A whisper before my son could read, he was gifted a set of four decks of playing cards, all with cute cartoon illustrations on them: one with smiling fish for Go Fish!, another with dancing numbers for Crazy 8s, pairs of zoo animals for a matching game, and Old Maid.
Old. Maid. Wow.
Anything you need to know about how society sees women — aging women in particular — can be summed up by the game Old Maid. The rules? You gather pairs by taking cards from your opponent’s hand, and whoever ends up with the Old Maid card at the end LOSES.
Born in the Victorian era, Old Maid reinforced the social rules of the time that young women should marry while they were young; otherwise, they’d risk ending up old, single, and as worthless as an iPhone 4. I say “of the time,” but I think we can agree that right now is the same time.
How has this game not been modernized or changed to something else you don’t want to get stuck with? Call it Messy Roommate, Crypto-enthusiast, Elon Musk! Or, if you’re going to stay the course with blatant sexism, call it Career Woman or Lady Who Says Her Body Her Choice. Then leave that poor girl alone to play solitaire in peace.
My son and I are sitting on the living room rug, looking at the different decks, and he’s asking how each one is played. I linger on the intricacies of Crazy 8s too long because I don’t want to talk about Old Maid. I don’t want to explain how society sees older women as unlikable and unfortunate. My brain is reeling, quickly trying to invent a different way to play the game and thus change the narrative, but I can’t even get there because my thoughts are drowning in guilt. I had my son late in life. I am an older mother.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted this child. I am so thankful to have him in my life, and I still can’t believe it happened. But I’m also conscious of the realities. And I understand the exact moment I’m writing this story. So, I just want to clearly state that I am pro-choice and believe that we should live in a society where every woman can make whatever choices they want to about their body and that those choices should be sanctioned, protected, and upheld by the law.
Society is so damn mean to older women, except when you get pregnant. Then you are a hero. Sure, you will be considered high-risk, asked to take a million tests, pushed to schedule a caesarean, and generally considered a medical problem — but also a miracle and super-vessel. Every woman over 30 who is thinking of trying to get pregnant will pull you aside and ask how you did it, what your secret was — trying to replicate whatever cocktail of medical intervention and witchcraft you doused yourself in. I can’t tell you the amount of times I was asked, “How long were you trying?”
I’d answer, “I think it was 5 or 6 minutes.”
And then, once you have the kid, you’ll be ignored, judged, and told to keep up.
I got pregnant at 43, some would say young for a New York mom, but that’s just cute talk because I can’t help but notice how much younger all the parents around me are. When I’m at school drop off or pick up, the other mothers say they are sleep deprived, but their skin is glowy and elastic — it still snaps back. They have angst. It hasn’t crossed over into defeat.
When we talk, I’m afraid to throw out references that reveal my age — how I remember when they introduced Elmo on Sesame Street, and I didn’t like him. I only recently learned that the brontosaurus is back, as I didn’t even know it had gone away! And that I just got rid of my 90s grunge wide-leg pants and corset tops only to see them back. But I probably wouldn’t don a corset top again. I’m not as interested in being bound and cinched as I used to be. I dumb down my history, memories, and even experiences so I can hide among these parents who had their kid at “the right time,” at a time in their life that not only makes sense from a societal point of view but maybe from a reality point of view too. And I wonder if my son notices that I am older and if he will be anxious about it. Because I am. And I was.
My mother also had me older, at 42, but I was her 6th child. It’s evident in hindsight that she had superhuman energy and also wasn’t as strict with me as she was with my older siblings — presumably because of age-related fatigue, so I profited with very few rules. But as soon as I could do addition, I would sit in my room and figure out how old I would be when my mom turned 60, 70, 80, 90….
And here I was with Old Maid staring at me in the face. Literally. My son had rifled through the deck and found the Old Maid card, a cartoon image of a woman with brown hair wearing a bright yellow dress. He shoved it in my face and exclaimed, “Mom! Mom! She looks like you!
What is this game called?” he asked.
“Old Maid,” I muttered.
“Gold Maid?!” he repeated while gazing at the cartoon girl in her marigold gown.
I half smiled and just agreed. “Yeah, it’s called Gold Maid.”
“How do you play?” he asked.
I cautiously explained that we take cards from each other’s hands, try to make pairs, and whoever ends up with the Gold Maid card at the end…
“Wins?!!” he yelled with huge bright eyes.
“Yes!” I agreed, using improv rules to continue our conversation. Plus, why would I deny him this moment? Why would I deny myself the solution to this game that he just effortlessly handed me?
“Yeah. That’s exactly it. Whoever ends up with that card, Gold Maid, at the end WINS. That’s the game!”
“Let’s play!” he commanded with glee.
I started dealing out the cards thinking, “We already are.”