Maureen Freely: Let's celebrate the arrival of the older mother

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Most of us seem to be happy to have our families later and later. Whatever the reasons - fashion, career, improved medical care - more and more women are having children at an historically late stage in their lives. But, does all the joy and real fulfilment that so many couples derive from having babies at a relatively more mature point make up for the well-canvassed medical risks to the mother?

Most of us seem to be happy to have our families later and later. Whatever the reasons - fashion, career, improved medical care - more and more women are having children at an historically late stage in their lives. But, does all the joy and real fulfilment that so many couples derive from having babies at a relatively more mature point make up for the well-canvassed medical risks to the mother?

Let us first, though, get things into perspective. The recent example of Cherie Blair has led many to exaggerate things somewhat. Helpfully, the National Office of Statistics has released some figures to confirm what most of us already knew - there aren't really that many women in this country who can match Cherie Blair. It is still, in fact, very rare for women of her age to give birth. In 1997, for example, there were only 683 births by British mothers aged 45 and over.

However, there are signs that the gap between Cherie Blair and the rest of us is closing fast. Count the women aged between 40 and 44 who gave birth in the same year, and the number increases by a factor of 20. But the really striking thing, and the most important point about the numbers, is the rise in births to women in their mid- to late 30s.

In 1976, more than two thirds of all babies were born to women in their twenties. Only one in five were born to women in their thirties. By 1998, however, many more - 42 per cent - of all births were to women in that age bracket. Between 1976 and 1998, conception rates for women between 30 and 34 rose by 62 per cent. For women between the age of 35 and 39, they rose by 82 per cent. This is where the real "bulge" in the British way of giving birth is happening. And the trend, it would seem, is unstoppable. But is it healthy? A new study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that women who put off starting their families too long could be courting disaster.

According to Professor Mads Melbye of the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre in Copenhagen, the chances of a woman carrying a wanted child to term decrease rather dramatically as she gets older. While the risk of a miscarriage is only 8 per cent for women aged 22, it rises to 20 per cent for women aged 35, 50 per cent for women aged 42 years, and a quite staggering 84 per cent for women aged 48.

Mary Newburn of the National Childbirth Trust is worried that the statistics might scare some women into having children earlier. And for what, asked Professor Zena Stein of Columbia University in New York. Children of older mothers might have some "biological disadvantages", but there was strong evidence, for example, that they did better at school than children of younger mothers.

"Older parents may be less resilient than younger ones, but their experience and knowledge are almost bound to be greater, their economic situation better, and child-rearing more affordable," said Professor Stein.

If they are still able to conceive and take a child to term, that is. The unspoken assumption in this and indeed most discussions of miscarriage is that it is a trauma and a tragedy but not the end of the world. As the nurses said so brightly to me following my own awful, awful miscarriage, "there's nothing stopping you from trying for another!" However, it is this very "try and try again" attitude that Professor Melbye is seeking to challenge. Because in the final analysis, it's not just women who pay the price, it is also hospitals that must "carry the burden of caring for their failed pregnancies". In social terms, he suggests, the family-delaying woman is something of a liability.

So does this mean that late motherhood should be discouraged? No need for that, I'd say. There's quite enough head-shaking already.

I had my first two children very early, and my third and fourth children very late. Physically and psychologically, the late pregnancies were far easier to handle. The only debilitating thing was the endless medical pontificating about the large and expensive risks surrounding "old eggs". And it still goes on. Even though I have far more energy and patience and understanding now than I did as a twenty-something mother, people are forever telling me how worn-out I must be, and how difficult it must be for my children to have "old parents". There might be more of us about these days, but that is not the same as saying we have universal approval.

So why is it that we still excite such passion? And why does every new study casting doubt on our "lifestyle choice" attract such large headlines? If you turn the spotlight away from real-life older mothers, and look instead at the people who are so disturbed to find our numbers increasing, some interesting patterns emerge.

The first and most obvious is the obsession with mothers, and the resulting total eclipse of the role of fathers. An outsider with no knowledge of our culture could listen in on this debate and conclude that British babies were born from women alone, and that men had nothing to do with it. Another pattern is the fixation on conception and pregnancy, as if a healthy birth were the goal and endpoint, instead of the beginning of a job for life.

A third pattern is the speed with which scientists and social commentators seize on the tiniest set of negative statistics and use it to make sweeping generalisations about the proper way for a woman to plan a family. What are they trying to prove, and if they are this keen to prove it, how reliable can their research be?

But the most striking and disturbing thing about these researcher-pundits is the way that they see the mother as the problem, and never the social and economic realities that shape her life.

Why can't they take these larger issues into account? In other areas of public life, these same intelligent people have no trouble moving from the specific to the general. When they discuss the closure of a car factory, for example, they can look at the problems of each individual plant and then they can look at all the plants together and draw some general conclusions.

Having discussed the impact of government policy, the question of exchange rates and foreign competition, they can discuss how these larger factors might have influenced what happened on the local shop floor.

Such sophistication is rare when discussion turns to fertility and families. Here the focus is the woman who may have made a foolish choice, and who perhaps should be used as an example, so that others might be persuaded to make wiser ones.

When the problem is presented as a morality play, the social context disappears. No one thinks to ask, so now why is it that so many women are putting off starting a family? Could it be more than misinformation and wayward selfishness that's holding them back?

Ask any of your friends or neighbours why they are putting off having children, and you'll get plenty of very sensible reasons. They need to build up their savings, finish that training course, buy that house, get settled into that new marriage and that job. Before they start their families, they will tell you, they have to do what "good" parents have always been expected to do: build up a secure base. They will go on to add that it takes a lot longer these days to get established in life, and that the expense of raising a child is close to pricing most would-be parents out of the market.

If you say, yes, you're right, and did you know, there's a lot of research out there that doesn't make such big headlines that confirms this, they'll ask, why do you need statistics? Just look around you, at your family and your friends!

If bigoted scientists and politicians can't put two and two together, even when the answer is staring them in the face, it must be because they don't want to know. I'd say that they're still hoping that they can scare women back into traditional choices and make the modern world go away. And that's not healthy.

The writer's book 'The Parent Trap: children, families and the new morality' is published by Virago

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