Guest Blog: Motherhood in Good Time by Susanne Paola Antonetta, author, Make Me a Mother
When my son Jin was fourteen, and at the age where the meanest thing he could think of to say occasionally popped out of him–like a stone busting out of a tumultuous dam– he once or twice said to me, “You are too old. You’re too old to understand me.” We adopted him, my husband and me, when I was forty. As a toddler and young child, Jin would always give my age out to other kids as “sixty-seven.” I have no idea where that number came from, and at the time he didn’t care whether it felt old or young; it just seemed stuck in his head.
At fourteen, though, Jin found fifty-four aged, annoying, as most things about his mother and father could be. I imagine in comparison with the age of his birth parents—nineteen and twenty when he was born—we seemed antiquated, and maybe he wished he could have parents who split the difference, inhabited the median age range, for a change.
Now Jin is seventeen, and much more civilized, and never alludes to age unless it’s someone’s birthday.
At the time Jin made these remarks, though, I wanted to tell him that the reason they didn’t bother me was precisely because that was my age. I could have said something like this: thirty-some-year-old me was so sensitive to criticism she would have been tempted to (but wouldn’t) give you a swat across the face, before curling up into a little ball of tears, at the thought that she was old. She could not, as I did, calmly wait a few hours, then point out why “You are too old!” was rude and unacceptable, and give you a chance to speak. In fact, she would have thought about herself and her insecurities, and her wounded pride, before she could ever think about you.
All of this is not to say there aren’t excellent younger mothers; there are, and I count many I know among my own family, particularly my wondrous sis-in-laws. I just never would have placed among them. It wasn’t just being insecure. Before our forties, my husband and I traveled as much as humanly possible, and on very little money. I can recall running out of cash after not counting what we were spending on dinner in Rome, walking back to our hotel through streets we’d been warned never to venture out onto, full of addicts and crime.
It seems like half of our memories from that time are of running out of money somewhere unbelievably stupid: southern France, downtown New York City, when we lived in Brooklyn and failed to hang onto money or a subway token, in the days before ATMs. Our particular walk of shame tended to involve us, empty pockets, and a destination double-digit miles away.
Our one perhaps sensible decision was that we were not ready to have children. I can imagine the scenario if we’d come to parenting any sooner: a teenager who instead of calling us old leveled at us his gimlet eye saying, “Why did you drag me through that neighborhood in Rome when I was a kid? You were too young!”
And he would have been right.
There is a natural cycle in being a parent. For the first year or two of the kid’s life, you tend to live in the upswing; babies adore us so whole-heartedly that unless there’s something really wrong, it’s hard not to believe you’re naturally good at this parenting business. Then come the toddler years, when the tantrums happen, and the constant No’s, and it’s hard not to think that maybe you, uh, over-estimated yourself?
Then the kid settles down and you think you’ve got things covered again. And finally the teenage years come upon you, and you start wondering all over again if you have any idea what you’re doing.
I’ve seen this cycle play out with many of my friends. They don’t know what’s going on with a kid who is suddenly sullen and riddled with angst, and mouthy, and then that too is over. Having lived this cycle with others is very reassuring. I feel like whatever phase we’re in, I can see it is a phase. And I can wait for it to be over.
To my fourteen-year-old son? Maybe I should have said, You’re just too young.Too young to know the wisdom in being older.
And that would have been true.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, a memoir and study of adoption, was published by W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others. She is also coauthor of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, Seneca Review and many anthologies, including Short Takes and Lyric Postmodernisms. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband and son. Her website is www.suzannepaola.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.