The changing face of motherhood

The pregnancy rate among women over forty is rising faster than in any other age group. Are these women selfish? How do they cope? And what does society have to say about them? Five older mothers tell their stories to Julia Stuart
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The Independent Online

The face of motherhood is changing. The number of babies born in the UK to women over 35 has more than doubled during the past decade and now represents around one in six of all births. More women are delaying motherhood as they enjoy their careers. Others simply don't find the man they want to spend the rest of their life with until their most fertile years have passed. Some are starting another family in their second marriage. As a result, the pregnancy rate in women over 40 is rising faster than in any other age group. Almost 25,000 women a year now become mothers in their fifth decade.

It is a subject mired in controversy. Britain's oldest new mother, Dr Patricia Rashbrook from Lewes in East Sussex, gave birth this year at the age of 62 following IVF in a country in the former Soviet Union. While some condemned her as selfish, there was almost audible national applause when the BBC's John Simpson became a father again at the age of 61 this year.

Later pregnancies, of course, carry serious health implications for both mother and child. After the age of 35, the prospect of premature births or birth defects increases markedly, along with the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes for the mother. Dr Susan Bewley, consultant obstetrician at Guy's and St Thomas' in London, has urged ministers to formally categorise the epidemic of "middle-age pregnancy" as a health hazard and come up with specific policies to deal with it.

Dr Bewley advised women to complete their families between the ages of 20 and 35 to lessen the risk of complications. But many women simply do not have the choice. Taking a career break so early on in working life can be highly detrimental in a society that affords motherhood little status. Gone is the time when most men would go to work while their wives stayed at home looking after the children; these days, financial pressures mean many families feel the need for two incomes. It's little wonder that some women put off motherhood.

Meanwhile, research continues to send out mixed messages. A recent study suggested that mothers over the age of 50 make good parents, and are just as psychologically well adjusted as those in their thirties and forties. Another, however, suggested that delaying motherhood not only reduced a woman's chances of becoming pregnant, but might also reduce her daughter's chances too. Scientists warned that the fertility rates of future generations could be hit by the increasing number of women waiting until their thirties before having their first baby.

And the numbers of older mothers look set to continue to rise. In October, the head of the Government's fertility watchdog said women in their fifties and sixties should not be banned from having IVF on age grounds. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford and the interim chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said doctors should not refuse treatment purely because they have passed the menopause, and infertile patients of any age should be seen as individuals. At the moment, while there is no age limit for IVF in Britain, the National Health Service will not fund it for women aged over 40, and few private clinics will treat women over 45. But watch this space...

Pamela Laycock Age: 50. Mother of Toby, aged five. Derek, her partner of 16 years, is 48, and runs a chauffeur company

I'd always wanted lots of children. We started consciously trying at the end of my thirties when I still hadn't got pregnant. I had IVF in the end, which cost about £14,000. I was 43 at the time. I made a conscious decision that after the age of 45 I would give up. It took only two attempts. I was very, very lucky. I was over the moon when I was told the news. It was better than winning the lottery.

It was then quite scary thinking that maybe something would go wrong. We made a decision not to have any tests for Down's Syndrome because whatever happened we would love that child and look after it. But Toby was absolutely perfect.

My husband loves children but it's never been the be all and end all for him to have one, whereas I desperately wanted one. Now he thinks it's the best thing that happened in the whole world. He still has a little tear when he thinks about Toby being born.

My mother was a bit taken aback when I told her I was pregnant, and worried that I wouldn't have the energy - but I do. I'm a London guide, and when I was pregnant I worked up until a week before he was born. I worked with two colleagues who were in their early thirties and pregnant and they were always having days off because they didn't feel well, and they stopped working way before they gave birth. I had no problem at all.

Being older I have more experience of life to share. I have done a lot, so I'm not desperate to travel. I have friends who had children in their twenties who are at university or leaving home and they're wondering what to do now. I'm too old to go backpacking and I'm lucky that I got all that out of my system before I had Toby. We also had a house, so we weren't struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.

I don't think of myself as being any different from other mums. Not many people know how old I am. Most of the mothers in Toby's class are coming up to 40 anyway. At my antenatal class there were seven of us all having our first and they were all in their mid-thirties onwards.

I do wish I had had him younger because I would have loved to have had more than one. We won't do IVF again because there would be too big an age gap with Toby. It's also too traumatic and expensive.

Toby doesn't recognise that I'm an older mum. I do worry that things might be said at a later date. I don't think I look my age at the minute, but nature will take its course and I'm sure people will make comments. Hopefully it will be something that Toby can brush off as it's not an oddity these days.

Obviously, I would like to see Toby married and it would be lovely to see grandchildren. I don't see why I won't. I don't intend to go before I'm 100.

Being a mother is all I've ever wanted to be and it completes the purpose of my life. I love every second I spend with him. It's the most wonderful experience. I think older mums are possibly more appreciative. I used to feel very left out and now I feel I belong.

Pauline Lyon Age: 63. Mother of Brodie, seven, Lauren, 11, and Lisa, 36. She is married to David, 62

When David and I got married 16 years ago we immediately discussed having a baby to seal the marriage. I already had a child from a previous marriage and he had three. We tried to conceive naturally, but when nothing happened we underwent tests and decided to try IVF. It's very emotional and splits a lot of families up, but it brought us closer together. I was 51 when I had Lauren and 55 when I had Brodie. We went to two clinics in the UK. It took three attempts for both of them. We spent £7,500 on having Lauren and £11,000 on having Brodie, but you can't put a price on a baby.

People don't say anything now, but they did when we first had Lauren. Some were for it, some were against. There were one or two in the supermarket who thought I was Lauren's grandmother. It didn't bother me. You expect it really.

Lisa was a bit upset at first over Lauren. She was just stunned to think that her mum was pregnant at the age I was. But she gets on with them really well. I do all the things that other young mums do, such as the school run. Being older you have more patience and you're better off financially. Everything else is the same. You try to do the best for your children and give them the sort of things that you never had.

The only disadvantage to being an older mother is that you might not be around when they're grown up. It makes me feel awful really, but you can't dwell on it. We have made provisions for them. They both have bank accounts.

They know I'm older than other mums, I've told them, but children take that in their stride. It's not a problem for them. Lauren has said she does worry sometimes about her mum dying, but she hasn't spoken about it to me.

It's lovely to wake up to them every morning. Brodie especially is very affectionate. They come into my bed and we have cuddles and kisses. It's brilliant. I wouldn't be without them. Whatever we do, wherever we go, they're always with us. We never palm them off on other people. We like going to car boot sales, and I take them swimming occasionally and to the coast. We're like any other family.

I never feel tired. All the younger mums come up to school and stand there saying: "I'm knackered today." I never feel like that. I don't feel any different from when I was bringing up Lisa.

I'd have another one next week if we could afford it. Two years ago we went to Italy to see if the doctor who treated me would treat me again. He said he would, but then we had loads of tests and my blood pressure was a bit high. He said if I got it down, and it was OK for three months, he would treat us. But we've just moved house so it's on hold at the moment because of the cost. I gave up work in a circuit board factory a couple of years after I met David. I get a pension and family allowance now. David is unemployed at the moment. We'll try again if we can get the money together.

Sasha Mears Age: 50. Mother to Sadie, aged six. She is married to Michael, 47, a cab driver and landscape gardener

I got married when I was 37 after Michael and I had been together for two years. I had had lots of relationships before, but never seriously considered spending the rest of my life with any of them. We started trying for a family as soon as we got married.

I didn't have any difficulty getting pregnant. It was getting to the next stage that proved to be the problem. They reckoned I lost the first one because of flu. I was grief stricken. In all, I had two definite miscarriages and two probable ones before Sadie came along. Every time you have a miscarriage it takes up to six months for your hormonal levels to re-establish themselves to a normal pitch ready to accept another pregnancy. So effectively every time a pregnancy fails you've lost another year.

I didn't have those years to lose so I went to the assisted conception unit at King's College Hospital in London on the NHS. They gave me drugs that boosted my ovulation rate. You produce six or seven eggs and they fertilise you synthetically. We did three cycles. On the third one I conceived, which was pregnancy number four, but it faltered again at around seven or eight weeks. As I was waiting to start the next cycle I conceived all by myself. I was thrilled. I was nearly 44 when I had Sadie.

I think there are a lot of advantages to being an older mother. For somebody like me who has always been a workaholic you make time because you know you haven't got time to waste. Sadie has never been to a childminder. We juggle work like mad so one or other is always there for her. I'm a theatrical costumier and make sure I get up at 5am three or four times a week to get enough hours of work done to keep my business afloat. But fortunately it's very well established, which it wouldn't be if I was younger. I don't have money worries at all.

I don't really worry about her being on her own in the future because I come from a very long-lived family. There is no cancer or heart disease. We die of boredom aged 93 having caught a cold cross-country running. My husband's family are also healthy and long-lived. You could go under a bus tomorrow. I have a will and there's a trust fund set up.

The only disadvantage of being an older mother is that we would have liked another child and it isn't going to happen. I don't think being an older mother is something that people should risk planning for because of the fertility issue. But if it happens to you be pleased because it carries huge advantages.

Dejah Sykes Age: 42. Mother to Toby, aged six, and Roseanna, 23 weeks. She is married to Dominic, 40, who works in television

At 35 I had a real biological urge to have a baby. It just didn't seem the right time before. I was enjoying life as it was. I had been a teacher, head of year and then worked in computer design. It didn't take long to conceive and I had Toby when I was 36. My husband wasn't that bothered about it, but once we were pregnant he was really, really into it.

We decided to have another one, but it took so long I gave up and thought it wasn't going to happen. We didn't want to try IVF. I then discovered that I was pregnant. It was a bit of shock. I had started doing some work and getting my life back again. But once I'd got used to the idea I was really pleased.

I find it very, very tiring. I can really feel the difference between when I had my first one. I felt like I was an older mother at 36. I've gained weight and not been able to lose it as quickly. Even though she's sleeping through the night, it's the tiredness and relentlessness of it that has really hit home. There's no let up. I think 40 is a bit of a watershed physically.

I'm not the oldest one in the playground, but I am one of the oldest. That said, I don't feel everyone is so much younger than me because there are lots of mothers who are heading towards 40.

One of the advantages of being an older mum is that I was really ready to be a mother. I feel as though we've done a lot of things that we wanted to do, so it's not as though the children are stopping us from doing things such as travelling and having exciting holidays. I'm not waiting for them to grow up so I can get on with my life, I really savour every moment.

Not having to work is just fantastic. My husband brings in enough money for me not to have to. We just about get by. If I was younger I would have had to have worked to enjoy the kind of standard of living we've got now. I really enjoy being at home. I wouldn't like them to be with a childminder or nursery as I just love being with them. I want to be the one doing the potty training. Even though there is that relentless drudgery side to it, it's still a joy to see those smiles.

The thought that I might not see my grandchildren if they wait until they are as old as we are to have children is quite sad. But that's the only downside. My dad died when I was 24 and that felt too young for me. I'm trying to lose weight, and be fit and healthy, so I stand more chance of being around for longer for them.

Alicia Anderson Age: 49. Mother of Emma, and Loukas, age two. She is married to Bernard, 52

We had an 18-year-old daughter, Emma, who was our only child. She had a car crash and died in September 2002. It was terrible at the time, and still is. She's very much in our thoughts. We live in an above-average-sized house and felt that it was very empty. We looked at adopting, but didn't think that they would consider us because of our age (which has consequently proved to be rubbish actually) and because we were so emotional at the time that it would have been for the wrong reasons.

So we spoke about having another baby. I had more of a complication in that I had breast cancer that year too. I was on the drug Tamoxifen and I had to speak to the surgeon and the oncologist to see if they thought it was a good idea that I came off it for a period. They said they didn't see any complications, but advised me not to come of it for more than a year. At that time I had had the lump removed and radiotherapy for about six weeks. I was a little bit worried about the consequences of radiotherapy for the baby.

It didn't take long for me to conceive. I was absolutely delighted. We both were. Loukas was fine when he was born. I breastfed him for a month and then went back on the drug.

Second time around, I'm far more patient. We really do appreciate him. Loukas helped us to not only come to terms with what had happened to Emma, and at the time gave us a purpose to go on, but he's given us a great deal of happiness.

I worked during Emma's upbringing and I want to spend as much time as I can with Loukas. Losing Emma so early on you have certain regrets and I look back and think if only I had had a little bit more time with her. We have our own quality assurance accreditation company and I work for my husband at home.

I don't feel any difference at all being older. I might not do the Mother's Race, but I feel no more tired than I would have the first time around. Everyone has been delighted for us. I've only had one comment about my age. The young woman running an activity I took him to asked whether I was his grandmother. I just said: "No, I'm his mother."

I've made a lot of new young friends. I don't notice the age difference. They vary from late twenties to early forties. They all include me in any activities that are going on. I'm probably the oldest mum, but it doesn't bother me as long as I'm fit and healthy and can keep up with all of the activities.

I don't think an older mother offers any more or less than a younger mother. No age is too old to be a mother if you feel physically capable of looking after that child.

I do worry what will happen when Loukas goes to school when he's about 10. Will he get teased for having an older mother? Will they say: "Here's your grandmother collecting you"? But I think it's more acceptable these days. I'll just tell him not to let it bother him.

I would recommend being an older mother. The only regret I have at the moment is that I'm not able to have more children. I would have liked to have given him a sibling.

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