It's 2 a.m. and the baby is crying again. Wailing, in fact. Screaming at the top of her lungs, like someone has done something awful to her. And despite my best attempts to comfort her, my poor 18-month-old daughter won't let me touch her.
I stand patiently by her crib and wonder dispassionately: When is she going to stop? And will I be able to go back to sleep when it does?
During moments like these, I wonder what my younger self would have done.
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I was raised in a conservative religious family, and I was expected to get married and start having children by 25 (at the latest). But 25 came and went, and by the time I was 35, I had opted out of the whole tradition entirely. A few years later, at 39, I met my the man who, two years later, would become my husband. It took us another four years of fertility trouble before finally, at 45, I had a baby. Now, as an older mother, I often feel the shadow of my younger self inside of me, watching. And I can't help but wonder how she would have handled the many frustrations of motherhood.
What would my younger self have thought when my newborn took hours to breastfeed because she had a tongue tie that made it nearly impossible? How would she have fared when the tyke stopped taking bottles, tethering me to her at almost all times? And how would 25-year-old me, or even 35-year-old me, have reacted to the night terrors that last 30 minutes but keep me up for the rest of the night?
Honestly? I don't think my younger self would have handled any of this half as well as my 40-something self does now. During the endless breastfeeding sessions, she would have grown tired and thought, Why am I just sitting here like a naked cow, while my husband is sleeping through the night? She would have given up after a few weeks instead of finding a doctor that could fix the latching problem. During the bottle wars, instead of waiting for the stage to pass, she would have fumed: Why do I always have to be with the baby? Why is she so needy?
And during late-night screaming sessions like this one, my younger self would have been frantic at my daughter's cries and done God knows what out of frustration. My younger self would have left my husband to deal with it so I could get my beauty sleep. Back then I was terrible without my eight hours.
But now that I've gotten older, I've already dealt with many sleepless nights, and I'm well-versed in powering through the day that follows, no matter how tired I am. Now that I'm older, I can see that my daughter's rejections of me — "Me no like it! No like it!" — are nothing personal, just an integral stage of developing her own feisty independence (just like her mama).
It turns out my experience is reflected in the research. Recent studies show that older mothers are less harsh with their children than their younger counterparts, and that their children have fewer "behavioral, social, and emotional difficulties."
Look, I'm not saying people should wait until they're older to have children. (Although they should wait until they're emotionally mature enough). But, speaking for myself, I know that I would have made a terrible young mother.
There are a lot of wonderful things about being a younger parent — I can see that from all my childhood friends whose children are out of the house! A younger mom bounces back physically quicker, will probably be around longer for her kids, and can have as many babies as she wants without the creeping pressure of time.
But it wouldn't have worked for me. Caring for a child would have made me resentful. I would have felt like I was missing out on things like concerts and parties and movies. I would have constantly wondered, Who am I? Am I just a mom? When will I return to my younger self? When can I get back to building my career?
But waiting until my 40s to have a child allowed me to fill up on those experiences. I've seen so many movies, concerts, and plays that I don't mind missing them for a few years. I've also spent two decades on my career, and no matter how many diapers I change, I know I can't lose my identity as a writer, editor, and teacher. Even if I'm not as productive as I might like to be — those sleepless nights do take a toll — I can rest on the laurels of my past work. Most 30-year-olds don't have that luxury, and have to interrupt their career trajectory if they want to take time away from work to care for a family.
And so now, in the middle of the night, I talk to my restless younger self just as I talk to my baby girl: "Shush, shush, shush, It's all gonna be okay."
I straighten her blanket, tuck her in, and comfort her until she falls asleep. She won't remember a thing in the morning.
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