[Excerpted from Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40 edited by Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin (Dottir Press, 2021).]
When I was in college, I worked as a research assistant for my mom when she was compiling her volume, On Our Own Terms. Though various books, such as The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, have explored women’s double day (working outside and inside of the home), my mother’s work adds a component that is critical to understanding the lives of Black women. Her work explains how African American women also undertake a “triple day” by engaging in transformative work—the tasks of creating, cultivating, and activating community among friends, family, and neighbors, and producing the social mechanisms for their survival. My focus was generally on the first part of the triple day: my work. It was only later that the transformative work of community would become meaningful for me.
While I maintained my focus on work, I created general plans for different aspects of my life. My plan for dating had five steps: meet someone in places I enjoy, meet someone in places they might enjoy, try online dating, leave the state to date, and finally leave the country. I did think briefly about having children on my own and actually created a list of four potential donors. But I was focused on school and work, and as I began to teach, the steps in the dating plan slowly receded from my mind until only the first one remained. Once I started full-time work, I no longer had time for even the first step.
After receiving my degree in sociology, I became part of the 2 percent of Americans (and the much smaller group of Black women) with doctoral degrees. I was also one of the 40 percent of Americans dating online and of the 30 percent of childless women between thirty and thirty-four. As I started my job as an untenured assistant professor at a brand-new school, I left behind the idea of having a child. I knew I was a fabulous aunt, and whenever having a child entered my thoughts, I worried it would disrupt my role as an aunt. I had firmly moved into the “don’t need a child” camp.
But, as there was still a space in my life—and on my calendar—reserved for it, I began to wonder: Was I really worried about losing my “auntieness,” or did I hate the idea of dating? Was I worried about my career advancement and had thus convinced myself that childlessness was what I wanted? As I began to explore connecting with that second prong of the triple day (the home), a new idea began to form. Once I was able to disconnect dating from children, an entire world opened to me. I added that dimension to my plan.
After making the decision to decouple dating from having a child, shortly before my thirty-seventh birthday, I informed my gynecologist that I wanted to get pregnant in a year and I inquired whether there were any tests or preparations I should make before trying to become pregnant. She asked why I wanted to wait a year, and I explained that I was waiting to see what would happen with my job but didn’t want to wait too long.
She asked whether I would consider freezing my eggs. I wasn’t there yet. She suggested that I see a specialist now before making a final decision. A month later, I visited a fertility specialist, who also inquired about why I was waiting. I shared the same answer, and I asked whether there was a test that could tell me the likelihood of pregnancy in the future. He showed me a graph of fertility, which peaked at eighteen to twenty years old. The curve remained high until the thirties, and then dropped.
When I came back to his office about a month later, he shared the results of other tests. Apparently, my follicle count was not such good news, and neither was the level of my anti-mullerian hormone (AMH), which contributes to the formation of eggs. At my age, the average level is 2.3; mine was at .41. I was in the 5th percentile, the lowest quartile. It was low enough that the fertility specialist didn’t even ask what I wanted to do; he went right to hormone treatments and freezing my eggs.
“No one gets more eggs over time. If you want to do this, it should have been done yesterday.”
The woman who was always early for everything was late—really, really late.
My initial reaction was total devastation. I was a failure as a woman, and I would never be a mother. It had never occurred to me to bring someone with me to this appointment. I had made the choice to do this on my own, and I didn’t want to bother anyone with my problems. I didn’t cry on the street. I didn’t even cry when I visited a friend that afternoon and explained the situation. I didn’t cry until I got home.
I cried for seven nights. Once I stopped crying, I began to research alternatives, such as fostering and adoption, though I was still determined to keep trying.
A fertility specialist I consulted suggested in vitro fertilization, a process through which the egg is fertilized outside of the body. “I’m not there yet,” I explained to him, “and neither is my insurance.” The alternative was intrauterine insemination; the sperm would be placed in the uterus by the doctor.
It was then that I began to seed a community. I gathered my family and friends and asked them to help me find the perfect donor for my new family. They each had access to my online cryobank account and had the opportunity to select their favorite person. I was first inseminated the Friday before I worked as a greeter for the only Super Bowl held in the New York metropolitan area. The process was a roller-coaster, and I was inseminated for the third time on the fifth of May that same year. So began the making of my first child.
Many of the Black women I know had fibroids. They are not only more common in Black women than white women, but they also start in Black women when they are younger and grow faster than in white women. When my fertility doctor found uterine fibroids that were “normal for Black women” and concluded they were too small for concern, I still worried. I know women who’ve had to have surgery to remove their fibroids and were therefore given a small window within which they could have children, as well as women whose miscarriages and premature labor were caused by fibroids.
I worried constantly about everything.
My first trimester was difficult, as it is for many moms. I was lucky that the bulk of it occurred over the summer, so morning sickness kicked in right around the end of the semester. Though I started to notice how smelly my beloved city actually was and had to swear off bacon for a few months, it wasn’t until I stayed up for twenty-four hours to get my grades in by the deadline that I threw up for the first time. It got progressively worse over time until I was surviving on a diet of green tea lemonade and gluten-free pretzels. As I spent more and more time in bed, I ate less and less and threw up more.
By the time I entered the worst part of my morning sickness, I could barely leave my bedroom. As I sat in bed, hardly eating and trying to talk myself off my mattress, I reminded myself that I had chosen this and worked hard to get it. I knew it would be hard to do alone. I kept telling myself, You’re an adult. You can do this without anyone. You have to do this without anyone.
I must also admit that I also had the image in my head of Black women giving birth in the fields and being forced to go back to work. If I couldn’t get through this with all the resources I had, what kind of woman was I?
I sucked it up (and threw it up) for a month and soon began to realize I needed some support. I needed some community. A few weeks before the end of the first trimester, I moved in with my mom.
When I began to think about writing this article, I looked up the effects of age on morning sickness. I was sure it was my age that made it so bad. The research was inconclusive at best—in fact, there were a few studies that showed age actually has a positive effect on morning sickness. I eventually concluded that psychological, rather than physical, issues had affected me most. I didn’t want to ask for help because I was too old for that. I learned later that a single mom can never be too anything to ask for help.
A week after my due date and thirty-eight-and-a-half years after my own birth, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. We moved back into my apartment. Now that I was home alone with a baby, the four flights in my walk-up had never felt so long. Not only did I feel I couldn’t leave, but I also didn’t know what to do when I was home. In those first few months home, the days were so long, but the months flew by. I often compared this to my awesome auntieness and realized how much I’d missed in my niece’s life. First my niece wasn’t mobile, then she was crawling, then walking, and then talking. Despite my fabulousness, I didn’t get to experience the six to eight months between those milestones. The afternoons at home were especially tough, as the mornings were highly scheduled. There was no plan for us in the afternoons, no events to break up the monotony of entertaining a three-month-old. All my attempts at a schedule fell flat.
Pushing through this was difficult for me. I’m not someone who puts herself out there. I had always been part of communities but never really had to do much to engage them. Following the model set in my mother’s book, On Our Own Terms, I had written a paper in college about college-aged Black women’s triple day: their schoolwork, relationship work, and community work in a predominately white university. I joined clubs, handed out fliers, and attended meetings. But I was not an entirely proactive group organizer.
Things began to change when my pediatrician suggested I join our neighborhood parents’ listserv. On it, I met a family that needed a nanny share. Childcare was one area where my planning had failed me, so I saw a nanny as a quick fix to a potentially large problem. As we interviewed a potential nanny who said she couldn’t work with us because the combination of hills and stairs were a little too much for her, I got a bit of advice from other parents: strap the child into a carrier and roll the stroller down in front of you, then drag it up behind you with groceries, laundry, or packages from the mail. Now we were free to go out and experience a change of scenery.
I was also able to use the listserv to connect with different communities. One of the things you miss out on when you’re parenting alone is conversation. Early on, I asked around to find out if there was a group for new parents, and when I found out there wasn’t, I collected email addresses and decided to create one. It got me out of my head and into the park, and it was the first group I’d encountered in which I could bounce ideas around. No one was going to judge me and tell me why what I was doing was wrong and how what they did was right. These were just other people with the same questions and their own answers. In a small neighborhood, these people became my first community, and some of them remain our friends. I also took a tummy time class once a week, which provided me with something to do, someplace to go, and again, people to talk to. You can only spend so much time walking . . . to nowhere. These parents and children were another part of building community.
Via social media, I created a broader community of the family and friends who had helped me choose my donor, the people who’d supported me during my ups and downs of miscarriage and pregnancy, and those who’d held me up as a feminist because of my choices. It allowed me to engage with them and allowed them to watch Lilli grow up. Within those fifty people, I had a smaller group of friends—my “circle of moms”—who had children within five years of my daughter’s birth. When my daughter almost fell off my lap because I fell asleep while rocking her, I emailed them immediately. When I couldn’t figure out weaning or potty training, they were there for me.
My longest-lasting community (beyond my family) emerged from Lilli’s “school.” She started in childcare at seven months, and on the very first day, we met someone from our new parents’ group who became her best friend. As everyone began to move on when their children reached two, Lilli went to a new daycare with someone from our tummy time group. Another best friend moved with her to her final daycare, and finally to pre-K.
I’ve settled into my life as a mom. My daughter’s gregariousness contributed greatly to the development of our community, and we’ve established a routine of regularly interacting with local friends, family members, and neighbors. While I haven’t used my circle of moms in two years, most of them are in the social media group I created for my daughter, and they see her at events and meetings. With the past as a narrative and the present under control, I have begun to look to the future.
As Lilli prepares to attend primary school, I have become much more aware of the lack of African Americans in our neighborhood. Though our neighborhood has always been predominately Latinx and is now even officially designated Little Dominican Republic, it was only in exploring the demographics of the school that I came to realize that my neighborhood, though predominantly people of color, is only 15 percent African American. The student body of the school she will attend is between 10 and 12 percent African American, a proportion that seems almost invisible in a city like New York, where we make up 25 percent of the population.
It remains important to me to connect with African American parents, to connect with others who experience the world in similar ways while also understanding how experiences might be different. I’ve searched them out in person and on the listserv and collected contact information, but we’ve never had a good opportunity to develop and build that community. I return often to my idea of connecting with African American parents and making sure Lilli gets to connect with African American children within her community of color, and we recently had a picnic with a few others with similar interests.
I have moved into a new arena, but like so many strong, Black, single women, I didn’t do it alone. The creation and cultivation of community—the kinwork that feels as though it is part of my birthright—took time and energy, but community is how I have been able to continue to move forward. By gathering friends and family, I’ve created a community for my daughter, and through her, I’ve created a community for myself.
Alia R. Tyner-Mullings is an associate professor of sociology at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College—CUNY. Her areas of interest are education, communities, and popular culture. She also runs workshops on academic planning.