I Had a Baby After 40—Now I'm in Homeschool Hell
Many factors go into deciding whether to have a child after age 40. One that hadn't crossed this mature mom's mind? The prospect of homeschooling her child.
In 2007, Marcia Cross, who played Bree on “Desperate Housewives,” gave birth to twin girls. She was 44. She looked happy, and pretty, on the cover of People. A few years earlier, Geena Davis had twin boys at age 48. How lucky they were.
When I was in my mid-forties, my husband, Dan, and I hadn’t been able to conceive a second baby after having our daughter Annie, who was 11 at that point. Things got uber-weird when a fertility doctor handed us a binder with photos of potential egg donors in red satin lingerie or lacy wedding dresses. It just felt strange.
But I really wanted to round out our family and had a well of untapped maternal love. My mother had died when I was 20. I pressured Dan, who adored Annie and was one of six siblings, to join me in the quest to parent again. Friends in town who had adopted through foster care urged us to try that, too. We did the training sessions. Our small 1920s house was inspected and licensed. Two writers with too many stacks of magazines and books — which could topple onto a baby — we had some decluttering to do.
Saying yes to the unknown
I was on staff in Manhattan at a small communications firm. Every time an outside line lit up on my phone, I closed my office door, heart pounding as the red light blinked. I knew it might be the woman who ran the baby placement agency. I turned down a couple of offers. God forgive me, but the babies were physically disabled, and I did not think our family or marriage could safely cradle them. I honor the parents who can and do.
“I have a healthy baby girl,” the woman said this particular time, whispering like an eager matchmaker. We said yes, and 13 Aprils ago, a worker from the State of New Jersey brought us a beautiful infant swathed in lavender fleece, with a soft, kissable head and clean, Baby Magic aura.
Punchy (my pen name for the baby girl) was four weeks old when we got her. We wedged a hand-me-down crib into our cramped bedroom. My friends showed up with a new car seat and tiny pants. Sugar, our Bichon Frise, three years old, rose up on all fours, growling when it became apparent that this wiggly bundle would be staying.
“It’s okay, Sugar,” my husband said at bedtime. “She’s a part of the pack.” Sug soon assumed the essential role of Baby Nurse in her white fur uniform, beating me upstairs every time we heard a whimper on the monitor.
I immediately started working from home on an abbreviated schedule. The company paid hourly for my sitter. I paid her extra so I could go to yoga class.
Things were different the second time, more than a decade after Annie was a baby. The bottles were shorter and squatter; special spoons turned color if the food was too hot. I was different, too. I saw a photo of my exhausted, pale, puffy, no-lipstick self in a black wrap shirt (a failed attempt to make my belly look flat), bathing a fat, happy baby Punchy in the kitchen sink and posted a comment on Facebook: “Marcia Cross had twins in her mid-forties, and she looks beautiful.”
“Marcia Cross probably has a live-in nanny, makeup artist, chef and personal trainer,” a friend replied. Add decorator, cleaning woman, personal shopper and now, in the time of the Coronavirus pandemic, home-school teacher.
"I would want to shoot myself"
Not long ago, before this heartless virus hit, I walked through swaying marsh grass on a Meadowlands boardwalk with my husband and Annie on a Friday. Punch was in school. I sniffed the presence of a home-schooling mom with two young boys.
“I could never do that,” I said to Dan. “I can’t even imagine considering it. I would want to shoot myself.” I shook my head in wonder as the family passed.
It wasn’t scorn. I was dumbfounded. Choosing not to send children off on a school bus, and keeping them home instead? Forfeiting 7.5 hours of peace, plus time to work, meet friends for coffee, and navigate life untethered? This time away from parenting is especially sacred for older moms like me. We have weathered menopause, hot flashes, adult acne, husbands toying with midlife red-convertible crises. We can’t wait to race to bed by 9 pm, so we can be alone, check Instagram — and go to sleep. We count on what one friend calls “Mommy’s little helpers”: 5 o’clock espressos, wine or chocolate bars.
But then, within two weeks, our school doors closed and all parents, pretty much nationwide, were instantly enlisted as home-school staff.
No one else is giving me a gold medal for mothering a sixth grader at an age when I'm often taken for her grandmother, so I might as well award myself.
Not enough coffee in the world
Now a freelance writer, my work can ebb and flow, and it took a recent plunge. Dan’s work has been steadier (he also has less patience with Punch), so he keeps the family afloat while I supervise reports on ringworm and lessons on calculating the area of a rhombus.
This requires endless cups of coffee and extreme carb loading (quesadillas, tuna melts, ravioli, Fritos Scoops!) — made under the guise of school lunch, of course — to power through my daily shift at the dining room table. It takes sustenance to sit next to Punch as she interjects personal questions about why my shirt has a built-in tummy-tuck panel while dragging out her Spanish classwork over two hours, taking her sweet time to Google addiction to Coke (the soda) and pictures of the cutest dogs. Even Sugar is exhausted.
Punch has ADHD — possibly a result of her rocky start on this planet — and has a seriously hard time sitting still. She takes medicine on schooldays. If we forgot to give it to her in the past, her elementary school teachers had us drive clear across town with the capsule. This year, in sixth grade, her study skills teacher was by her side a lot; she’s a life saver.
I’m so very grateful for Punch, for my health, and that Dan and I are making ends meet, but there is no amount of maternal experience in the world that could have prepared me for assuming the role of schoolteacher in my kid’s life at this stage in mine. I didn’t go to school for this; most of us new home-school parents did not.
I applaud all of us for being adults and showing up — everyone from my stylish friend up the block, 38 with four young kids, to the kind Apple phone support guy from West Virginia, Justin, who has three kids to home-school, including one with a compromised autoimmune system.
With age comes wisdom and perspective. It will not matter in the long run if Punch aces her parallelogram quiz or just scrapes by, or if I occasionally run school from 2:30 to 4:30 instead of 10:30 to 1. It will matter that her family does not give up on her in this scary, uncertain time. When the dust finally settles, she will still have friends and still have school.
To cope, I keep in touch with parents of Punchy's school friends ("I just want coffee and a muffin, you know?" one texted) and talk daily to my sister and BFF.
When Dan and I get a paycheck, and have paid our mortgage, health insurance, cell phone/internet bill and the oil company, I turn to online retail therapy like a hungry rabbit tearing through a lettuce patch.
I ordered a "Girl on Fire" red leopard-print wrap dress (size XL) on sale from a local clothing boutique, and a Commando Whisper Weight Cami to help smooth out my life. Matcha chocolate from an artisanal chocolatier in town — Punch loves matcha. Marie-Antoinette tea sachets (the blend includes rose petals) in a pretty container and small candles from Ladurée Paris for Easter. I window-shop on reedsmythe.com, dreaming of Helen Bransford's gold chain and hand-cast charms. No one else is giving me a gold medal for mothering a sixth grader at an age when I'm often taken for her grandmother, so I might as well award myself. (By the way, the gifted jewelry designer was 47 when she had twins via surrogate with Jay McInerney.)
I also find solace in natural beauty. Every week, when I do our grocery trip, now wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth, I buy hyacinths or tulips at the supermarket--today, it was the most heavenly orange/raspberry sherbet-tinted potful.
“I deserve beauty. We all do,” I texted to a friend today. “This is a shitshow.”
After the flowers bloom, I have Annie dig holes and drop the spent bulbs in the garden, patting down the soil so they can spring up again next year, when I trust our life will be back to normal.
And Punch will be back in school.
Please, God, let Punchy be back in school.