Embracing midlife mothers: JCC exhibit tells their stories

In 2004, Cyma Shapiro and her husband, Richard, traveled to Moscow to adopt their first child together. Shapiro had helped to raise her husband’s children — then 19 and 21 — from his previous marriage, but at 46 she’d never had a child of her own. When she decided becoming a mother was important to her, it was an “absolute slam-dunk” to adopt a child from Russia, says the former journalist, in order to honor her Russian Jewish ancestry.

After a monthslong process, the couple arrived home to West Hartford, Conn., thrilled, with their 1-year-old daughter in tow. But some friends and community members were less than overjoyed by the news.

Cyma Shapiro and her children Abira and Ethan

“We had a huge social circle, and there was such a lack of enthusiasm or any kind of interest … and I had the sense that people must be feeling things they’re not sharing with me,” recalls Shapiro, now 55. “And when I started to put myself into the arena of daycare and preschool, I started to feel really isolated.

“It became clear that choosing motherhood at my age was not something people really considered in the realm of plausible life choices.”

Still, she knew there were others like her out there. So she set about finding them.

“Nurture: Stories of New Midlife Mothers,” a collection of 25 black-and-white photographs and accompanying narratives, was born of Shapiro’s desire to hear from other women who also chose motherhood later in life (defined for the exhibit’s purposes as over 40).

As she reached out to women “from Alaska to Maine” for their stories, Shapiro worked with photographers Shana Sureck and Tracy Cianflone, both midlife mothers themselves, to take portraits of the families. The exhibit, which has appeared in eight other galleries and community centers across the United States, will make its California debut June 17 at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

Setting aside the one quality they all have in common, the women highlighted in “Nurture” couldn’t be more different from one another: They range in age from 41 to 65; they come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds — though several are Jewish — and every spot on the socioeconomic spectrum. They also represent the multitude of possibilities women have for becoming mothers later in life: adoption, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy and more.

“I wanted every woman to be able to walk out of the show and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me,’ or ‘That could be me,’ ” Shapiro says of the widely diverse portraits.

Joanie Siegel (right) with Kathy and Devin photo/shana sureck

Much of her work is also showcased on the website she started while interviewing women, motheringinthemiddle.com. “I think when you see someone you can relate to, it’s easier to dispel myths about who’s capable of handling motherhood later in life and where the challenges are, which was one goal … I also wanted a younger generation of women who may be just starting out with these issues to feel supported, to see that other women have provided a blueprint.”

A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that more children are now born to women older than 35 than to teenagers. In 2008, the last year for which detailed data is available, approximately 8,000 babies were born to women 45 and older, more than a 100 percent increase from a decade earlier. Of those 8,000, some 541 were born to women 50 or older.

The exhibit’s simple black-and-white portraits reflect this trend by delving into the lives of these women and their children — sometimes a family of two, sometimes with partners, and in the case of one Hassidic rebbetzin, surrounded by her husband and nine children — without compromising their individuality or humanity.

Among them is Frieda Birnbaum, who had her third child at 53 and, in 2007, at the age of 60, became the oldest woman to give birth to twins. She and her husband had two children in their 30s, but as they grew up and moved out of the house, Birnbaum said. her desire for children only increased. Last year, Birnbaum told ABC News she felt more energetic than ever.

Joanie Siegel took in a 17-year-old girl through a foster care-to-adopt program and a year later, the girl gave birth to a boy; the three of them are now a tight-knit family.

Rivka Slonim (center) with her family photo/shana sureck

Shirley Pollock, a married mother with two adult children, adopted three Chinese children at the age of 55 after being struck by a documentary on Chinese orphanages.

Rivka Slonim and her husband run the Chabad House on the SUNY Binghamton campus. She had eight children before the age of 40 and one afterward. “We live a rich life in all the ways that matter,” she told Shapiro during their conversations. “Each child is the ultimate blessing.”

Shana Sureck, the exhibit’s East Coast photographer, had her daughter, Tali, at 40 via a sperm donor. She was recently divorced with no children, and had spent much of her adult life focused on her work as a newspaper photographer for the Hartford Courant. Now 51, she says the discussion about whether or not women can “have it all,” in terms of balancing children with a successful career and children, strikes a chord.

“I think you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time,” she says with a laugh. “For me, this was a great decision. I had a workplace where I had really established myself and had a lot of flexibility, which a younger mom might struggle with. And I’d already been on lots of photo adventures and trips — I wanted to stay home [with the baby]. That was where my priorities were.”

Sureck remarried, to a woman, and the couple now live in Northampton, Mass. with their daughter. The photographer says one big sadness has been that her parents died when Tali was very young. “That part is sad for me especially because my grandmother was such a huge part of my life,” says Sureck of one common challenge older mothers face.

“In the traditional family model, grandparents were around to help,” echoes Shapiro, “but women are redefining the model.”

Both women said they felt proud to be part of something that, from audience reactions, is clearly sparking dialogue.

“What I’ve been hearing is an increased awareness and appreciation from people who come to see [the exhibit], and that’s one really positive aspect,” says Sureck. “And for some of the people photographed, or who recognize themselves in these photographs, I hope it’s helping someone to go, ‘Oh, so I’m not alone.’”

“Nurture: Stories of New Midlife Mothers” is on display through Sept. 2 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. www.marinjcc.org.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.