Saturday 17 November 2018

Carmel Harrington: 'I don't see myself as an older mum'

So says Carmel Harrington on becoming a mother later in life. The author says motherhood is not a competition and women should support each other, no matter what stage of life they are at

Carmel Harrington, author from Screen, Co Wexford with her children Nate and Amelia. Photo: Patrick Browne.
Carmel Harrington, author from Screen, Co Wexford with her children Nate and Amelia. Photo: Patrick Browne.
Carmel Harrington says her children aren't missing out by having parents in their forties. Photo: Patrick Browne
County Wexford author Carmel Harrington with her children Nate and Amelia. Carmel says she was right to wait for the right man before she decided to start her family. Photo: Patrick Browne

Carmel Harrington

WE'VE all seen the headlines about older mothers and, no matter how much we try to 'live and let live', it's impossible not to judge, isn't it?

I can remember seeing the headlines a few years ago about 69 year old Rajo Devi Lohan, from India, giving birth to a little girl and, along with the rest of the world, my mouth gaped open in shock. No matter how much I tried to understand her desire to have a child, I could not find a way to make her decision sit peacefully in my head.

I've no doubt that the little girl is loved by her mother, but does that make it okay? Mind you, Rajo is only a spring chicken compared to Ramjit Raghav, from India, who claims to be the oldest man to father a child, at 96.

So, are we inching towards India's trend of older parents over here? Er, no! CSO statistics show that a mere 32 is the average age for the first time mammy in Ireland. But there is a marked increase in the number of 40-plus mammies and daddies, so my question is, what age qualifies a parent as a good one?

The subject of older mothers isn't a new one but it sure is emotive and, for me, an issue that makes me sit up and listen attentively.

Because, I'm pretty sure that I am part of that statistic. After all, I was a mere slip of a 39 year old when my daughter Amelia was born and 40 when my son Nate made our family complete.

But here's the thing: In the main, I don't think of myself as an older mum, I think of myself as simply Amelia and Nate's mother. I just get on with the business of being a parent every day, making sure that my children are loved and cared for. Irrespective of my so called advancing years, I truly don't believe that I would do things any differently than I do now, even if I got the chance to be a mother 10 years younger.

Just imagine for a moment that genies really do exist. I'm a writer, with a vivid imagination, so I've given some thought as to what I would wish for, should one rock up my driveway with a golden lamp full of wishes.

So would I wish for eternal youth or, to borrow Cher's lyrics, would I turn back time? Well, after careful consideration, I am pretty certain that I would only want to be a decade younger IF I was guaranteed that my children would be the exact same version of themselves as they are today. Because, even if I do say so myself, they are pretty spectacular. If the genie could make me look like my size 10, 20 year old self, I won't say no however. Just saying.

Aside from these occasional flights of fancy, I do live in the real world most of the time and of course I am aware of all of the connotations associated with being an older mother. I am a 43 year old woman with a four year old and a two year old child and I've done the maths. I know what age I'll be when they finish university.

My husband and I joke that they'd better be bright kids, because we are way too old to factor in either of them failing their exams and having to repeat a year. No pressure Amelia and Nate

So am I too old? Are others judging me, as I judged that 69 year old? I daresay that some would say yes, but they would be the ones who don't know me or my family and that's the key really. I am pretty confident that if you were a fly on my particular four walls, you would see that my young children are not missing out on a single thing by having a mother and father who are now in their forties. Our children are happy, healthy and most importantly they are loved.

Recently I watched an episode of ITV's Loose Women and one of the panellists, Jamelia, gave her opinion on the often thorny subject of older mothers.

Her comments irked me; in fact, they really annoyed me. She made the sweeping statement that she feels sorry for the children of older mothers because they are missing out on so much.

She stated that she knew her opinion would be controversial and she is of course entitled to that opinion. But the examples she gave to back up her viewpoint were simply mind boggling.

According to her, us golden oldie mammies cannot jump on trampolines or ride on rollercoasters. This generalisation was a revelation to me because I never realised that once I hit 40 I would have to take up knitting and partake only in more sedentary activities!

My mind drifts to my own mother – who is in her sixties now – who on a recent family holiday, hurtled down a waterslide at breakneck speeds, squealing with delight. Bad hips and all. So I'll be following in her footsteps thank you very much, Jamelia, and, as long as my body can take it, I'll be enjoying adrenalin filled rides with the children.

If I'm honest, the thing that annoyed me most about her comments, was the fact that it's just one more time where I've witnessed young mothers have a go at older mothers or vice versa and it makes me really sad.

It's not a competition. Why can't we, as a sisterhood, just support each other? Why must we always pass judgement on one another? It's hard work being a mother – at any age. Who am I to say that I am any better equipped than anyone else, based on a year on a birth cert?

I've heard all the arguments for and against older mothers and the same old chestnuts are pulled out whenever the subject comes up. Older mothers have greater patience and greater wisdom to impart to their children and younger mothers can relate more to their offspring as they are closer in age and have more energy. Yes, there is an element of truth there. But it's not the complete picture, is it? I have lots of friends who are wise in their twenties and my energy levels can compete with most young wan's, I promise you!

I actually only have to look at my own family to get a snapshot of a diverse range of ages for motherhood. I'm one of three sisters and we all embarked on this journey at very different times in our lives. One sister had her daughter at 18, the other in her early thirties and then there's me who started in her late thirties.

So here's the interesting thing about each of us. No matter what our age was when we first embarked on the joyous journey of motherhood, we share this common bond, a thread if you like, that connects us together.

While our lives are very different, as were the choices and paths we made in them that played a factor in the age we were when we became mothers, we have each been sleep deprived during the night feeds and weary at the endless juice spills and crayon scribbles on our walls.

Equally, thankfully, we have each experienced the wonder of first smiles, first steps, first 'I love you Mama's', that have sustained our souls. Was that experience any different for each of us? No, I don't believe it was.

If you know me, you know that my children are my world. So you might be curious as to why it took me so long to start on this wondrous journey. There are so many factors at play that make parents wait to start their family.

For some, yes of course it is because they concentrated on establishing their careers before adding children to the equation. For others, the timing of when children arrive is out of their control. Who doesn't know someone in our circle that has fertility issues and therefore have been putting their poor bodies through painful, emotionally heart breaking and invasive procedures to help them fulfil their dream of holding a baby in their arms?

Let's not forget too that unplanned pregnancies are not the sole property of teenagers. There are a large number of mammies in their forties who didn't plan their pregnancy and got a 'surprise' when they least expected it.

Then there is the category I fall into – the late starter. It's quite simple for me; I did not meet the right man until later in my life. Had I married the first man who asked me when I was in my early twenties, it's highly likely I would have children now who are in their late teens. But I doubt that we would still be together, children or no children, because we would have been a car crash as a couple.

Thankfully, despite my youth, I recognised that I didn't love him enough and had an unquestionable instinct that the right guy for me was out there just waiting to be found.

It took a while for us to meet. In truth, I was beginning to doubt that he existed. But finally, at 35, I met Roger. Once we realised that we most certainly did love each other enough, we didn't hang about and were standing at the top of an altar, saying our 'I do's' within two years of our first date.

Did children play a factor in our decision to get married so quickly after Rog popped the question? Of course. We both desperately wanted a family together and at 37 we knew there was no time for dillydallying. Not a day goes by that I don't count my blessings that for us it worked out. Because, for many that's not the case.

Women are now more informed than ever before about the possible health risks for both mother and baby with pregnancies in their forties. I heard the words 'high risk' several times myself and while the phrase irritated me no end, I had to acknowledge and accept it. I'm an intelligent woman, I knew what the risks and challenges were long before I saw that glorious + sign on my pregnancy tests.

But despite that, surely my decision to wait to find the right man, one that I could raise a family with, who shared the same family values as me, was the right one? I believe so, because the answer is actually in the abundance of laughter and love in our house.

In fact, if you could measure the 'happiness' in each of the children and Rog and I, I'm not sure who would have the most, because we are all equally charmed with our family.

It would be dishonest of me not to admit that, sometimes, late at night when I can't sleep, my mind will go to a place where the children are faced with losing either of their parents at too young an age. I can't bear the thought of them being upset for one second. Then of course there is the distinct possibility that our children will wait as long as we did to start a family.

The chances of me hurtling down that waterslide with grandchildren might be a bit slim then for sure. And as grandparents played such an important part in my childhood and early adulthood, I want to experience that one day myself and be the kind of grandparent that I was lucky enough to have in my own life.

But sure there are no guarantees in life are there? And it's a known fact that people live longer now. So I'm likely, with some good luck and good health on my side, to have at least another 40 or 50 years of riding those rollercoasters with the kids.

I choose to embrace the life I'm living now which is pretty darn good and stop worrying about what might happen. Was I too old to have children? Absolutely not. In fact I would say I was the perfect age.

Carmel is the author of 'Beyond Grace's Rainbow' and her new novel, 'The Life You Left' is published on June 19, by Harper Collins

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