Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to announce the winner of our Reinvention Essay Contest. Out of 50-plus submissions, our judges chose this wonderful story about becoming a mother instantly by Helen Bradley of Savannah, GA, which was originally titled From Hot Wheels to High Heels. In addition to a cash award, Helen wins free admission to a 12-week intensive course put on by our partner Camp Reinvention. Read essays by the runners up, here and here.
I became a first-time mom at the age of 52.
Our phone rang at midnight, and my husband answered. His son begged us to come get our two-year-old grandson because he and his wife were fighting again.
I’ll never forget walking into their messy apartment to see little Joseph upright on the couch with a tattered blanket around his shoulders. He wasn’t crying, just staring at the TV, his blue eyes wide, as he watched some furry yellow cartoon character I didn’t recognize dancing. Maybe watching TV at midnight while his drug-addicted parents yelled and threw things was the norm.
I wanted to talk to my wise mama, but she had died the year before.
With Joseph on my hip, we walked out the door and he pointed to the charcoal sky. “Nana, where is the moon?”
“Behind the clouds, I guess. You okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I watch TV.”
I held him tighter. I wanted to cry. I wanted to talk to my wise mama, but she had died the year before.
With no car seat, I strapped him in the back seat with me and Jay drove us home in silence. Oh dear god, what does the future hold for this dear child? I longed for a glass of wine, a giant Hershey bar, Pepto Bismol, something.
At home, Jay laid Joseph between us in our bed. We snuggled under the quilt my mama had made. I felt sure the thumping of my heart would keep Joseph awake, but his eyelids fluttered closed. Mine did not.
The next morning before Jay went to work, I headed to Wal-Mart and wandered around the children’s section, placing Pampers, clothes, sippy cups, and colorful stickers in the cart. I was clueless what toddlers needed. My only experience with kids had been babysitting as a teen. My first husband and I put off having children for careers; then our marriage fell apart.
Six weeks after my final day of employment, I had a toddler.
I had spent almost three decades as director of a crime victim assistance program, a career I loved until I got a crazy boss and left long before planned. My first month of not going to the courthouse daily was a bust. I tried an aerobics class but felt out of place, my body jiggling like Jello as I huffed and puffed beside skinny young chicks. I tried writing short stories but couldn’t concentrate. I hoped gardening would be my thing, but I killed two geraniums in a week.
Then boom! Six weeks after my final day of employment, I had a toddler.
At home after the Wal-Mart trip, I called a friend to cancel our happy hour plans. Joseph and I banged pots with wooden spoons, marching to the beat. We slapped purple Barney stickers on our arms. I checked the clock: only 9:45. What now? In the garage I rolled out the little red wagon that we used to haul yard debris. As I pulled Joseph around the neighborhood, my thoughts raced. What if he tumbles out and cracks his head like Humpty Dumpty? I’d been so busy as a professional woman, I didn’t know many neighbors. But one young woman stopped jogging to fawn over Joseph. I noticed her look at my shirt and realized a Barney sticker was plastered on each of my boobs.
Am I Doing This Right?
Jay called to check on us. “All good,” I said, dropping the phone when I saw Joseph climbing on a kitchen chair to reach for a knife. I added childproof locks to my grocery list of chocolate, wine, and Cheerios. I moved meds, Clorox, and sharp objects to a high pantry shelf.
At 10:30, I declared nap time and plopped Joseph in my lap. I stroked his thick brown hair. All I could think to sing was Dancing Queen and Mama Mia. He stared at me like I had two heads. Nap plan aborted.
After lawyers got involved, his parents signed over guardianship to us. I was grateful for the opportunity to help this tiny human. But also terrified.
I’d envisioned my early retirement spent writing the great American novel, traveling, and learning to salsa dance with Jay. I had no idea it would involve racing Hot Wheels, scrubbing crayon marks off walls, and soothing a precocious toddler who once asked if his parents had melted like Frosty the Snowman.
Fear and Grit
Many nights, I’d bolt up wide awake to do the math. When Joseph is eighteen, I’ll be sixty-eight and his Granddaddy will be eighty. Oh god! I met other grandparents raising grandchildren and they became my mentors. I did internet research. According to AARP, one in ten children live with grandparents. At least we weren’t alone.
Still, I sometimes slumped into a fear funk. A no-nonsense friend told me, “Just do it. No drama.” Maybe that’s why my favorite book to read Joseph became The Little Engine That Could. The engine’s motto “I think I can. I think I can.” became mine.
Unfortunately, there was no book, Raising Toddlers for Dummies.
Unfortunately, there was no book, Raising Toddlers for Dummies. I did buy How to Potty Train Your Child in One Week. Big. Fat. Lie.
At first I was self-conscious at play dates around young moms, envious of their flat bellies and wrinkle-free skin. Soon I realized we were all in this together, figuring out the daunting job of parenting.
I hauled my business suits and high heels to Goodwill and bought tee shirts and flip flops. Instead of helping assault victims, writing grants, and giving speeches, I applied Band Aids and kissed scraped knees, built Lego cities, and broke up playground scuffles..
Joseph began attending a wonderful preschool, and I started to enjoy my crazy new life. There are advantages to raising kids at mid-life. Joseph’s steady hands easily mastered cutting my cholesterol pills in half with that little pill-cutting gadget. I got plenty of exercise jumping ocean waves, kicking soccer balls, and chasing lizards.
And the little fella gave me a new perspective on aging. At my sister’s 60th birthday party, she bemoaned that she was old.
Joseph retorted, “You’re not old. You’re an adult.” I loved his notion that age is irrelevant once you’re a grownup.
The Long Game
Twelve years after we brought him home that moonless night, Joseph is a smart, happy, soccer-playing fourteen-year-old. His dad is sober and back in his life; his mom is not. A typical teen, Joseph answers most questions with a grunt or an eye roll. But some late nights, he bounds into our room and begs me to scratch his back and watch Stranger Things with him. Of course, I do.
I remember when I was tucking him into bed when he was four years old and saying, “I love you to the moon and back.”
“Will you love me when I’m an old man?” he asked.
“Of course I will.”
“But you won’t be alive when I’m an old man,” he said. “Maybe not even when I’m a grown-up man.”
“True,” was all I could manage to say, a ping pong-sized lump in my throat.
“But you’ll love me from heaven.”
“Yes I will,” I said, melting into a puddle of emotions I couldn’t even name. Then I pulled back his Superman blanket and crawled into bed with my little boy.