Not long ago, my husband and I gathered with a group of friends, including several couples who, like us, were older parents with young children. One couple has a youngest who's 14. As we talked about our kids eventually going out on their own, that husband and wife started chanting, "Four more years! Four more years!"
At the end of the evening, when we got in the car, my husband was strangely silent. I was, too. When we turned to each other, both of us were shocked to see we had tears in our eyes.
"I'd hate to be that kid," my husband said.
I replied, "I'd hate to be those parents and feel that way."
My husband and I don't feel that way. In our blended family, we have nine children, through birth and adoption, ranging in age from 11 to 32. Our two eldest will marry this year, while the youngest is in fifth grade. Five kids are still at home, two of them in high school. While our friends are signing up for river cruises, we're still signing permission slips for the field trip to the history museum.
Sometimes we feel that we are the history museum, with two decades of school projects—including nine ceramic spoon holders—on display.
There are days, for sure, when I'm jealous of my peers who launched two tidy achievers and flipped the extra bedrooms into offices.
But those days, if I'm honest, are few.
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Perhaps that's because we knew what we were in for. My husband and I weren't starry-eyed 20-somethings caught in the hormonal crossfire. I was over 50 when our youngest was born, through science and surrogacy, so this was no accident. We knew full well that Atty's birth meant it would be a long time before the long exhale when the last graduation cap was tossed in the air. What I perhaps didn't know was that there would be so many rewards for staying in the game.
For me, motherhood was less a luge race and more a sleigh ride, during which I have had the chance to see the ecology of a family change and evolve — along with my role in it. Already established in my career, I wasn't trying to sprint on two tracks, and I could take time to breathe and enjoy our kids. My younger peers have more energy, but I have more wisdom. I didn't need to run to the pediatrician for every sniffle or to the neighbor over every backyard scuffle. Further, just as a dog gets you out into the world for walks, our kids got us out on the volleyball pitch or the toboggan hill. Do parents like us live "young" longer? My knees say no; my heart says yes.
As far as parenthood, I started to see our lives over 50 not as a series of doors closing with relief or regret but as a series of doors opening, each to the next adventure, with the ebb and flow of family all part of those new vistas. The grown kids were godparents to their younger siblings; our older son asked his 14-year-old brother to be his best man. When our third-born, unlucky in love and work, made a brief return to the basement bunk-bed room, I scheduled that time to have my tricky knee fixed. He was compassionate — and invaluable to me.
Naturally, there are drawbacks to being an older parent. The big ones for us are economic. Barring a windfall, we'll never save a pile.
In the end, we don't see being parents as a stage of life, but as a way of life. And we wouldn't want our crew to feel that being our children was only a stage in life, either.
Even as I sometimes long for peace and freedom, I wonder how I'll get used to the synonyms for those words — silence and solitude. Just as our children may have relied on us a little longer, so we one day may need to rely on them, and maybe a little sooner.
But we'll weather it. That's what strong families do.
Jacquelyn Mitchard is a New York Times best-selling writer of more than 20 books, including the most recent, Two If by Sea.