t worry,” I say, pulling him out of his high chair. “I’ll be sixty-three,” I blurt, pulling a diaper off the nearby stack.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-three?” I sing, trying to lighten the weight of this realization. Gideon giggles at the sight of me shaking my head from side to side.
Will I live to meet his wife?
If he waits as long as I did, it’s not looking likely.
While I continue to dress Gideon for his nap and settle him in his crib, my life flashes forward like animation cels. We’re at his high school graduation. I’m holding the program up against my nose because I’ve forgotten my reading glasses in the car, right next to my calcium supplements. During the valedictory speech, I loudly unwrap and chomp on mints to mask the odor of my acid reflux. The ceremony ends, and Gideon throws his cap to me. I reach for it and throw my back out
Then I’m at Gideon’s college graduation. Again, I’m in the audience, only this time I can’t sit still. If I don’t find a bathroom soon I am going to wet the seat. Gideon’s girlfriend’s mother is trying to tell me where the nearest restroom is, but I can’t hear her over the din of the school band because I refuse to wear my hearing aid.
Next I’m at his wedding. A small, quiet girl glides down the aisle next to her father. She is beautiful. A gray-haired trollish-looking woman starts down the aisle, but not without a lot of help. No surprise, that troll is me, I can tell by the outfit, more shapeless swathes of fabric. So much for the calcium supplements; I’m so hunchbacked I can barely walk. In fact, is that a skateboard I’m standing on? Yes it is. I am being pulled down the aisle like a dried-out apple-face doll on wheels to give the illusion of dignity before being placed in my wheelchair waiting on the aisle. It’s pretty humiliating and yet I’ve never looked so happy.
I walk out of the room to toss Gideon’s diaper. I pass a picture of my father in the hallway.
“What are you worried about?” I hear him ask me. “Old, shmold. Who cares what you look like as long as you’re alive?” This from a man who refused any chemo treatments that would make his hair fall out. Which is to say, the vain apple doesn’t fall far from the even more vain tree.
His voice follows me in to the kitchen. “You should only be so lucky to live that long, sweetheart.”
He has a point. He was forty-four when he had me, and he died when I was thirty-three. He never even met Tod, forget about Gideon or my five-year-old, Gabriel. Amid my relentless vanity, there’s a piece of me that knows that what I am hearing him say is right. No wonder I looked so happy in that wheelchair. He would have given anything to be at my wedding.
My mind takes another leap and I’m in the hospital with Tod by my side. He’s almost a decade younger so he can still stand. We are there for the birth of our first grandchild. Gideon hands me the baby to hold.
I made it, I think. I’m old and shriveled and my daughter-in-law hates me, but I’m here and I’m holding a grandchild.
I wipe a small tear from my eye, an action that takes me back to my kids’ room. Gideon is screaming. His favorite toy, a set of plastic car keys, has dropped out of reach.
“Here it is, honey,” I say, handing him the toy. “You keep reaching, sweetie, even when they tell you you can’t, that you shouldn’t, that the odds are against you, you keep fighting.”
“And do what makes you happy!” I add, throwing the invitation in the garbage with a flourish.
Ah ha! I’ve stumbled on a perk of being an older mommy. Look how wise I am!
I lean in and kiss Gideon’s nose. “Oh! And don’t be afraid to settle down young.
“Younger than your friends,” I add, tucking him in.