The Biological Clock

Illustration by Justin Winslow

On certain days the thunderous ticking of my biological clock is deafening. Occasionally I stop, pay attention, and think about how life would be, now, on the cusp of 45, with a small baby. Diaper changes at 3am? Temper tantrums? Babysitters? It all seems so distant as I’m touring college campuses with my high school junior, Jordan. But alas, here it is, the craving for one more baby.

Or is it? Is it a true craving or do I simply want what’s out of reach? Maybe the thought of never being able to conceive again makes me feel…well, really old. And maybe, somewhere deep inside, the mourning has begun for that special piece of femininity.

When I get the call that my 9-year-old niece wants to come for a visit, the timing dumbfounds me. Could this be that rare opportunity where I can show everyone, including myself, how this could work? We welcome Emily without hesitation and start planning the perfect agenda: Dylan’s Candy Bar, FAO Schwarz, the American Museum of Natural History, and more.

Emily, however, has quite a different agenda.

The flight arrives on time. Emily appears holding a stuffed animal and stares at my husband, Bill, and me. Those dark, serious eyes say it all—she’s nervous and unsure of her snap decision to travel alone and spend time with relatives she sees only occasionally.

But just a few awkward minutes pass before she’s talking about her dad and her school and asking when Jordan will be joining us. After a drive to Roosevelt Island, we park the car, grab the tram, and hit the Manhattan pavement. Dylan’s is a nightmare of pushing, shoving, and whining. We’re overwhelmed. Did we forget all of this?

We eventually make it out in one piece and head to Clarks’ for sensible walking shoes. Emily is distracted by knee-high boots and high heels. She hates most of the shoes I pick out for her, wrinkling her nose but begrudgingly agreeing to try a few. Emily then caresses a pair of furry boots and looks at me hopefully. I fight back a smile but say, “You’ll be too hot in those.” We leave without shoes.

Because her feet hurt, and she’s hot, she wants to go home, she says. I start to panic—until I realize that she means our home.

Of course, I don’t hold the departures from the planned itinerary against Emily. She’s 9. Perhaps in all my excitement, I’d simply forgotten the realities of the day-to-day challenges that come with life with a young child.

But back at our apartment, we talk, and I’m quickly reminded of how much I love being a parent. Emily shares about school and friends, the good and the bad, and everything in between. It’s the perfect moment to give Emily a pair of emerald earrings that I no longer wear. She rushes to try them on and pulls her hair up to show them off. “I love them,” she says. “They’re beautiful.” She squeezes me tight.

The following day, Jordan asks if she can take Emily out for a girls’ day. I listen to them talk as Jordan brushes and braids Emily’s hair, something Emily wouldn’t allow me to do the day before. I try and act like I’m not paying attention, but I’m awestruck by Jordan’s take-charge attitude and Emily’s eager acceptance. An hour after they leave, Jordan sends me a text with a picture of Emily, who is all smiles and sporting a new pair of purple Keds.

Without even realizing it, I begin to ease into the background. We’re walking around the Museum of Natural History, and I see how comfortable Jordan is holding Emily’s hand and allowing Emily to guide her where she wants to explore. Their light conversation and short burst of giggles floats behind them while they move on farther away from Bill and me. I understand what I’m witnessing, a revealing glimpse into the future, a time and place where, hopefully, I will once again be able to nurture and love a baby—a child that is not my own but my daughter’s.

I stop. I listen for the ticking, but I only hear the soft echo of whispers and footsteps.

Maria Riley is a Southern transplant now living on Roosevelt Island with her husband and teenage daughter. You can follow her family adventures at and @LifeofRileyNYC.