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The Ros Dodd column



Late motherhood is as big a problem as teenage mums, according to Dr Susan Bewley, a consultant obstetrician at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London. The rising number of middle-class women becoming pregnant in their late 30s and early 40s (Dr Bewley's research shows that more than 20% of births are now to women over the age of 35) is, she claims, putting a huge strain on NHS resources.

Not only do many such women have difficulty conceiving and require expensive IVF treatment, they also suffer a much higher rate of miscarriage and complications during pregnancy than women aged between 20 and 35.

Now, I'm no medical expert, but her comments strike me as dubious. I was 40 when I gave birth to my only child and I experienced no health difficulties whatsoever. Both the pregnancy and birth (thanks to a mobile epidural) were a breeze. Maybe I was lucky, but I know many women who have had babies in their late 30s and early 40s and only one suffered complications that might have been age-related. On the other hand, I've known several women in their 20s and early 30s who have miscarried or been hospitalised for high blood pressure and various other problems.

One reason I question Dr Bewley's assessment of what she describes as ‘middle-age pregnancy' is that older, professional woman are generally in good nick, health wise, as they've looked after themselves and have the wisdom to do all the right things when they're expecting. Also, if they've managed to get pregnant, surely that's evidence enough that their bodies are still up to the job of reproduction. Teenage mums are largely from deprived backgrounds, not hugely bright and are far more likely than more mature mothers to drink, smoke and have an unhealthy lifestyle.

Once babies are born, the difference between teenagers and ‘middle-age' mums becomes more accentuated: an older mother is far more likely to be in a stable relationship, be financially solvent and have the skills that parenthood demands. Their careers are sorted, their social lives past their peak and they will be content to devote their time to caring for their child. A teenager, by contrast, will probably be a single parent from a broken family who lives in some grim council flat and isn't going to let a baby interfere with their party lifestyle.

However, while I question Dr Bewley's medical assessment of the growing trend towards late motherhood, I am not convinced having a baby in your late 30s or early 40s is a good thing. There are many disadvantages to having a child when your biological clock has all but stopped ticking.

OK, so you're not old, but you don't have as much energy - either physical or mental - to deal with a fractious baby or stroppy toddler as you would have done had you reproduced in your 20s. Bearing a child relatively late in life means that you've enjoyed perhaps 20 years of freedom and selfishness. A baby knocks both for six.

Once you hit the big 4-0 - or so I found - you start to get a whiff of your own mortality, which is particularly unsettling if you've just brought a child into the world who won't be best pleased if you keel over before they're at university.

Older parents are less likely to have more than one child (either because they can't, physically, or decide not to because they can't face the stress of it), which means many children born to middle-age parents won't have a built-in playmate or a sibling to comfort them when the parents die relatively early in their lives.

As an older parent (married to an even older husband), I'm also acutely aware that much younger mums and dads are still full of aspirations - their careers haven't peaked, they haven't bought the car or house they want and they're ripe for new experiences - whereas I've been there, got the T-shirt and have lost interest. I own my house, I can't see the point in a flash car, I've seen the world, my career - though still ongoing - has probably passed its highest point and I can't think of anything that could happen that would elicit child-like excitement.

My daughter is now three and I worry that she will be deprived because her parents are on the way down rather than still on the way up: we can't share that life-journey on any level. We're also selfish, set in our ways, and don't have the energy or inclination to play ‘catch me if you can' around the garden a dozen times.

I adore my daughter and I'm so very grateful I was able to have a child in my twilight reproductive years, but if I had my time again I would become a mother at 30 rather than 40. I would have liked her to see me as I was, rather than as I am.


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