Last week, I had a great conversation with Robin Gorman Newman from MotherhoodLater.com about late motherhood, which probably always requires some daring. Robin asked about my personal experience as a later mom. Below are some highlights from our interview.
I was a single mom in my 20s when it was really tough back in the 1960s. It wasn’t a cool thing to do but rather shameful. There was no legal remedy for having supported a spouse through graduate school and being divorced before enjoying any of the fruits of his education. It was called a PHT degree – “Putting Hubby Through.” You had to support yourself at a time when women weren’t easily achieving careers, including being a journalist. It’s much easier today, but still not so easy.
The biggest deprivation of all is not really being able to be a fully present mother for your child’s earliest years. You have to make a living and make a life without a partner, and that takes time. Our daughter was only two and a half years old when we divorced and I wanted her to have a father as much as he was willing to participate. He’d take her a couple of nights/week and every other weekend, and that continued until she was emancipated. It was a very sad situation. We never took it out on her. But, it was missing having a real family life that made me really hungry and sad about getting to the end of my reproductive life and not having a child with a family.
Being a later mother — adopting a child in my 40s with a partner — was totally different than being a young mother in my 20s, on my own. When I decided to adopt, Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine, and I had been together for many years. We were in Bangkok on a wonderful trip, and I was blue because my daughter was going to college and we hadn’t enjoyed a family life of any length. Clay was reading a local Thailand paper about the children of Cambodian genocide who had survived and found their way into refugee camps. They had nowhere to go; the U.S. had shut down the pipeline for Southeast Asian refugees after our war in Vietnam was over.
Clay said, “Maybe there’s a child for you here.” I was amazed. I had never thought about adopting. I was 43, and in those days, one did not think you could have a baby at that age. There weren’t a lot of fertility specialists. That very day we went to a refugee camp — three hours away on a bus — but we couldn’t see any children because there had been kidnappings there.
I went back to Cambodia, this time on assignment from The New York Times magazine, and met a little girl whose eyes I had seen darting behind the bamboo fences all the while I was in the camp. She was so serene and put together. As soon as we sat down in the tent, and I began talking, our eyes locked, and we never took our eyes off each other. Half way through, I just fell in love with her.
I came back to New York, and I wrote to her at the refugee camp, never knowing if it got to her. She wrote to me saying she’d like to come to the United States, never knowing if I got it. A year passed, and one day I came in from a morning jog, and there was a message on my answering machine saying Mohm was arriving in JFK at 8:30pm tomorrow night. So, she dropped into my life as if from the stork. When I got to the airport, this little 12 year old girl with her tiny little arms carrying all her worldly possessions in one little plastic bag, got off the plane and immediately recognized my face and broke into a smile. It was like it was meant to be.
Parenting all over again, in my 40s, was totally different because I was different. I knew who I was. I had had success. I had financial stability. I had a partner, Clay, who quickly became besotted with Mohm, and wanted to adopt her with me. That’s how we wound up getting married. He rebuilt his apartment to make an extra room for her, and we became a family.