My grandmother had children in her 40s. So too did several of my aunts. They had babies in their 40s because they were biologically able to do so. No big deal. Now, however, when women have children in their 40s, it’s a talking point.
Just look at TV presenter Maura Derrane. Aged 43 and pregnant with her first child, she has been the source of intense interest and her statements about this being the perfect time in her life to be pregnant seemed tinged with just the tiniest hint of irritation. And who could blame her?
She has been treated like a medical miracle since she revealed her pregnancy, instead of what she is — part of a growing number of women who are having children later in life.
Derrane spoke sensibly about her pregnancy: “For a woman, you hear after 35, your fertility levels drop. And after 40, they drop loads more. But I’m not buying into all that because everyone is different.
“We are led to believe that when a woman is a certain age, she’s not going to get pregnant. But it’s just not true. There are times in your life when it suits you to have a baby in your twenties or thirties and there’s a time when it’s 40-plus.”
I know a 38-year-old woman who was so worried about being in her late 30s and getting pregnant that she decided to start trying as soon as she got married. When she got pregnant the first time she tried, she realised that she wasn’t emotionally prepared at all. She had expected to have a six-month or year-long period of trying.
Another friend had her first child at the age of 44, and again she got pregnant on the first attempt. That’s not to say that fertility levels don’t decline with age. They do, naturally, of course.
For every friend who got pregnant easily, there is one who has gone down the IVF route. But to suggest that women may as well abandon all hope on the cusp of 35 is misleading and most likely stressful and damaging.
While the risks of chromosomal disorders or birth defects are higher in older women, they are also, ironically, likely to be healthier mothers, having long since passed the age of binge drinking or staying out all night.
Author Kate Kerrigan had her second son when she was 45, eight years after she gave birth to her first son. “I had my first child when I was 37 and I was very much thinking this was the last gas station before the desert. I was in my mid-30s before I met a man willing to marry me. By that time I was in a panic to get pregnant. I had a lot of anxiety about leaving it too late.
“We had Leo when I was 37 and we were thrilled and started immediately to try again but we had no luck and I thought well, we'll just leave it at one. When I was 45, I got pregnant again. I thought I was menopausal and had gained a little weight. I did the test as a dare because my friend mentioned my thick ankles. When it came up positive it was a shock.”
People’s attitudes were surprising, says Kate. “People kept telling me how great I was — aren’t you great! — as if this was some kind of marathon achievement or as if I was a medical freak. I was much clearer about what I wanted, I had so much more confidence and I knew what I wanted for my birth plan.
“I was very worried at 45 [though]. I felt the pressure society puts on us. I thought there’ll probably be complications.
“But my GP was great. She said you don’t drink or smoke, you look after yourself so I’m not worried.”
There tends to be a bit of bad press about older mothers too. They’re irresponsible for leaving it so late, and incurring higher risks, they won’t be able to run around the park after their toddler or will be completely out of touch by the time their children hit their teens.
Kate reckons that energy is not the most important thing to have as a parent. “You are wiser with age. If you’re living properly, you’re gaining wisdom and that’s one of the best things a parent can be.”
In 2012, researchers at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and Birkbeck College, London, found that older mothers can make better parents because they are less impulsive, calmer and have more life experience.
What used to be the traditional child-bearing years in a woman’s life, her 20s, are now taken up with education and establishing a career.
According to ESRI figures, the number of women having children between 40 and 44 more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, so it looks like we’re going to have to get used to older mothers. Perhaps then we should stop treating them like rare irresponsible birds and start accepting them as a growing norm.
Kate thinks she’s a better mother at this stage in her life. “I suit myself. I’m a doting mother, and am not as fussy or neurotic as I was when I was younger. I take advice from older people.”
And besides, says Kate, having children later in life keeps you young. “Being an older mum is great motivation to look after yourself. It keeps you young, you’ve no choice but to stick around for as long as possible.”
Kate Kerrigan’s new novel, ‘The Lost Garden’, is in bookshops now
Older mums: The pros and cons
You're older, which hopefully means you're wiser and more understanding of the fact that success comes in many forms, not just academic. It probably also means that you're less likely to be a tiger mom and more likely to understand that a child can achieve much in life, but not all of it is quantifable.
You're likely to have established your career or to be further along in your career, which hopefully means more earning power.
You're not likely to feel like you've missed out on your wild youth (unless of course you spent your wild youth building up your career).
No matter how many down-face dogs you do a week, your body is a different beast in its 40s than in its 20s, by which I mean it's less elastic. Your stomach may never recover. Your belly button tattoo that was such a good idea in 1998 won't survive.
With a biological time limit on fertility, if you want children, you're likely to feel more under pressure to conceive when you're older than if you start in your 20s.
If you're an older mother, unless you're unusually blessed, you probably won't be able to swap clothes with your teenage daughter without looking a bit silly.