Late to the Game: Parenting Children After 40

Sophia Tolliver, MD


March 30, 2022

As they rolled me down the hallway to the OR, ceiling lights rhythmically passing above, I zoned out into a 1000-mile stare. How did I get here? I started humming "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," praying for a miracle to happen. I thought back to my birth plan, meticulously crafted, a one-pager so that the no-nonsense labor and delivery nurses wouldn't think me completely off my rocker. No C-section unless medically necessary. Those words laughed back at me — cackling, even. I'd planned out the whole birthing process and here we were, my team almost jogging me to the OR. I lay still, utterly gobsmacked and partially anesthetized.

If I squint my eyes and hallucinate just a bit, that is sort of what motherhood has been like.

It's about knowing all the things that could go wrong and meeting the unplanned head-on. Motherhood has indeed been a whirlwind — so many physical, psychological, and emotional transformations. And to top it off, the added effort of giving birth in a pandemic. As an over-40 physician, you'd think I would have been better prepared.

I was, but in a sense, I was not. The knowledge, the wisdom, the experience of my medical training surrounded me, but even I panicked at times in the beginning: Am I feeding her correctly? Am I making enough food for her? Am I doing the best that I can for her? What more could I be doing for her?

Over time, I've learned to lighten up. Some. In those teachable moments with my daughter Gia, I've learned to not sugarcoat reality but encourage the hopeful. If Gia falls on the ground? "You're okay, sweetie. Now get back up." If Gia has a tantrum and starts hitting herself? "Honey, our hands are for hugs, not hurting ourselves. Let's go play." Eighty percent of motherhood right now is redirection and the other 20% is patience.

I remember this one time I was rushing out the door for work. After getting in the car with my keys, I realized I forgot my coffee back in the house. I left the car, went back in the house to grab the blessed joe, went back to the car, and couldn't get in because it was locked. I panicked at that moment, went back inside the house, and found Gia playing with my extra key fob. My own daughter locked me out of my car. Of course, it wasn't her fault. Deep breath and I offered her another kiss while simultaneously taking the key fob from her.

Before Gia could walk, she could climb the stairs in our home. Her father and I sometimes refer to her as "Lil Bamm-Bamm" because she is so strong. One day, Daddy was supposed to be watching her while mommy was folding laundry upstairs. She was not allowed on the stairs, but what should I hear? Literally, the pitter-patter of little feet, running down the upstairs hallway. Her father had drifted off watching yet another episode of something Star Wars-related. My strong little girl made it up the stairs all by herself and Dad received a strong word. The Force was with me that day.

I would say that I feel like having a child ages you, but what does that really mean when you're already old? I've become acutely aware of my lack of endurance, stamina, and bodily strength. My knees will creak when taking her upstairs to bed, an osseous dirge of a lullaby. Date nights become unintentionally less and less frequent. Friday night dress-up becomes Friday night dress-down. I've replaced stiletto heels with comfy sweats.

Once we put Gia down for the night, we are usually exhausted from the day, and the couch and TV are welcome respites. We exhale. As over-40 parents, we knew that having children late in life would bring its challenges. But I'd like to think that we are meeting them the best way that we can. Often I encourage my body to meet Gia at her eye level, see what she sees, play with her on her own terms, and match her energy. She absolutely loves it when I do this. I'm out of breath and my knees are sore by the end of our play session, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

We are learning from each other. She has a bright and assertive personality, and I am protective of that innocence. Her innocence is without fear. I often wonder what she is thinking when I see her facial expressions. A side-eye, a fleeting giggle. Is she secretly contemplating the chronicity of the cosmos, or is it just gas? I look at her in stolen moments and still can't believe that I grew a human inside me, and said human was extracted from me and is now walking around my house commanding her bidding. So surreal. The unromanticized, scientific ingredients that are at play from conception to delivery are nothing short of miraculous. And the miracles of parenting over 40 are present every day.


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