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Has Motherhood Become Age-Defying?

Enter the world of motherhood and you may just find yourself in the one place you swore you’d never go again.
The playground is the new cafeteria, the Bugaboo moms, the cool kids. And as it was in high school, it seems to be in motherhood, age determines were you fit in the social circle of things. The freshman bond together, the seniors stick together and the sophomores and juniors try to befriend them both.
But what is it that keeps the age-based division lines so clearly drawn, and what keeps us from crossing over? Are we jealous? Pompous? Prejudiced? Do we assume we are better mothers because we are younger or that we are wiser because we are older? Does a true rivalry exist at all, or is it merely a rivalry within us?
In an era when all moms sitting in the sandbox span the age spectrum, it makes one wonder if sharing juice boxes and swapping secrets is something only the kids can do.

The Social Barometer
In recent months the hottest topic discussed around the water cooler, on blog sites and at play dates hasn’t been the war in Iraq, global warming or even advancements in modern medicine (cervical-cancer prevention, anyone?), it has been celebrity offspring. Katie Holmes, Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears have all had the media salivating over the birth details of Suri, Shiloh and Jayden James. But these younger moms haven’t been the only ones nabbing headlines. Madonna, at age 48, set out to adopt a 1-year-old boy from Malawi. Desperate Housewives’ star Marcia Cross is expecting twins this April at age 44 and Julia Roberts is pregnant at age 39, with her third child, due this summer.

The age disparity of new moms in Hollywood is an obvious sign of the times. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, the number of 20-somethings giving birth between 2004 and 2005 remained virtually unchanged, while older moms — in their 30s and 40s — rose by two percent. On the home front, in Dallas, Collin and Denton Counties, the number of older women (ages 35 to 50) bearing babes also increased slightly — about nine more births per 1,000 women, on average, from 2000 to 2005.

While these stats don’t show huge leaps, they do reveal consistent, noteworthy changes. Now, more than ever, new mom relationships are likely to be of the May-December variety.

Age Old Question
Because 35 is considered “advanced maternal age” by the medical community, moms falling below this division are oft labeled younger by docs and those above, older. Though, by today’s standards, 35 can hardly be viewed as “advanced age.”

But, are moms defining each other by the candles on their birthday cake? Yes, admit some Dallas area moms.

“I notice ageism a lot,” shares 27-year-old Lewisville mom of two Antao Atkins, who had her first child at 18. “It makes me uncomfortable, but I have learned to expect it and accept it. When I go to my daughter’s elementary school events, I see people look at me and wonder how old I am and if I am married. I had a parent of one of my daughter’s friends ask me how old I was because he thought I looked like her sister.”

Gina Smith, who has seen both sides of the fence, both as a younger mom (she had her first child at 17) and now as an older mom (she’s 48 and raising her 8-year-old grandchild) says she, too, has noticed people raising a brow to her age.

“There are some young moms, who, when I tell them, ‘This is my grandchild not my child,’ it is as if I had leprosy or something,” confides The Colony mom. “I think they don’t know what to say, so they just avoid me.”

Shannon Fitzpatrick,* a 29-year-old Lewisville mom of one and pediatric speech and language pathologist, says she has experienced age discrimination between moms up close and personal.

“I have two sisters-in-law [both over 35] who can be condescending to me at times. It seems to irritate them that I’m a little more loosey-goosey and child-focused,” Fitzpatrick asserts. “Maybe that’s the younger, stubborn mind-set to think I don’t need all the advice, but my baby seems just as happy, independent and well adjusted as theirs do so far, so I guess I’m doing alright. But here’s the kicker: I would never point any of this out to them. I secretly look up to both of them, but for some reason it feels threatening to let on.”

Comparison Mothering
The tricky thing about motherhood is that often times we no longer have the luxury of handpicking our pals. Suddenly, we’re spending our free time with our children’s friend’s parents — at parties and playdates. Inevitably, that means buddying up with ladies of all birthdates.

But if we share the greatest common denominator — motherhood — why the estrangement?

Faulkner Fox, author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life, a mothering memoir, suggests that, “women are judgmental at times of stress and insecurity; for example high school and new motherhood.” Confides the Duke University creative writing instructor and self-described older mom of three: “I know for myself, I was embarrassed and horrified by how judgmental I became for awhile as a new mother. As I relaxed and felt more confident, I grew less judgmental.”

Adds Dr. Jean Giles-Sims, professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, “I do hear young mothers wondering how someone ‘that old’ could take care of a baby, and older mothers who think how lucky they are to have the maturity and perspective that they have. I don’t know that they impose these ideas on each other, but perhaps the mothers themselves expect there to be some rivalry, based on their own insecurities.”

Naturally, there is an urge to compare, especially when new moms are fumbling to find their footing in such a remarkable, life-changing and demanding role. And, each mom brings different layers of life experiences — which, like it or not, are informed by age.

“What I’ve noticed with [my sisters-in-law] is that they research everything, whereas I’ve been going about raising my son with tidbits from my childhood, my inner radar and many a consultation with another young mom,” offers Fitzpatrick. “They approach motherhood and child rearing in the same type-A, uber-organized approach that they do their careers. Me? I’ve never been in that world and so I feel more like a ‘college student’ mommy.”

Plano mom Linda Kolb supports the notion that the generation gap has infiltrated playground politics. “Setting limits and enforcing them consistently seems more comfortable for older moms. Perhaps this is because of more life experience at work and elsewhere. Perhaps it is due to more confidence in ourselves as leaders/teachers/helpers as we age,” shares the 42-year-old who became a first-time mom at 38.

While both Fitzpatrick and Kolb seem at ease with their place in continuum of motherhood, it may be harder for others to find such peace as the notion of the “perfect” super mom persists.

“Society judges what women — and mothers — do very critically. Why aren’t we talking about the age of Dads? Just the fact that we aren’t gives us a clue as to the basic problem,” affirms Giles-Sims. “Older mothers do find people critical of their older motherhood. In contrast, very young mothers also find people critical. It often seems that no matter what women do (or mothers do), there is criticism. Mothers need a break. Almost all are trying their best — no matter what their age.”

What may be the strongest point of contention? Perception versus reality.

“A working mother friend of mine feels horribly guilty about not participating at school enough, so she stays up in the middle of the night making elaborate cupcakes to make up for the fact that she’s absent. No one has asked her to do this. She perceives criticism that may not be there,” offers Brett Paesel, author of Mommies Who Drink, a collection of personal parenting essays. “A stay-at-home mom recently told me that she doesn’t like hanging out with her friends who still work because she feels so boring. She’s pinning this label on herself.”

Adds Giles-Sims, “Every women wonders whether she is a good enough mother and if she is doing the best by her child.”

Good-bye High School
Paesel, who had her children at ages 39 and 43, admits to “feeling a difference” between her and her younger compatriots, but recommends moms put down the armor and find ways to relax together (she and her mom friends, ages 30-52, meet for Happy Hour every Friday). Because, ultimately, as Sociologist Giles-Sims says, carrying around negative feelings toward other moms can impact our parenting skills and perspectives.

“Anything which increases our insecurities and our stress is going to negatively influence our own well-being and that of our children.” She asserts, adding that “any additional stress takes away from the enjoyment [of motherhood].”

In addition, disregarding other mothers is something children will notice and may incorporate into their own lives and relationships.

“They can turn that kind of hyper-criticism on themselves and feel inferior or they can turn it on others they meet and have a hard time making friends,” shares Fox. “I think the more empathy we can nurture toward other mothers, the better and this often means not judging, not assuming to know what someone else’s experience is like, what someone else should or shouldn’t do. It’s hard, but it’s very important.”

Though motherhood may play out like high school at times and there will always be some form of rivalry (age, working vs. stay-at-home, breastfeeding vs. bottle), it’s up to us to not necessarily befriend all mommies on the block, but to at least acknowledge that we’re all sitting in the same sandbox.

“There is enough division in the world as a whole, but when we have division within our own gender, that’s scary,” affirms 35-year-old North Texas mom Michelle Slater. “We are all women, beautiful in every shape, color and size. We should embrace each other and know that one day someone will embrace our daughters, sisters, granddaughters, nieces and cousins.”

*Name has been changed.