Wednesday 21 August 2019

The rise of the 'geriatric' mother: What it's like to have children later in life

Does older really mean wiser? Arlene Harris talks to women about their experiences of having children later in life

Barbara Tabarelli with her partner Patrick and daughters Lucia and baby Alianna
Barbara Tabarelli with her partner Patrick and daughters Lucia and baby Alianna
Tara Choules and her husband Philip

Maternity expert Tracy Donegan's top tips for older mums:

There was a time when women were almost deemed 'past it' when they hit 30 as their baby-making years were supposedly long behind them. Indeed, even today mothers over 35 are referred to as 'geriatric' in the medical world.

However, despite the somewhat bizarre labelling, mid-to late 30s is a common age for modern women to become pregnant as many spend their 20s building their careers, relationships or both. According to figures from the CSO, there were 4,175 births to mothers in their 40s in 2015, compared with 2,566 in 2005.

In June, Brigitte Nielsen welcomed her fifth child at the age of 54 and although there is a 34-year age gap between her first and her last baby, the Danish actress (who has four grown-up sons from previous relationships as well as newborn daughter Frida with husband Mattia Dessi) is delighted with the new arrival.

"We are overjoyed to welcome our beautiful daughter into our lives," she said in an interview. "It's been a long road and so worth it - we've never been more in love."

Other well-known mothers who have given birth later in life include broadcaster Maura Derrane, who had her son Cal at the age of 43; singer Geri Horner, who gave birth to her son Monty at the age of 44 and actress Halle Berry, who was 47 when her son Matteo was born.

Although over a decade younger than Nielsen, Tara Choules is also considered an 'older mother'. But at 42, the Meath woman says her pregnancy has been a breeze and she has experienced no adverse reactions due to her age.

"Philip and I are expecting our first and probably our only baby in September," she says. "Pregnancy has been kind to me and relatively easy so I feel very lucky to have only experienced good health throughout.

"I have had no sickness, pain or discomfort and while I know pregnancy can be physically challenging, being older doesn't automatically mean that it will be difficult."

But Tara, who works as a tutor, says worry can sometimes be a factor which may be more prominent in older parents.

"Mentally, pregnancy can be challenging because you worry in the early stages that something may go wrong and being over 40 generally means that genetic tests are prescribed - so waiting on results can be difficult," she says. "You may be more aware of what can go wrong due to the many reminders of how age affects pregnancy so managing that is important. I think asking for help if you feel overwhelmed is a must.

"We all want to do the best for our little one and that brings with it a certain level of pressure as we want to be good parents. But being older certainly has its advantages in the life experience area as I feel that I have more coping skills than I would have had at 30.

"And on that note, Philip and I were not ready for a family in our 30s. I ran my own business, we travelled, we pursued careers and education opportunities and we led busy lives. Children come first and we strongly believe that your life should be made to fit around their needs rather than trying to make them fit into your world. Of course, life doesn't always allow for the perfect scenario but we do need to try our best to put them first. They don't ask to be born. We choose to have them."

Barbara Tabarelli is also 42 and has recently given birth to her second child, Alianna - she and her partner Patrick also have a four-year-old daughter called Lucia. She agrees with Tara and says apart from some extra examinations, her later pregnancy was no different to her first one - and in fact, the second delivery was actually easier.

"The pregnancy was fairly straightforward and I had no complications," she says. "There were some additional tests I had to do as when you are over 35 you are tested for gestational diabetes, which I didn't have, but really it was a straightforward pregnancy with the usual tiredness - and this wasn't down to age but the fact I had an active three-year-old already.

"But the birth was completely different - my first labour was very slow and long. I had a very detailed birth plan and after months of hypnobirthing and gentle birth practising, I really wanted a pain relief-free birth but I was so exhausted when it came to it that I opted to have an epidural.

"The second time around, things happened much quicker. Twinges started in the late afternoon and at 9.30pm I drove to the hospital. By 1.40am baby Alianna was born. This time, because things progressed so quickly, I had the pain relief-free birth I had hoped for. The birthing process was more intense because I had no epidural but the recovery was much quicker."

The Dublin woman, who works as a sales manager, says while she can see why people expect older mothers to have a harder time of things, being healthy and fit will help, no matter how old you are.

"I would agree to a certain extent [that being an older mum is harder]," she says. "But the reality is that I met Paddy later in life, so our chances of having kids earlier weren't there and having been in a failed marriage before, I am glad my children came when I found the right partner.

"But 40 isn't 60 and as long as you're a healthy, active person, you can find energy to look after your kids - so my advice to mums of my age and older would be to try and stay active, it helps during and after the pregnancy - energy creates energy."

However, Sarah Moloney begs to differ as she says having her first child at 43 and second at 45 was "very hard work".

"I didn't feel ready for a baby in my thirties but when I decided the time was right, it took quite a few years so my first child was born when I was 43 and I wasn't prepared for the tiredness in pregnancy or afterwards," says the 49-year-old. "I was exhausted all the time and couldn't even think about going for a walk, let alone anything more strenuous. Then when Lily was born, she had bad colic and was a terrible sleeper for the first six months, so my husband Jim and I were like zombies.

"Susie came about by accident to be honest and the pregnancy the second time around was even worse - I honestly don't know how I survived with a screaming baby and the exhaustion of a new pregnancy."

Now that her daughters are older, the Dublin woman is "more in control" but says if she had known how hard it would be, she may have reconsidered. "I had always wanted to have children, but I genuinely didn't imagine that it would be so difficult," says the office manager. "The girls have been hard work since day one and while they are much better now, they argue a lot and have so much energy - I think I probably would have coped better if I had them 20 years ago - and that's the truth."

But mother-to-be Tara says no two pregnancies or situations are the same, regardless of age.

"I think each woman and partnership is different and each family is different," she says. "Is it not more important to have children when you are ready both mentally and physically than just having a child because you have reached a certain age?

"There are tremendous pressures on women to do what fits into society's idea of 'the right thing to do'. But women need to be trusted to make the right decision for them. Some want to have children at a young age and others want to wait - each to their own, as they know best.

"I would say that every woman should just enjoy their pregnancy and if they are worried about age, just remind themselves that they are a pregnant woman the same as all the other pregnant women irrespective of age. Being older does not automatically mean that you will find pregnancy, labour or raising a child difficult."

Indeed, midwife Tracy Donegan also says age shouldn't be a factor when it comes to a healthy, happy pregnancy and delivery.

"It's definitely a myth that having a baby is harder when you older," she says. "No matter what your age I would encourage all expectant mums to listen to their body. Don't push yourself past your limits and if mum and baby are healthy regular exercise is definitely recommended.

"Also talk to your midwife or doctor about taking any extra supplements especially if you're eating a healthy diet. Exercise doesn't just keep you healthy; it's also great for your growing baby. Yoga, swimming and walking are all gentle exercises but if you already have an exercise programme such as strength training and/or cardio, keep it up as long as you're feeling up to it and if necessary adapt to your growing bump and rollercoaster of energy levels. Lots of mature mums have very straightforward pregnancies and births but the labelling of these women as 'geriatric' sends a very different message."

Tracy, who founded the website gentlebirth.com, says while a healthy pregnancy isn't age dependent, older mothers often need to be reminded that they don't have to be super mums.

"A big one for older mums is learning how to accept help," she says. "After working or running a department like clockwork for years, some mature mums can find the unpredictability of a newborn's schedule to be challenging and try to 'soldier on' without support."

Irish Independent

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