My sister is only two years older than me, but her kids are much older than ours.
When we bring our kids to her house, they run around her kitchen island and our 4-year-old slides on the tile floor knocking over our twins like bowling pins, and my sister comments that she doesn’t know where I find the energy.
In my early 20’s, surrounded by guileless friends refusing to give up the night, even after enough cocktails and hookups, I often mustered the strength for one more bar. Under the duress of peer pressure, I’d find the energy and even enjoy it.
Now as an older parent in my mid-forties and potty-training twins, I generate the energy I need, and at the end of the day I deflate, limp in a reading chair, the dried husk of a human being.
I didn’t want kids in my 20’s, and that was for the best given my reliable instability. Over the course of that decade I’d moved, on average, every eight months, and I knew myself well enough that I stopped unpacking most of my boxes after each move.
If I’d had children earlier in my career, I’m not sure I would have been fully present for them. The political maneuvering in the corporate world and my desperate ambition to stake my claim to future job titles took all my time and energy. It required working lunches, early morning calls, dinners with peers and colleagues, and late-night emails. Trying to find room for children back then would have left them with less of a parent than they deserved. Would our children have been the nuisance in the restaurant, spilling milk across the table while I stared at my phone, feverishly typing an email to a supervisor or client?
At my age, I can turn off my phone on a weekday and go to the Baltimore aquarium with the family without worrying about what I’m missing at the office. I can brush my daughter’s hair deliberately, slowly and undistracted. I can feel the skin on the back of our son’s pudgy little hand with a thumb and marvel at how soft and perfect it is.
I don’t watch my phone, instead I watch my younger son restlessly flit about the play room, sitting for only a moment at a time, his legs as fast as drum sticks tapping the floor.
When I was born my parents were in their 20’s.
I recall a 40th birthday party for my father in our family’s basement, his friends shouting over each other in the small space, the black balloons, a cake with black icing, a ribbon on a gag walker that doesn’t seem as funny now.
I remember hiding at the top of the basement stairs, watching my parents and their friends interact, seeing older people in their element.
I remember my mother’s hair when it was long and straight. I’ve seen a photograph from the 70’s of her in roller skates, her mouth wide and smiling. I remember that version of her when I was sick and she was rocking me in her arms on a recliner in our family room late at night. I remember the shag carpet and wood-paneled walls.
It’s funny to me now that they never seemed young when I was.
And today my ignorance of their youth is almost embarrassing. What did I overlook in them because I was too busy labeling them as ‘old’?
My children will never remember me young.
In my late 50’s we will be visiting colleges, and in my 60’s I’ll be meeting their friends at Christmas breaks and hearing about their 40-year-old parents who could have been my own children.
Later in my 60’s the kids will be getting jobs and learning about the world by making mistakes, and I will avoid complaining about what time has done to my health. I won’t mention the pain in my knee or hip, or the newly developed tremor or asymmetrical mole, forever shielding them from worry.
Maybe our children have kids of their own by my 70’s, but even if they do, I won’t be around for much of the grandchildren’s lives. I may not even see our own children marry. I’ll likely never be a great-grandparent.
For all of this, I’m this age now with toddlers at a time in my life when I need to be needed.
My husband and I went to dinner with friends the other night. They dropped us off at home afterwards and as they were backing out of the driveway, their headlights shined on our oldest son’s bedroom window. When I walked up the stairs to our bedroom, with their car still backing out, I heard our son begin to weep, then moan, then he ran from his room into the hallway and grabbed my leg. Between sobs he told me that he thought we were in the car that was leaving and that he didn’t want me to leave ever again.
Is there shame in the knowledge I wouldn’t want to spend these years, firmly in my middle age, with children of any other age? I’m not enduring an arms-length relationship with a teenager, nor am I empty nested, wondering what hobbies will define my 50’s.
Instead, I am potty-training twins, arguing about screen time, and waiting to calm another meltdown with a little patience and a long warm hug.