Becoming an older mum certainly wasn’t in my life plan. Then again, I don’t think anyone intends to leave having their first baby until they’re 44. But I simply wasn’t in the right place, at the right time, or with the right man to start trying for a baby until I was in my early 40s. And that’s how, in late June 2015 – at an age when many parents are waving their offspring off to university – I found myself in University College Hospital, London with my partner Mickael beside me, giving birth to our beautiful daughter Sidonie.
My path to late motherhood was a bumpy one. Although I ached for a child, desperately, from my mid-30s, it’s fair to say my then husband did not feel the same way. So, before I could even begin to try for a baby, I had to extricate myself from that marriage and meet someone who wanted a family with me – a long, difficult and very messy process.
Mickael, who is four years younger than me, and I started trying to conceive just before my 41st birthday. We thought it would take months, if not years, because of my age but, unexpectedly, I got pregnant that very first month. Our initial surprise and excitement was short-lived, however. It soon became clear that something was terribly wrong: scans showed our baby wasn’t growing properly and my placenta was abnormal. Finally, when I was six months pregnant, we learned that she had an extremely rare chromosome condition, believed to be incompatible with life. I then had to make the horrible and extremely painful decision to have a late termination. And so, after a full labour and childbirth, our daughter, whom we named Elodie, was stillborn. Although I became a mother in September 2012, my arms remained empty.
After we lost Elodie, we waited for the recommended two months and then started trying again. Although we were still grieving, we knew we didn’t have any time to lose. Once again, I fell pregnant straight away, but at seven weeks I began to spot. The scan confirmed there was no heartbeat. Devastated, we waited six months before our next attempt. This time, I miscarried at nine weeks. Nobody knows why, although it’s likely that the advanced age of my eggs was a factor. The doctors said I had a 50/50 chance of success and we should keep on trying.
I was beginning to give up hope and wasn’t sure how much more heartache I could face. So we waited for about six months and tried again. This time, the roll of dice was on our side and when I got pregnant it was with a healthy foetus – who is now a bright, gorgeous, affectionate and chatty five-year-old, with an addiction to Frozen.
For me, getting pregnant in my 40s wasn’t difficult, but staying pregnant and having a healthy baby were. At 40, a woman has a one in 100 chance of conceiving a baby with a foetal abnormality; by 45, that’s one in 30. Pregnancy is also much riskier for an older mum. For example, she’s more likely to get gestational diabetes, as I did. It meant the last two months of my pregnancy were miserable, requiring pinprick tests throughout the day, which left my fingers sore, and that at the very time I was supposed to be able to enjoy eating for two, I was on a restricted low-carb diet. A geriatric mum (that’s the cruel medical term for a woman who’s pregnant over 35) is also likely to develop high blood pressure, have a more complicated birth and end up needing a caesarean too.
Having your first baby in your 40s means you should probably put any thoughts of home births, birthing pools and whale music out of your head because, unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s likely your pregnancy will be highly-medicalised. My pregnancy with Sidonie was a fraught time and felt more like a nine-month illness than a gestation. With “high-risk pregnancy” stamped all over my notes, I had to have scans every month, doctors’ appointments at least once or twice a week and more blood tests and urine tests than you could shake a stick at. Add to that my normal midwife visits, and pregnancy was virtually a full-time job.
There’s more bad news: research shows that a baby born to an older mother is at higher risk of starting its life in the neonatal intensive care unit. That’s what happened to poor Sidonie. When my waters broke unexpectedly at 35 weeks (which can happen to a woman of any age), I was admitted to hospital and induced. By the time Sidonie was born, she was going into distress. Minutes after birth, her lungs collapsed and she had to be resuscitated before she was rushed down the corridor to intensive care. She spent three, long and very stressful weeks in the Special Care Baby Unit, with infections and suspected brain damage, before Mickael and I were allowed to take her home. Thankfully, two years of follow-up gave her a clean bill of health.
Of course, there are also lots of upsides to late motherhood. For one thing, I know I’m a better mother in my 40s than I would have been in my 20s: calmer, more confident and secure in myself. Having achieved most of my ambitions – I’m established in my career as a journalist and have had seven novels published – I don’t feel I need to live vicariously through my child, as so many young parents seem to do. I’m not just older and more mature, I’m wiser too; more knowledgable about the world and myself. Most importantly, I am in a happy, stable relationship, with the right man and he is as committed to bringing up our daughter as I am.
Studies confirm my suspicion that older motherhood can be a very good thing. Children born to mothers over 40 are said to be healthier, taller, more intelligent and less likely to have accidents, presumably because older parents are more responsible. There’s good news for me too: recent research found that women who gave birth after the age of 40 are four times more likely to live to age 100. That’s probably because women who are able to conceive later are generally healthier, with better genes, and age more slowly than average. Indeed, both of my grandmothers lived well into their 90s (one gran died at 97), and my mum is still fighting fit at 75.
When people suggest that having a baby later isn’t fair to a child because they’ll be orphaned young, I point out that many children lose parents who are in their 20s and 30s. My only real regret is that, unless Sidonie chooses to have her own children young, I’ll quite likely never be a grandmother.
Thankfully, nobody has ever mistaken me for Sidonie’s gran, but my age is one – although definitely not the main – reason why we decided to have stuck at only one child. It’s certainly not because I have less energy than I had in my 20s and 30s. If anything, I’m fitter now. So, while I wouldn’t recommend that anyone follows my example and leaves motherhood till they’re 44, I wouldn’t discourage them either. Sidonie is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Creating a wanted, healthy, happy child requires so much more than a supply of fresh eggs.
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