By Amy White Ziegler
In one of my earliest memories, I see narrow-frame glasses hanging around a woman’s neck on a silver ball chain. She was like the church nursery grandmother. I was two years old, sitting in her lap or playing near her feet every Sunday. I liked the shimmering movement of that silver chain and how the lenses magnified patterns of 1970s dresses.
After decades of needing nothing more than sunglasses, I need reading glasses now, when my daughter is still in elementary school. I don’t like it one bit. These glasses are a visible sign that I’m an “old” mom.
At first, I needed reading glasses only for very small print: children’s medicine instructions, coupons, cooking directions on pasta boxes. Then I started needing glasses for magazines, restaurant menus, things my husband added to the grocery list. When I bought my first pair of reading glasses, I saw multi-packs in the Walgreens display and wondered why on earth anyone would need to buy more than one pair. Maybe buying for a friend?
Three years later, I am the one buying a multi-pack. When my mid-40s memory began forgetting where I left my one pair of reading glasses, I started walking around the house yelling things like, “Where are my stupid reading glasses?!” In my mind the question would continue, “. . . that I only wear because I’m getting old!”
Then this scenario started happening multiple times per day. The multi-pack became relevant. I now keep glasses next to the couch, by the comfy recliner, on my side of the bed, and in my purse. Tiny writing can surprise a person in public. I need to read the poorly chosen font on new doctor’s office forms and see when the Greek yogurt will expire. Each day finds creative ways to remind me that my eyes are no longer young. I can’t pretend I’m not an old mom anymore. And I can’t put on reading glasses without resenting my age.
Now I remember the nice nursery lady with glasses on her necklace. Could I be as old as that granny-woman from my childhood?
My daughter is still in elementary school. Like many members of Generation X, I became a career woman first and didn’t have a child until later—in my case, age 41. My psychological age remains much younger than my biological age, but tell that to my unfocused eyes. Every time I am forced to reach for reading glasses, the reminder of my actual age is jarring. “So you feel young, do you?” my 40-something body sarcastically asks my energetic-mom mind.
I did not want to be an older mom. I had hoped to get married shortly after college and finish having children by age 30. But rarely do life stories unfold as planned. I didn’t meet my husband until I was 35. We couldn’t have children as easily as we hoped. By the time I walked with my infant daughter into a moms’ group—a large group in a Washington, DC-area church—I felt like the oldest mom in the room.
Eventually, I met a few women in my age range. They were old-timers in this group, with a third or fourth child entering kindergarten. I couldn’t relate to their world of packed lunches and tearful good-byes at school. They couldn’t relate to starting this mom journey in your 40s. I was exhausted from a stressful pregnancy, overwhelmed with baby number one, and distinctly aware that my major life events were running late.
For years, I had waited for a child with eyes blurred from anger, frustration, and a sense that my life’s script had missed the schedule. Once my longed-for child arrived, I traded that anger for a sense of shame that I was late to arrive at the mom party. I hesitated to look other moms in the eye, as if my biological age was hidden in the dark circles brought by sleep deprivation.
So I dyed my hair and used more eye cream. I would keep my age entirely a secret. I would make no references to 80s music, ancient Saturday Night Live jokes, or how long I had been an English teacher. If I didn’t look like an older mom, maybe I wouldn’t have to be one.
Shortly before my daughter’s first birthday, we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I found another moms’ group. As I learned to be honest about my life, I gradually found other women who had lived beyond age 38. They understood. We could laugh about leaving our careers to deal with diapers and cracker crumbs. In our former lives, we had kept up with TED talks and bestselling nonfiction. Now we waited for new episodes of Daniel Tiger and discussed Llama Llama books.
Some women in the group had never realized they wanted children until later in life. Others, like me, had been unable to have children as soon as they wanted. Some had adopted. To my surprise, some younger moms were also insecure about their life story; they wondered how to approach graduate school or begin a career. I realized each life’s timeline had its advantages and its struggles. Connection with other moms gave me perspective on my own narrative.
For moms of any age, motherhood means learning to see life with a wider focus. Every woman I met was learning to incorporate unexpected details of her own biography, accepting what she could not change and making the best of reality, daily. Although I never wanted a medical chart labeled “advanced maternal age,” every day I am grateful that I get to be a mom at all.
My daughter is in fourth grade now, and I have quit dyeing my hair. She calls the grey streaks “silver sparkles,” and I realize that my own attitudes and behaviors implicitly teach her about women’s timelines and aging. When I go to a parent-teacher conference, I don’t worry about appearing like an older mom, because I am one. I just won’t be wearing reading glasses on a chain around my neck. They are in my purse if I need them.
Amy Ziegler is a former English professor and editor who lives with her husband and eight-year-old daughter in the suburbs of Chattanooga. She had to wear reading glasses while writing this essay. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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