When Naomi Campbell announced the birth of her daughter, I spontaneously broke into tears of joy for her. The headlines led with her age — 50 — when announcing her daughter’s birth. On Twitter, people wanted to know if she had a surrogate, if she used her own eggs, if that was how she managed to hide her pregnancy so well; they wanted to talk about who the father was, and how white the baby’s feet looked. The birth of her child wasn’t simply miraculous and a cause for celebration. It was an opening for many to passive-aggressively judge older motherhood.
I could relate.
“What’s wrong with Jacquelynn? If she can’t find someone to marry her, why not just get pregnant by someone, anyone?” my aunt said to my mother when I turned 38.
In my Kenyan tribe’s culture, a woman’s worth was measured by the fruit of her womb. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers had eleven children each. My mother stopped at four — my three brothers and me — because she and my father weren’t sure they could afford to have more children. Most of my female relatives, including my much younger cousins, all have children. It didn’t matter what my life achievements were — graduate school, a decent job, volunteer work — I was a failure if I didn’t have any progeny.
Although I was open to motherhood, it wasn’t something I obsessed about or that I felt defined my worth. I was relieved to move to New York where hardly anyone remarked on my life journey, only to find that womanhood was just as complicated, and even more so for Black women.
I was 42 when I got pregnant last year. I was joyful, not because I fulfilled some cultural obligation, but because I really wanted this child. I had matured, I had a decent job and a supportive partner — things that I didn’t have earlier in my early twenties and thirties. My happiness was marred only by the fear of death during or after childbirth: in the US, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die pre- or postnatal. This statistic had been rammed into my head so much that it didn’t matter that I had a Black doctor who would do everything to save my life if anything were to go wrong. Lying in bed, feeling my daughter’s kicks, hearing her hiccups, I prayed desperately that I’d make it.
No matter what the headlines said about Black women’s health or the future prospects of their children, I also considered that if life were to take its natural course, I had but a few decades to spend with my child. There were no guarantees that I’d always be in good health, that I’d not show up at her high school graduation with dry toothpaste or cereal on the corner of my lips. I worried that I’d die while she was in her thirties. These thoughts filled me with grief.
At my 38-week appointment and with a birth plan in place, I was released to resume daily activities. I left my doctor’s Upper East Side office and wandered aimlessly on 3rd Avenue, stumbling upon Jacadi, the French children’s clothes store. Feeling hopeful, I stepped in and splurged on a onesie for my daughter. I wept when I held my baby in my arms two weeks later. Suddenly, in that hospital room buzzing with activity, I felt alone in the wilderness with just my child, bracing for the predators that would come along.
I wonder if, like me, Naomi Campbell held her daughter a little too tightly, aware of what an extraordinary gift it is to mother someone at the peak of her life, when she has so much to give and even more to teach, share, and enjoy. What I know for sure is that she won’t care what people have to say. In the wilderness, we’re alone with our joys and pains.