Corinne Sweet: Why shouldn't we have babies late in life?

The advantage has been having a child when I was 'ready', psychologically and emotionally
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The Independent Online

I nearly left it too late to have children. Like many women of my baby-booming generation, I'd burnt my bra, learnt my books and focused on my career. Babies was something other women did. Babies would come later. Then later arrived. From the mid-1960's having a baby began to be a choice.

I nearly left it too late to have children. Like many women of my baby-booming generation, I'd burnt my bra, learnt my books and focused on my career. Babies was something other women did. Babies would come later. Then later arrived. From the mid-1960's having a baby began to be a choice.

Before then, in my mother's and grandmother's generation, having a baby went hand-in-hand, literally, with getting married. Marriage was done early - at an average age of 21 - and babies followed immediately after.

That has all changed. The average age of first marriage and baby is now 30-plus. Women in their 40s. 50s, even 60s, are fitter, healthier and, dare I say, sexier, than ever. Instead of believing birth belongs solely to twenty-somethings, women of 35-plus are just beginning to contemplate the joys (and dilemmas) of motherhood. Why this shift? Why, when we are now told we are facing a "fertility timebomb" by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen this week, would so many of us be risking late parenthood,?

There are several reasons. The first of which is mainly psychological in nature In the bad old days we just had kids. We married, procreated, lived and died. It was a "natural order". Now, we have an emotionally literate sense of needing to "be ready".

Many of us have borne the wounds of parents who married too soon, or who procreated under familial duress. We grew up with mothers who never had careers, fathers who were never in love, parents who were unsuited, but tied.

Today, with our increasing awareness of damage that can be inflicted wittingly, or unwittingly, by parents-from-hell of all hues, we want to be "ready" to have children. This really means that we have reached a point where we are able to put a child first, to think about their needs, and to deliver loving, sometimes tough, but consistent parenting.

Being ready does not necessarily mean being solvent, although this is a major concern for modern parents. Indeed, with our increased affluence and expectations, many of us wouldn't consider parenthood without a decent wage.Money matters, but it's not the whole story.

If you are psychologically "on empty", for whatever reasons, it is much harder to be a parent. A parent who has been through some level of counselling or therapy -or through life's experiences has learned a level of self-awareness and understanding - can be a damned good parent. Really wanting a child and being able and willing to put the time in is surely the best situation for everyone concerned.

The criticisms of older women as parents are manifest and myriad: we're selfish, we're an embarrassment (granny at the school gate), and we are having too much of what we want. Men like Rod Stewart, David Jason, John Humphreys, have babies late and everyone claps them on the back. "Life in the old dog yet" is the admiring cry. Yet when women such as Jerry Hall, Koo Stark, Carolyn Quentin, Cherie Booth or Julie Walters have late babies, only their wrinkles and cellulite are counted.

According to groundbreaking research by Dr. Julia Berryman of the Parenting Research Unit at Leicester University (herself a mother over 40), many myths surrounding late motherhood can now be scotched. Many late mothers are believed to have less energy and to tire more easily, yet Dr Berryman's research shows that exhaustion affects most parents, regardless of age. Indeed, many younger parents will want to be out clubbing or up late, whereas older parents may well be happy to go to bed early and follow a child's sleeping patterns.

Although issues such as miscarriage, difficulty in conception and foetal abnormalities obviously increase after the age of 40, at least 2 per cent of first births are now to mothers 40-plus. Age obviously plays a part in the problems.

However, fertility treatment and the accompanying technology is a fast-growing field, which can counter many of the negative aspects of ageing. It could not have been contemplated, when the Pill was invented, that women like Lynne Bezant, who in 2001 had twins at 56 with IVF after a menopause reversal, could be a reality. Technological advances have led to babies surviving earlier, being operated on in utero, being cloned or created, ex-utero. Who knows where technology will lead, and with it, the ability of parents - especially of mature years - to have children late?

Older parents are often called "selfish" because they might not be alive once their own child reaches mid-life. There are two answers to that: first, it could relieve offspring of having to care for elderly parents into their own old age. Secondly, our life expectancy has risen enormously - my own eight-year-old is due to live to 120 by some accounts.

Older parents are often more stable, emotionally, and their relationships are settled (even if it's marriage number three or happy lone parenthood). They probably have more developed social skills and, according to Dr Berryman's research, the learning scores of their offspring certainly show advanced reading and comprehension.

This does not mean a generation of superbrats born to supermums, but it does point to older parents having something valuable to pass on - like being a mother and grandmother, rolled into one.

I do not underestimate, however, the problems raised by the latest research into fertility. I, myself, experienced four miscarriages after the birth of my first daughter, when I was 43. The loss was excruciating, especially as I did not have years ahead of me to try again. The upside, however, has been having a child when I was "ready" psychologically and emotionally, and in the right relationship and time of life, to do so.

We also do not know what lies round the corner for us regarding fertility. A woman I interviewed for my book went through IVF at 40, got pregnant for four days, and miscarried. She grieved her socks off and gave up completely on parenthood.

Recently, we spoke again and to my amazement, she now has a bouncing six-month-old. How? It seemed that once she had been through the treatment her hormones changed. But also, having given up "trying", she relaxed and, wham, got pregnant. A story that is very familiar to many.

My friend, like me, managed to "get one in before closing time" in her 40s. A phenomenon which is set to grow from individual choice and psychology as also, ironically, the complex ethical and physiological issues around fertility, are also set to increase.

The writer's Birth Begins at 40: Challenging the Myths of Late Motherhood is published by Hodder (£6.99)

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