The knock on our bedroom door came at 2 a.m. It was my 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, complaining through tears that her legs were cramping in pain. Rising from bed, I stood gingerly on my own creaky legs. Some kind of “-itis” was stiffening them, but I didn’t want to claim it by giving it a name. Between Ari’s preteen growing pains and my own peri-menopausal pains, we were quite a pair. I sat beside her, alternately massaging her aching legs and my own.
Once upon a time, most women in their 50s were empty nesters, or close to it. Approaching retirement, they finally had some time to rediscover new challenges, old hobbies, their mates, themselves. These days, millions of women in their 50s are like me. At 53, I find myself struggling to reconcile my own pitched hormonal fluctuations with those of my daughter. I am trying to enter the autumn of my womanhood gracefully while nurturing her spring.
My sister, Liz, just one year older than me, had her kids early. Her two sons are now adults. The very night before Ari came hobbling into my room crying about her legs, Liz visited and had enthusiastically described her plans to move from the Jersey suburbs to the Old City section of Philly, to live in a sophisticated urban loft with her dashing, knows-all-the-best-places-to-eat beau. She’s now happily ditching her gas-guzzling Jeep and enrolling in a Zipcar plan so she can dart to art classes when she’s not designing spaces for her interior design clients.
Clearly, Liz’s 50-something life is different from mine. It’s the price I’m paying for stretching the limit of my “young, black and free” days well into my 30s and having my first and only child at 41.
And as if Liz weren’t enough, I am flanked on both sides by the comparatively carefree existence of two other women in my peripheral orbit. My husband Steve’s ex-wife celebrated her 60th birthday in December with surfing lessons in Costa Rica as she vacationed with their adult daughter. My ex-husband’s fiancee, my daughter’s soon-to-be stepmom, is still in her 30s (see previous reference to young, black and free). Neither of these women has to contend with an adolescent’s moodiness, molten tears or disdain: “Mom, you really need to break up all that brown with a splash of gold.” I recently got so fumed by Ari’s selfish teen behavior that, brimming with negative energy, I somehow burned out my car’s clutch—major spa vacation money gone, just like that!
And like most women in the midst of the new 50s, I find that my career is nowhere near over, my life nowhere near settled down. On top of motherhood, I am managing a new high-stakes media career, a still-new remarriage and a retirement nest egg on life support. More solemnly, I am still reeling from the shock and grief of the recent deaths of two beloved friends—both my age—within four days of one another. My faith has taught me that in the face of loss, God always provides gifts. That’s where motherhood comes back in.
Most days, mercifully, the lessons and trials of motherhood aren’t difficult. Big or small, Ari’s crises are always heralded by the same seriously intoned words: “Mom, I have a problem.” One recent dilemma: her discovery that some of her eyelashes are growing in straight, some curled. Feigning concern, I pondered the fact that I can no longer see my lower eyelashes well enough to apply mascara without reading glasses. Now, that’s a problem.
But between our problems, there is utter joy and tenderness. Ari recently surprised me by requesting that I read her a bedtime story. We selected the books Brown Bear, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If You Take a Mouse to the Movies. When I finished, she responded to my heartfelt “I love you” with “I love you more.” I melted.
Before Ari, I had never penned one song. Yet in her first months of life, I wrote songs almost daily. Before her, I never rolled down a snow-covered hill, giggling all the way and making snow angels at its base. Before her, I never caught my breath in astonishment at the wisdom and generosity someone so young could demonstrate. Before her, I thought I knew what unconditional love was.
Watching her fall asleep after our shared bedtime stories, I marveled at the revelation of her past, present and future, all there on her dozing face. Let others be empty nesters. I’ll take my 50s just the way they are.
Mireille Grangenois, currently a managing director at Burson-Marsteller, has been named publisher of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.