Article Summary:One of every five women is having her first pregnancy over the age of 35; what are the advantages to being an older parent?
When I first published my light hearted and inspirational account of pregnancy and birth at the age of 40, I received tremendous feedback from older women (and men) from all over the world. Indeed, even now, I receive many wonderful e-mails every week from women over the age of 35 who are either planning a family, are already pregnant, or who themselves have had a baby over the age of 40. The article had offered hope, encouragement and reassurance in a world that seems otherwise to be filled with negative statistics and horror stories about being an older mother. It also highlighted the fact that far from being unusual, tens of thousands of women across the globe are becoming, what is affectionately known as, "older parents".
Currently, one out of every five women worldwide is delaying having her first baby until the age of 35, a number that is rising steadily, together with the growing trend for middle aged women to add to their existing family. There are many reasons why a woman chooses to have a baby in her forties; the establishment of a career before embarking on parenthood, for example, or a woman who has re-married and wishes to have a child with her new partner. Despite this, there still seems to be very little optimistic information available that is specific to midlife mothers. The focus definitely needs to shift towards the positive aspects of midlife parenting, particularly since medical studies have established that there is little added risk for a healthy woman in her forties embarking on motherhood.
In my communications with other older mothers, several questions were raised, one of the most common being, "Will my child object to having older parents?" I think that this question highlighted the assumption of many that old age goes hand-in-hand with ill health and incapacity and yet this is not necessarily so. You can be an unhealthy 25-year-old parent and a vital, energetic 75-year-old grandparent. You can also become sick at any age, so don't assume that just because you don't have a child until you are in your 40's, you won't be around to see your son or daughter when he or she grows up. Besides, it is quality of time and not quantity that is the most important and a child who is brought into a secure and loving environment by a middle-aged couple, is more likely to thrive than a child brought into an unstable home by young parents.
I interviewed several people who were raised by older parents, one of whom is an older parent herself and all of whom kindly allowed me to share their stories with you.
Jacqueline's mother was 43 and her father was 48 when Jacqueline was born. Jacqueline, now 42, says, "I never once regretted having older parents. Whilst they were really strict, they were also very fair and because they were older and wiser and they had a greater sense of the important values in life. Younger people are often still too self-obsessed and unsure of their path in life, so it can be difficult for them to offer a true sense of security or to give their all to a child because they are still like so vulnerable themselves. I didn't follow in my mother's footsteps because I was only 26 when I had my son, and yet in retrospect I don't really think that I was prepared for motherhood. Don't misunderstand me, I love my son to bits and don't ever regret having him, but if I could turn back time and have the opportunity to make different choices, I think that I would have waited until at least my mid thirties before starting a family. Oddly enough, my husband and I have recently been discussing the possibility of having another child and having had an older mother myself makes me feel so much more comfortable about midlife parenting.
I respected my parents enormously and they respected me, something that I noticed was lacking in some of my friends' homes. If I was not permitted to do something, my parents would clearly explain why not, whereas many of my friends with younger parents would simply be told, 'Because I said so, that's why'.
With a twenty-year marriage behind them, my parents had managed to resolve any of their differences early on. Many of my school friends lived in homes where it was commonplace for the parents to be at each other's throats constantly and to think nothing of openly belittling each other in front of the children. What sort of message does that pass on to children about love and marriage?
Although I sadly lost my father seven years ago, I feel eternally grateful that I had the benefit of his love for a 35 good years and that my son had a wonderful grandpa for nine years. That's more than a lot of my friends can say, some of whom have very little contact with their parents now that they have flown the nest to lead their own lives and to probably live by the same mistakes." Sarah, 38, agrees with Jacqueline. "My mother was 46 when she had me and my father had just celebrated his 52nd birthday. They didn't have a lot of money, but what they gave to me in love was priceless. How can you put a value on that?
Youth isn't always connected to good health either. One of my closest friends lost her mother to bowel cancer at the age of 34. Having young parents doesn't always mean that they will be there for you when you are older, either physically or emotionally. There are many people who are distanced from their parents and in some ways that can be worse than losing someone with whom you've had the benefit of a close relationship. To know that your parents are alive but not there for you emotionally must be devastating.
It was not a difficult decision for me to delay starting a family of my own, partly because having been the child of older parents, it was not really an issue for me. I witnessed many childless friends around me panicking when they hit thirty, conscious that their biological clocks were ticking away. My only concern was declining fertility, but when my husband and I decided to try for a baby two years ago, I became pregnant within a couple of months. Hopefully, our baby daughter will have a brother or sister at some point in the future, but I still feel that I have plenty of time on my side.
In a few months' time, my father will celebrate his 91st birthday and apart from an arthritic hip and, as he puts it, 'needing to be jump-started in the mornings", he's just as sprightly as he ever was, with the same wicked sense of humour. My mother is now 84 and many people think that she is at least 15 years younger! A lot of it comes down to attitude and both of my parents certainly have plenty of that!
Gavin, 26, says that he never once thought of his mother as being any different to the younger mothers of his classmates, particularly since his father was also much younger. Gavin was conceived when his mother, now aged 70, embarked on a second marriage with a man 14 years her junior. At the time of Gavin's birth, his mother was 44 and his father was just 30. Despite disapproval from other family members and jibes that the relationship would never last, his parents are still happily married.
Gavin jokes, "I used to get a kick out of telling people that my mum was 14 years older than my dad and I'm sure that some mates wanted to come round to my house just to gawp. Funny thing is that a couple of them actually had a crush on my mum and I must admit, she did look pretty good for her age - and still does! Despite the chronological age gap, biologically there are no discernible differences between my parents.
Many people think of older parents as being out of touch with younger generations and of maybe enforcing stricter rules and regulations, but that was absolutely not the case with my mother. I suppose that having a younger husband meant that she was herself young at heart and she was a lot more up-to-date than some of my friends' mothers. In my view, it's not the number of years that you've been on this earth that are important, but the way you think and feel and your attitude in general.
I had a wonderful upbringing in a house full of love and laughter. That may sound like the stuff from an impossibly romantic movie, but it's true. My mother was the stabilising influence in both my life and my father's; she still is. She was older, wiser and more self-assured, and she certainly had a lot more patience than many of my friend's mothers. She has always remained active and when I was little she thought nothing of joining me on the slides and climbing frames at the local park. You should have seen the looks on some of the other parents' faces! Naturally my mates thought she was fantastic and would often say how they wished their mothers were as wacky and fun as my mother!
I think the important thing to remember is that you're never too old to play with kids' toys. I know it's been said many times before, but age really is just a state of mind. In my eyes, my mother will never be old. She's still like a six-year-old inside, but is able to combine that with being mature and supportive, all the ingredients that matter.
I never once wished that my mother were younger in years. Why should I? After all, what she gave to me could not have been surpassed by knocking twenty years off of her age. In fact, I believe that it was her age that made her such a good mother. She had a wealth of experience and had already learned a lot of life's lessons by the time she had me, for which I shall be eternally grateful.
Vicky is just 18 and her mother, now 59, was 41 when Vicky was born. Vicky's father is 54. Her parents are now divorced and Vicky lives with her mother and her mother's partner, Graham, although she sees her father every week. Vicky has an older brother of 25, who lives in Germany with his wife and two children.
Vicky says, "My mother is one of the trendiest middle-aged women you'll ever meet. She's more conscious of the latest fashion trends than I am, but at the same time she doesn't try to dress like a twenty-year-old. She's very stylish and when she accompanies me to nightclubs (when Graham lets her out!), she gets chatted up more than I do! To say that having an older parents means that they must be fuddy duddy's is nonsense. Maybe some parents are, but you don't have to be old to have a narrow-minded attitude do you? Some of my friends' parents, most of them in fact, wouldn't dream of going out in the evenings with their daughters, which is sad really. I mean, why should you stop having fun just because you hit a certain age?
When my mum was expecting me, she said that she came up against a lot of negative reactions from her family and friends. They did their best to convince her that I was going to be born with some disorder, like Down's Syndrome or something, but she said that her intuition told her that I was going to be a healthy, bonny baby - and she was right. Although other people say that they are just concerned when they give unwanted advice, I think that they should mind their own business and give encouragement, rather than making someone feel awful, especially at a time when they need most support.
My mum really is my soul mate and I can't ever imagine life without her. However, if I were to lose her tomorrow, at least I would be thankful for the 18 years of love, support, security and companionship that she has given me. It's quality of time that is important, is it not? I'd rather have a few good years with a mother like mine, than a lifetime with a mother who didn't really connect with me.
I'd like to have children myself one day, but there's no hurry. I'm beginning university this year, following which I hope to establish a career, so starting a family is not on my agenda for at least ten or fifteen years, maybe more. I have to find a partner first! Who knows, maybe I won't start a family until I'm in my forties. Do I feel comfortable with that? Yes, definitely, and I have my mother to thank for that.
After transcribing these interviews, I found it difficult to think of any disadvantages of being an older parent. Any of the negative issues that one might raise in argument against having a baby later in life could be immediately quashed by many of the comments made by my interviewees. Not many older people enter into parenthood lightly. It is generally a well-thought out decision and, consequently, if the parents concerned did not think that they would be able to cope with the emotional, physical and even financial strain of having a child, then they wouldn't proceed would they?
When I was expecting my daughter at the age of 39, someone with a grown family asked me, "Why would you want another baby at your age?" to which I replied, "For the same reasons that someone would want a baby at any age."
Jan Andersen is the owner of Mothers Over 40, a site which offers encouragement and inspiration to older parents around the world. She is also a copywriter with over twenty years' marketing, PR and copywriting experience, and a freelance writer specialising in articles and features on diverse lifestyle topics and social issues. Jan has participated in various lifestyle discussions on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC TV, BBC Radio Swindon, Channel 4, Sky One, Central News, BBC TV and HTV West. For more information, visit: www. janandersen. homestead.com.