When we brought A.A. back from Ethiopia, he was a month away from turning 5 and I was nearly 51.
From the start, even though he spoke no English, I had a gut feeling he wouldn't deal well knowing my true age. And I didn't tell him, partly following the lead of a friend of mine who, along with her husband, adopted two girls from China. She was approaching 50 when she and her husband (who is three years younger) adopted their second child, a toddler. When the younger sister grew old enough to communicate, it was clear she wanted her parents, whose birthdays were only days apart, to be the same age. The younger one didn't talk about it specifically, but mom knew to keep her own real age from her, as a way to protect her. She was vulnerable, the mom said.
Within a couple months of being home, A.A. could speak enough English to relay his opinions about age, and my reservations about full disclosure were correct: He thought people in their 50s or older were ancient and going to die soon. I'm not sure why this was — he had yet to meet his grandmommy, or great aunt or great uncle, all of whom were in their 90s. So I speculated that in Ethiopia, people didn't regularly live past their 60s. To him, I am the equivalent of someone in their 80s.
So to prevent our newly adopted son from pondering his new forever mom dying anytime soon, I lied. I said, I was 39 and holding, which is what my dad always said (with a jolly wink) to me and my siblings (he was 42 when I was born, which was old in 1961). I knew my dad wasn't really 39, and I had no idea what "holding" meant, but I loved sharing a secret with my dad.
My husband didn't approve, noting that my real age would eventually come out, and it would be worse than A.A. knowing now.
I've usually told the truth about my age — I grew up in the Gloria Steinem school of "this is what 40 [or 50 or 60] looks like." And I'm fully aware of the perils that come with lying about my age. For six months in 1999, I worked in Australia and since I didn't know anyone when I arrived, I shaved five years off my age (a true 37) for a magazine piece. It became confusing as all get out, as one lie (year of high school graduation) begat another (first album, first concert, first year of college, parents' age, year I moved to NYC, etc, etc. ). I was happy to return to the U.S. and be in my late 30s again.
For six months, A.A. didn't question my "39 and holding," but then he began to consider it. "You're lucky you're not going to be 40" became, "Why don't you turn 40?" accompanied by a growing sense of frustration in his voice. To ensure he got the wink that came with the lie, I joked with him about it, saying by the time he's 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years old, I'll still be 39 and holding.
I told myself he knew I was kidding, but as he's gotten older and wiser, he's become more concerned about people's age. As we explained who Nelson Mandela was when he died at 95, he immediately said, "That's how old Uncle Sidney is. He's going to die soon." We don't know if that will happen soon, he could live to 100, I told him. But sadly he was right, Uncle Sid died shortly afterwards, which launched a whole bunch of questions about death and being buried (a topic for another day). Right now, he's marking time as before or after 1977, the year Elvis Presley died (Some things mentioned in passing just stick).
However, on a recent school night, as dad's 43rd birthday approached, it was clear A.A. was done with "39 and holding." "Why don't you turn 40?" Okay, I heard that before, but then the twist of the knife: "You're older than dad!"
I have no idea how he figured this out. I'll chalk I up to a six-year-old's sixth sense. So I told him. No guessing games. No nothing. "I'm 52 years old." And he was fine. He calculated that I'm 9 years older than his dad and then turned his attention to a more important question: "What's for dessert?"