Way back when I was at primary school there was something of a scandal. The headmaster didn’t run off with his secretary, there was no affair, or messy break-up. Nope the salacious gossip that sent the school gate rumour mill into a complete spin was that one of my classmate’s mums was pregnant. At the grand old age of…40.
Shock, horror right? Nowadays, 40+ mums-to-be are two a penny, but back then it was considered BIG, BIG news. My friend’s mum was viewed as a geriatric and people couldn’t stop talking about it. “How will she cope being an older mum?” “What about the child?” “Isn’t it just a bit selfish?” they whispered in bemusement as she waddled past with her bump.
Nowadays, those same questions are still aimed pointedly in the direction of older parents, but the age bracket of which parents are considered to be ‘old’ has shifted quite dramatically.
Last month, actress Brigitte Nielson announced that she had given birth to her fifth child, a daughter named Frida, at the age of 55.
And she’s certainly not the only one to be arriving somewhat late to the parenting party. Janet Jackson recently gave birth to her first child, a son Eissa, at 50, while Mick Jagger is back in the sleep-deprived haze of babyhood, having welcomed his eighth child, Deveraux Octavian Basil, back in December 2016. He’s 74 by the way. Nicole Kidman has also revealed that she may not be done with the whole giving birth thing and is still hoping for another baby at the age of 49.
It’s not a trend exclusive to celebsville either. Last year, Carolyne Ness gave birth to her son Javed, at 58, after being denied IVF treatment in the UK and travelling to India for the procedure.
Back in 2016 a woman, thought to be the world’s oldest mother gave birth at the age of 70. With her 79-year-old husband, Daljinder Kaur welcomed a son into the world after two years of IVF treatment. While back in the UK Sharon Cutts, from Lincolnshire became Britain’s oldest mother of triplets when she gave birth to Mason, Ryan and Lily in March 2016 when she was aged 55.
It’s a trend that looks set to rise too. In June data published by the Office for National Statistics showed the number of births to 50-plus women has quadrupled over the last two decades, up from 55 in 2001 to 238 in 2016.
During the same period there were 1,859 births in the UK to women over 50, and 153 to women over 55.
The number of women having children in their 40s has also risen three fold from 4.9 live births per 1,000 in 1981 to 14.7 births per thousand today. What’s more, ‘older mothers’, who doctors describe as women aged 35 and over, now make up a fifth of all births in Britain.
So what’s causing this spike in fifty or even sixty-plus parenting? It’s possible that for some it’s a case of not being able or not feeling ready to have children in their earlier decades. The reasons have been widely discussed. From not meeting the partner they want to procreate with, to not being able to afford a baby, or wanting to get to the top of the career ladder first. Others, may just not have been able to make their minds up about wanting kids in the first place.
In the past, women who’d reached their fifth decade may have assumed they’d left it too late to consider joining the mother ranks, but with the advancement of ever improving fertility treatments, motherhood in the retirement years is becoming an increasingly viable possibility.
According to Tim Child, medical director at Oxford Fertility and associate professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Oxford, it is medically possible for women to become pregnant even after the menopause.
“There is no limit to the age at which eggs from a donor – or ones previously frozen – can potentially implant in a woman’s uterus,” he told The Telegraph. “So it is medically absolutely possible to achieve pregnancy after menopause but there are risks to the woman herself when she is pregnant and to the foetus, too.”
As a consequence, British reproductive clinics only see women up to the natural age of menopause, between 50 and 52. But there’s nothing stopping British women going abroad for treatment where the regulations aren’t quite as stringent. Yet, the risks are still very real.
“Pregnancy in older age is associated with higher risk of miscarriage,” explains Mr Narendra Pisal, Consultant Gynaecologist at London Gynaecology. “This is possibly because of higher chance of chromosomal problems in embryo as the eggs get older.”
“There is also a higher chance of having a baby with Down’s syndrome,” he continues. “At 35, this is 1 in 250 and increases to 1 in 100 by 40 years of age. By 45, risk of miscarriage is nearly 50% and chance of Down’s syndrome baby is greater that 2%. A Noninvasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) is a blood test for mother to look at baby’s chromosomes and can be done from 10 weeks of gestation.”
Then there’s the pregnancy related complications which increase with age, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, low lying placenta, placental abruption and growth problems for babies.
“There is also a higher chance of difficult labour and intervention (due to above medical factors) such as induction of labour or caesarean section,” advises Mr Pisal.
And even if an older mother does have the physical health and strength to cope with the demands of pregnancy and birth, what about parenthood? The sleepless nights, the chasing after a lively toddler, the play groups, the constant to-ing and fro-ing to after school clubs and beyond.
Then there’s the question of mortality, which is always raised when discussing older parenting. Every child fears the death of their parent, but it could be more acute for one with older parents.
There’s also the raised eyebrows and general judgement a late parenting starter could face. The assumptions that you must be the grandparent, the confused frowns when you rock up to a baby group and are the oldest person there by at least a decade.
According to a survey for the Private Pregnancy UK Show the majority of British women believe it is ‘unnatural’ to have babies over the age of 44. Their main reasons were that it could increase the risk of health complications for the child, and that it would be unfair of the child to have old parents, who may not live long enough to see them grow up.
But while there’s no doubt a certain slice of society will always be skeptical about the rise of retirement parenthood, there are in fact many positive aspects to being a mature mother. Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London, told Yahoo Style UK that older mothers were often more stable financially, established in their careers, and brought a maturity to the role of parenthood coupled with a more realistic expectation of what it would entail.
“Often having waited for motherhood, older mums are even more prepared, and intensely grateful for the experience of raising children because they were more conscious of the issue of time passing. Many older women nowadays are also extremely healthy and fit,” she said.
And lets not forget the thousands of grandparents who are effectively already bringing up children while their actual parents go out to work. Is there a difference between these grandparents as opposed to mothers of the same age raising children?
For Jenny* being an older mum didn’t feel like a choice. “I came from a really unhappy, dysfunctional family and had a terrible relationship with my own mother, so throughout my twenties and thirties I wasn’t able to maintain any kind of stable relationship never mind have kids,” she explains.
“Even in my thirties I was ambiguous about having children because I was terrified of having as bad a relationship with my own children as I’d had with my parents.”
After divorcing in her early 40s, Jenny went on to meet someone else and have two children in her mid to late 40s. “The risks to me and my babies were greater because I was old. I was at high risk of my babies having chromosomal abnormalities and I found that very stressful,” she says. “I also had preeclampsia both times and two emergency caesareans.”
But despite the difficulties, Jenny likes being an older mum and can see the advantages of ‘retirement’ parents. “Motherhood has destroyed my lifestyle in terms of career, income, travel etc and if I hadn’t had a successful career and travelled extensively before becoming a mum I know I would have been resentful about all the things I felt being a mum was stopping me from doing. And that would have impacted on my relationship with my kids.”
“Being older also means I’m saner and more emotionally sorted than I was when I was younger. I’m also happier now, which I think is important to be able to model for your children. I didn’t feel even remotely ready to deal with the enormity of the commitment that motherhood involves before my mid forties.”
But age alone doesn’t determine your ability to be a great parent. You could be a fabulous parent at sixteen or sixty. So perhaps instead of focusing on the negatives of having a child when you’re considered too young, or too old, perhaps we should be paying more attention to the positives. Mothers have a tough enough time as it is dealing with parenting judgement, let’s not pile on the age-pressure too.
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