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I Became a First-Time Mother at 53

How my 'older age’ better prepared me for parenting in these difficult times.

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daughter and mom
The author and her daughter. Courtesy: Brenoff
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I brought home my first child on my 53rd birthday. She was a tiny 5-year-old who lived a million miles away in a Chinese orphanage until she moved into my heart. Two years later, my husband and I returned to China and adopted the world’s smartest 4-year-old boy whose stubborn independent streak still enters the room five minutes before the rest of him. Both came bearing the “special needs” label, although my husband and I were blind to that or any other label anyone ever tried to slap on our children.

Our son’s adoption completed our family and simultaneously cemented our title as The Oldest Parents Possibly on the Planet. At least that’s how it felt sometimes. For those interested in the exact numbers, I was 55 when we adopted the second time and my husband was on the cusp of turning 70 — which, back then, was the ceiling age of eligibility to adopt from China. When my husband died at 81, my kids were 19 and 16 and I was 66 — a single working mom with two teenagers. Contain your envy.

It’s been said — and you will get no argument from me — that raising children is the hardest job out there. And some might add that raising adopted kids brings an additional layer of challenges to the parenting task. Throw in the issues specific to raising internationally adopted kids in a transracial family and parenting, at times, can feel like an Extreme Sport. On top of all the regular parenting stuff, we had to grapple with cultural differences, figure out the balance of assimilation and birth identity, and how to address all those pesky questions from strangers who would stop us and pry. More on that later. 

Even simple things like building a family tree in the second grade took on larger-than-life concerns that led to teaching teachers about adoption sensitivity. And Mother’s Day has never been simple or straight-forward; we always make silent wishes on the night stars and send prayers of gratitude to the women who birthed my children.

And it took us awhile, but my late husband and I eventually came to understand that the road to the joy that our adoptions brought us began for our kids with the deep sorrow of abandonment and loss of everything they knew. Our happiness at having a family came with a price tag borne by my littles.

Yet my husband and I somehow managed to raise two happy, healthy, grounded young adults, both successful in their current life stages. I really don’t take much credit since — just by definition — my kids were both survivors when I met them. But I definitely see my imprint as they navigate the difficult times we live in.

COVID-19 stole loved ones from them and disrupted their college years. They saw their peers — adoptees or not — succumb to depression and stress; more than one friend dropped out when online learning didn’t cut it for him. My kids weren’t a bit surprised when the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency over the sheer number of teens who were committing suicide.

And then, of course, there are the forces that have polarized America. These are not easy times for any of us, but my kids are naturalized citizens living in an America that expresses its open hatred of immigrants directly to their faces. They winced when the former president blamed COVID on their birth country and, by default, seemingly on them.

My daughter, now 24 and an honors college graduate, is completing a service year in AmeriCorps, sometimes mistakenly called the “domestic Peace Corps.” She has been stationed in small towns across rural America and has encountered people with little education and even less exposure to the larger world around them. But, as she says, she is there to help distressed communities and the people in them — without regard to anyone’s politics, religion, views on COVID, abortion rights, the U.S. Supreme Court, or anything else.

And that’s where watching me answer all those nosy questions from strangers when they were young factors in. More than once, she has been singled out and asked, “Where are you from?” She smiles and sweetly answers “California. Have you ever visited? Oh, you must!” I used to call that the divert-attention-and-conquer answer and it generally prevented the follow-up: “Oh, you know what I mean! Where are you really from?”

More than once when she’s spoken about being adopted, she has been asked “Do you know your real parents?” To which she responds, “My adopted parents are my real parents. I don’t know my birth parents and likely won’t have a chance to meet them, but why do you ask?”

“Why do you ask?” is the transracial adoptee code for “mind your own business.” It’s divert and conquer, with a bite.

And sometimes the nosy questions are just too intrusive or offensive or ooze prejudice hidden behind a cloak of curiosity. “Why didn’t your parents adopt an American child? They need homes too, you know.” Again, my kids learned from watching me.

Like the time when my daughter was about 6 and we were in the checkout line for our groceries. A stranger in line looked at me, then my daughter, then back at me and finally asked out loud, “Is her father Asian?”

Without missing a beat, I replied, “I think so. Truth is, I never did get a good look at his face if you know what I mean,” wink, wink. She turned crimson and fled the store, leaving her groceries behind while the cashier and I burst out laughing.

Sometimes, I taught them, the only way to win is just not to play.

This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.

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