With the release last month of Bridget Jones’s Baby, our favourite fictional diarist, now in her forties, found herself pregnant for the first time. Questions of paternity aside (you’ll need to see the film to learn more!), Bridget’s right on trend, as figures show that first-time mums are getting older. So, what is it like to cope with sleepless nights when you’re heading for the menopause?
Gay Search: mother at 40
Gardening author and broadcaster Gay Search had her first child when she was 40. Now 70, her sons Daniel and Nathan are 30 and 26.
If a woman having her first baby over 26 back in the Eighties was an ‘elderly primigravida’ then, at 40 when I had my first son Daniel, I was a positively geriatric primigravida!
Now ‘elderlies’ are over 35 and the average age for having a first baby in the UK is 30, for a whole raft of reasons – affording a suitable home, getting established in the workplace, or indeed finding the right partner. But none of that applied to me. Tony and I had been together for ten years. As a freelance journalist I had work that I loved, we were buying our own house and money wasn’t a problem. I had always bemoaned the fact that my mum was 37 when I was born and I always swore I would never inflict having an old mother on any children I might have.
So why the delay? I was frightened – of actually giving birth, but more of what sort of mother I’d be. I tied my identity firmly to what I did and felt that with a baby I’d disappear under the invisibility cloak of motherhood...
Having been persuaded by my husband, who changed his mind before I did, that it would be a good idea, I know I was extremely lucky given that fertility declines rapidly after 35. I conceived relatively easily, had a straightforward pregnancy and a relatively easy birth – well, 21 hours of labour, 14 of them with an epidural, followed by an emergency Caesarean… and a healthy 9lb 10oz baby boy.
I researched older parenthood and much of what I found was negative: much greater risk of birth defects, higher rate of stillbirths. Older dads wouldn’t be able to run about and kick footballs. Older mothers apparently don’t have the energy that women in their twenties do. True, those first three months with no more than three hours’ sleep at a stretch were absolutely knackering, but I think that’s true for any woman. Sleep deprivation is a torture.
I can remember being asked at lunch with friends if I’d like more sprouts, and bursting into tears. I went to bed and Tony wheeled Daniel round the streets for a few hours while I slept. When I woke up, I could cope again.
Sleep is the key whatever age you are. I was 44 when my second son Nathan was born. I expressed milk through the week and froze it. Then on a Friday night, I shut myself in the spare room and Tony did the night feeds. Knowing that I’d get one uninterrupted night was enough to get me through those other long, dark, broken nights of the soul.
On the plus side, as an older mother, I’m sure I had more patience than I would have done in my twenties. A lot of childcare, when they are very small, is deeply tedious, but I didn’t resent it in the way that I might have done when I was younger. It wasn’t coming between me and my career. By then I was well enough established, and I worked at home anyway, so I knew that once the broken nights were over, and since we could afford childcare in the daytime, I could pick up where I left off. As for our social life, the lure of wild weekends had long faded and being in on a Saturday night was no longer social death but secretly quite a relief.
It didn’t occur to me that my sons might be embarrassed by having old parents. They both say it never crossed their minds, because we were so energetic. Now they get a kick out of seeing the look on friends’ faces when they tell them just how old we are.
Perhaps it was also because in our social circle we weren’t that unusual. In fact, it was the couple who’d had their children in their early twenties who were the freaks!
I was mistaken for Nathan’s grandmother just once – in a store where he was trying on vastly overpriced jeans. ‘I suppose Granny’s treating you, is she?’ said the cool young man. To quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:
‘You people work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge.’ We went elsewhere.
The teenage years can be a nightmare time for parents. Was it worse for me because I was in my late fifties, lying wide awake at 4am, worried sick about my 14-year-old son who’d gone to a fancy-dress party as Bo Peep, had refused the midnight lift home as arranged with one of the sheep’s parents and was not answering his phone? Probably not.
I’d like to say that age gave me the maturity to rise above the guerrilla warfare that dealing with teenagers can become, that I handled the fights about getting up for school with calm detachment. But I can’t. Sometimes when I was in full fishwife mode, my son would look at me coolly and say, ‘You’re behaving like a child!’ And of course he was right.
That’s all history now, and I have a great relationship with two wonderful sons. No, I won’t live to be a great-grandmother, but who cares? When I read about women in their fifties, sixties, even seventies giving birth, I do think that is very unfair on the children. But perhaps people thought that about us. Would I do things differently? No, not for a second.
Sarah Crowley with her son Andres, who she gave birth to at 50.
Sarah Crowley: mother at 50
Sarah Crowley, 54, a former sales director in travel technology, gave birth to her son Andres at 50.
‘No, that’s correct, 1962 is my birth year.’ The midwife looked askance but smiled. It was an easy calculation – it was 2012. Most of the maternity-ward staff were certain they must have misheard what I said; after all, no woman gives birth to her first baby at 50, right?
It was an Olympic year for me in so many ways. A quest that had begun seven years earlier with my husband, whom I met when I was 43, was culminating in what would soon be the premature but healthy arrival of my son Andres.
My life had afforded me wonderful opportunities to travel and see the world. I chose a career in travel as I couldn’t imagine anything better or more fun. The years passed as they do; my early thirties saw every single one of my friends marry and go on to start a family. Not me. Of course, I always thought in the back of my mind it ‘would happen’ one day, but never dreamed that day would come in the year I turned 50.
By the time I was 40 and newly single, I decided that I might have to consider a life without children. It didn’t sit well. I read about how we need to grieve and feel the loss but inside, like a dark and shameful secret, was a deep desire and belief that I would someday become a mother. I just knew it, but told no one. People saw me as this career woman without a maternal instinct, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The deep desire never left me, but nor did it obsess or inform my life. Once I let go of the idea of meeting Mr Right, I met Esteban.
After being together for a year we talked about starting a family. Esteban was 31 and loved the idea. Nothing worked naturally as month on month I plotted my ovulation. Visits to the IVF doctor at 44 showed I had seriously compromised fertility and the specialist suggested we go straight to an egg donor.
Many rounds of failed egg-donor treatment followed, which took a toll on me, on our relationship and on our bank account. There was no one to share my sadness and isolation with, as everyone I knew had conceived naturally. My one friend doing IVF also fell pregnant. I felt as if I was completely alone, but when to give up hope?
I promised myself after going to see a reproductive immunology specialist that if the treatment wasn’t successful this time, I could at least say that I had tried everything possible. But it worked.
I’m 54 now and Andres will soon be four and starting school this month. Becoming a mother has transformed me and how I view the world. This precious gift of life that I so nearly missed is cherished every day.
Older mothers: the statistics
One look at the statistics, and a new trend is clear – women are often waiting until their thirties, or even forties – before becoming pregnant.
The average maternal age in the UK has risen dramatically over the past two decades.
Between 1987 and 2008, pregnancies in women aged 35 or over rose from 8% to 20%, and pregnancies in women aged 40 or older trebled from 1.2% to 3.6%.
Government figures for births in England and Wales in 2014 show that:
- 52% of babies were born to mums aged 30 and over.
- 21% of women who gave birth were aged 35 and over.
- For the first time, more women aged 35 and over gave birth than women under 25.
The US has also seen a trend towards older first-time mums. In 2012, 24% more women had their first baby when aged 35-39 than in 2000. And in the same time span the number of first-time mums aged 40-44 has increased by 35%.
Other older mothers
Pregnancy for middle-aged mums can be something of a surprise. Cherie Blair already had two sons and a daughter when she told reporters waiting outside No 10 that her pregnancy at 45 had come as a ‘total shock’.
The author of bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary had her first child at 43 and second at 48. Guess where the inspiration for her latest Bridget Jones film came from
The former athlete adopted baby twins at 57 – they’re now three. She says age is no barrier to caring for children. ‘If you’re thinking of adoption, don’t be put off. It’s not always easy but keep going, it’s hugely satisfying.’
For some people it seems that it’s never too late. Daljinder Kaur, an Indian woman in her seventies (as is her husband), gave birth to a baby boy this year following two years of fertility treatment using donor eggs.