It was 1992 and I had just turned 50. Unwanted invitations to join AARP were arriving regularly in my mailbox, when what I really yearned for was another go at motherhood, which I felt as ready to take on as I had when I’d given birth to my son, Jake, 11 years earlier.
I felt this way even though my friends thought I was seriously unbalanced and even though, at the time, older women taking advantage of the newly emerging fertility technologies were being criticized for selfishly saddling their kids with decrepit mothers. I weighed the caveats carefully, but decided that I was no more crazy or selfish than any other woman who ached to hold an infant in her arms.
My then-husband and I had been trying to conceive a child for three years when our fertility specialist advised us that — with my menopause waiting in the wings — using donor eggs presented our best chance for a successful pregnancy. He explained how my husband’s sperm would be used to fertilize a younger woman’s eggs, which would then be implanted in my uterus. It sounded straightforward, but troubling. I would be giving birth to a child with whom I had no genetic connection, and I worried: Would we be missing something, some fundamental biological thread that would leave our connection incomplete?
My misgivings drifted away on an April morning when three tiny zygotes were sent whizzing into my womb and the pluckiest of them — my soon-to-be daughter, Rose — attached herself to my uterine wall. Once I knew she was in there hanging on for dear life, my maternal instincts kicked in, and I resolved that she would have the best nourishment and protection my body could provide. I was also determined to keep from her what could be the profoundly unsettling facts of her conception until the time came when she could process them as an adult.
I proposed that we conceal her origins, not only from her, but even from our nearest relations, including Jake. This would allow her to grow up without having to wonder who she was and where she belonged. She could simply be herself, my daughter, as Jake was my son.
And that, in every essential, is what she became, even before we laid eyes on one another. Because as the months went by and she grew weightier and more defined inside me, we developed a biological synchronicity, a tender attachment out of the mutual dependency that came from sharing the same body. She could not do without me and I, increasingly, knew I could not do without her.
After she was born, the fact that we were not genetically linked became astonishingly irrelevant. Life took over as I ministered to her panic-inducing 103-degree fevers, soothed her teething gums, applauded her first steps and coaxed her into nursery school, just as I’d done eons ago with Jake.
Yes, I was older than all of her classmate’s mothers. But while my skin was no longer as dewy as theirs, I could remember the miseries and triumphs of childhood as clearly as any of them and provide solace and hope, cheers and prizes, along with the best. Empathy and devotion, it turns out, trump energy at every turn, because the most intimate moments of motherhood — moments that call for understanding, patience, insight, humor — don’t require the vigor needed for a spinning class.
It’s not that I ever forgot, exactly, that Rose wasn’t my biological child. It’s just that I always had more urgent things on my mind, questions like whether I should laugh at her insolent but hilariously dead-on impression of a detested fourth-grade teacher, or whether the Bloomingdale’s dress with spaghetti straps she wanted so desperately was too sophisticated for an 11-year-old. Where she came from had nothing to do with the day-to-day business of parenting, nothing to do with civilizing a preschooler, promoting empathy in a fifth-grader, instilling moral principles and self-respect in an adolescent. I never had time to ponder the existential.
A central paradox of parenthood is that the days are long, but the years are short. So it was that after 19 incredibly short years and one exceptionally long day, Rose was gone, settled in at a small college three hours up I-95. After she’d outlasted a grueling freshman year, I recognized that she was ready to learn about the obstetric sleight-of-hand involved in her creation — and that I was terrified of telling her. What if she were seriously thrown by the revelation, lost her emotional equilibrium, felt betrayed and alone? What if it caused a permanent fracture in what had been until then our bone-tight intimacy?
I had to risk it. Her father and I had always considered the backstory of her birth to be her secret, not ours. Now, she could choose whether to disclose it to the world, and by putting the choice in her hands, I’d finally be getting rid of the one thing that had always stood between us.
Which is why, on a summer morning a few months before her 21st birthday, I sat her down and told her everything. I kept to the facts, without apologies, which were uncalled for, or assurances of my love, which I’d already given her in one way or another every day since she’d first drawn breath. When I was finished, we looked squarely at one another across the six feet of space separating our chairs. How can I describe what passed between us in that look? It lasted for no more than 10 seconds, yet it contained 20 years of sympathy and secrets, of promises kept and surprises sprung, of tickle attacks, private jokes and hugs tight enough to squeeze out the world when it hurt.
Our eyes began to brim over, and as we registered the tears streaming down both our faces, we were reminded of how, whenever we watched a tug-at-your-heartstrings movie together, the first one of us to sniffle or wipe her eyes became, ipso facto, the sentimental sap worthy of a derisive laugh from the other. It was this — one of the countless little rituals of our life together — that popped unbidden into both our heads. Moments later, red-eyed but with mouths flickering into smiles, we stood up, opened our arms and embraced.
She chose to tell everyone everything immediately, seeing the truth as vital information for those with whom she had any kind of real relationship. Jake — my sunny, unflappable firstborn — was at the head of the line and took the news in his usual, easygoing stride, pausing only to remark that he found it hard to believe Rose and I didn’t share genes, seeing as how we share so many annoying personality traits.
Over the past five years, our connection has been as close and supportive, as loving and companionable, as flooded with laughter and as littered with mother/daughter conflict as it’s always been. Rose’s comprehension of the lengths to which I’d gone to have her only augmented what had always existed between us: deep wells of affection, trust and understanding, enhanced now by an airy transparency and a subtle, daily acknowledgment of what’s important, and what’s not important at all, where our attachment is concerned.
It’s just such a connection that I watch being forged between my niece and the enchanting little guy she gave birth to four years ago, when she was 50. She conceived him the same way I had conceived Rose 21 years earlier — but not before she called me.
“Can I come over sometime and talk to you?” she asked. “I need to know what it’s like to have a child who’s not biologically your own.”
I couldn’t wait to tell her. “Come over now,” I said.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a freelance writer based in New York. Find her online at bette-jane-raphael.net.