Brigitte Nielsen, a Danish actress best known for co-starring in Rocky 4 (while being briefly married to Sylvester Stallone) recently had a baby. The interesting thing to most people is that she is 54 years old. The interesting thing to me is that it’s Nielsen’s first daughter after 4 sons.
As one might expect in this social media fish bowl in which we swim, the troglodytes of the Internet feel perfectly entitled to sound off on Nielsen’s decision to bring a child into the world. She’s too old, they say. The way she conceived is “unnatural” – she had frozen her own eggs over a decade ago and had been trying to conceive with them ever since. She has four children already – adults! – and she should be satisfied with that; asking for more than she already has is greedy. She will surely die or be infirm and unable to raise the child “properly”. She’s doing this for her own selfish reasons and not for the good of her child.
The reason why I find the maternal longings of a D-list actress of interest is that I too had a girl after 4 boys. Like Nielsen, my oldest son was an adult when my daughter was born. Like Nielsen, I was in an age group that is considered “too old” – 42, definitely an age many would consider too late to be bringing a new life into the world. After all, the media likes to drum it into people’s heads again and again…having a baby over 40 is unacceptably perilous for both mother and baby. I am sure that many people thought I was making a terrible selfish decision, although no one ever said it to my face.
They did say other things to my face, though. While mothers of more than 2 are often criticized, and older mothers are always criticized (it feels that way, anyway), there seems to be a special level of vitriol reserved for women who have sons and still want a daughter, particularly if they have the temerity to try for one. The very idea that any woman might want to continue having children until she has a particular gender is presented as being borne from some sort of monstrous desire, and worst of all is when a woman wants a daughter. I suppose this is because trying for a son is usually painted as something a woman does for someone else – her husband, her family, her culture – and so a woman trying for a son is seen as selfless, giving, generous. A woman who admits to wanting a daughter, on the other hand, is either an egomaniac who wants a “mini-me” or a rabid feminist who plans to use her daughter as a political pawn.
But that isn’t reality. I wanted a daughter in the way I imagine a person who has lived in the mountains their entire life wants to see the ocean. Not because I was trying to make myself over again or to score social justice points, but because I wanted to see her and know her. Her, not me. My longing for a daughter had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to do with my sons. I was and am happy with myself and beyond ecstatic with my sons. I didn’t need a daughter to complete me or to make my family whole.
I just wanted her.
It is entirely possible to adore living in the mountains or in the desert and be utterly unable to imagine living anywhere else, but still have a strong desire to see the ocean, to watch the waves break, to know what it’s like to walk in the sand and dabble your toes in the foam. Some people don’t want to see the ocean and that’s ok. Some have seen it already and didn’t think it was that big a thing, certainly not worth turning their lives upside down for. Others have lived there for years and are used to the view. But others want to see the ocean. Sometimes a silly little want grows into a longing that takes hold and won’t let go. That’s how it was for me, wanting a daughter. It was an experience that I really hoped to have. I’d dreamt of her since I was a tiny little girl myself. And I found that I just couldn’t walk away without her, not unless I tried everything in my power to turn my imaginary girl real.
We live in a time of celebrating experience. People make bucket lists and delight in accumulating life experiences as if they were merit badges. People take risks and make sacrifices in exchange for experience all the time. Some people climb Mount Everest or go on a safari or skydive. Some people think smaller and go to Napa Valley to drink too much wine, or to Disneyland, or to see the lights of Broadway. People want things and some of the things people want are not important to anyone but they themselves. Just like Brigitte, I wanted a daughter for no great or noble reason – I simply wanted her. Her existence was important to me. I was willing to take some risks and make some sacrifices for that. My desire for that experience is no more wrong than the person who decides they need to see Paris before they die.
Some would say my desire for an experience does not outweigh my daughter’s need for a young and sprightly mother who can turn cartwheels down steps and will live another 70 years in order to do lots of babysitting for future generations. But how many of us really have a child in an ideal situation, anyway?? Children are born into situations far worse than Brigitte’s or my daughters’ all the time. Situations of poverty, of abuse, of neglect, in countries torn apart by war, in families torn apart by all manner of terrible things. Situations in which they are not particularly wanted or not wanted at all. Having a child young is no guarantee of success and having a child older is no guarantee of disaster. My mother had me when she was young but then divorced and started a new family, relegating me to a kind of second-class status within our family (I’m not faulting her, not at all, my parents are wonderful people who raised me well. My point is simply that youth is no guarantee of a child always getting everything they think they need.) If our daughters are loved and cared for, and were so hoped for and dreamed about, what difference does it make if we will live another 20 years or another 50?
Because that much is true – the odds are pretty good that Brigitte and I will both live another 20 years at the least, long enough to raise our girls. Something no one tells you about turning 40 or even 50 is that most of us still have another 20-30 years of good solid living within us, if not more. Shockingly, my life did not stop when I turned 40 the way women’s magazines had led me to expect that it would. I didn’t crumble into dust and suddenly require a Life Alert button. I still have hopes and dreams and plenty of hours in my day to care for this small entity who has come my way. Most women in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s are not sick or unhealthy. I am not physically fragile. Even though I have a chronic illness I have ample energy to take care of my children, work full time, and run a household. The joy my daughter and my other children bring me only helps to recharge my batteries at the end of every day.
There are no guarantees, of course, but none of us have a guarantee in life. If Brigitte and I have provided for our daughter’s futures no matter what life has in store for us, 20 years is really just as good as 50, and if we’re lucky enough to have 30 or 40 instead, even better. 20 years is more than enough time to raise a child to adulthood. Beyond that point, it is your child’s life to do with as they will. Life is a gift we give to them, not a project we are doing that requires us to be hands on every second of every day from now till forever. No one ever tells a man in his 40’s or even in his 50’s, “don’t start that project, Bill, what happens if you DIE before you finish it?” Are we all supposed to go through our lives never doing anything if we may die before it’s done? Are 25-year-olds the only people who are allowed to plan for an unknown future?
Children are different, some may say. Children aren’t a stamp collection or restoring a hot rod or sailing around the world. Children simply need their mothers. The expectation for mothers is that we will dedicate the rest of our lives to micromanaging our children’s existence from birth till age 70 at which point we will die and somehow they’ll have to muddle through without us. But in reality most people are quite competent as young adults and don’t even want their mother meddling in their business when they’re 25, 35, 45. Even at 15, a needy, overly involved mother is an unwelcome thing. NO ONE wants their mother all wrapped up in their lives forever and ever. Our children don’t need us in perpetuity the way people say that they do. Why would anyone build our lives around an expectation that is silly? Why would we base our decisions on a fiction that our daughters will need us desperately until they are 105 years old?
My hope is that by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil, my daughter will not need me any more. By that point, I plan for her to be able to stand on her own and take care of herself. I’ve already gotten her to age 6, and that’s quite an accomplishment. We have had more time together than many mothers and daughters have been fortunate enough to have. I hope with every fiber of my being to be here till she’s a fully capable adult because I’ve found I love it here at the ocean and I want to watch the waves break for many more years to come. I want very much to see the woman that she will become and to hold her children in my arms. But I may not get that wish granted to me, and Brigitte Nielsen may not get that wish granted to her.
Nevertheless, our daughters will still be ok. When people ask “what will happen when you’re old and die and your daughter needs you?” the truth is, death happens even to mothers, even to younger women than me, and in fact it used to happen far more often than it does now. People muddle through. Mothers are meant to give their children a start in life, not to be here until the conclusion.
I wish Brigitte every happiness with her daughter.