How old is too old to have a baby? Once, such a question would hardly have needed asking: a time came when women could no longer have babies, and that was that. In these enlightened times, however, things are rather different. No-one who does not want a baby need have one (which makes you wonder why it is that there are still the number of abortions taking place – more than 189,000 in the UK last year) and many a career-minded young woman decides to put off having babies until her late thirties or forties. At present, the cut-off point for IVF is fifty, which many of us might think is well old enough, particularly if you are trying for a first baby.
Yet if a thing can be done, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will want to do it, and for as long as there are foolish women with enough money to go to fertility clinics in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, there will be clinics that will accommodate their desire for children at no matter what age. I read today that Susan Tollefsen, who had her first baby at fifty-seven is now contemplating another at sixty. The article in the Sunday Times is extremely sympathetic – “Getting pregnant at 57 wasn’t a lifestyle choice for Tollefsen, a former special needs teacher, more an accident of tragic circumstance.” You might wonder what sort of “tragic circumstance” might lead to such a pregnancy – in fact, her father died when she was thirty four and she, apparently, felt responsible for her mother, so she put off marriage and motherhood until her mother died.
After this, she met a man eleven years her junior, and they decided it might be nice to have children. As a special needs teacher, she did not, it seems want to adopt a special needs baby – “that was what [she] did for work” so she went to Russia, where she had IVF. So, she is now mother to a baby that is not even her own – and is thinking of having another. There is much argument along the lines of age not being what it once was – but I suspect there is more than a little vanity involved here: just a little nip and tuck, and our eleven years younger husband may forget that he has married an older woman – and of course, the baby is the ultimate designer accessory.
The mother in question seems to think that a loving home makes up for, amongst other things, a lack of grandparents, and says smugly that “I don’t expect anyone, least of all my daughter, to look after me in my old age.” She may not expect it, but I have no doubt that this child (children if she goes on to have another) will be left in no doubt about how it was that she was left to look after her own mother, and although she may say that she does not expect it, there will be an unspoken subtext, particularly as she gets older. She may be a sprightly sixty year old who takes care of herself, but when she is seventy-eight and her daughter is contemplating university, she may feel differently.
There is another article two pages earlier, about the newsreader John Suchet, and his wife, who at sixty four was diagnosed with dementia, and who now lives in a home. What, pray, will become of Susan Tollefsen’s children if she is thus afflicted? There may be an expectation that women these days live to eighty – but my own dear mother, who had never particularly had anything wrong with her, fell down dead one day aged 72 of a heart attack. I, in my forties, was stricken – but how much more so would I have been affected had I been twelve or fourteen at the time?
The whole question of IVF raises many moral questions, not least whether having a baby is a “right” Susan Tollefsen seems to think that a successful birth is all that matters – in which it would seem that the London Women’s Clinic is in agreement with her, as they are now, apparently, to consider revising upwards their cut-off point for the age at which an older mother can be offered IVF. Motherhood, however, is more than merely successfully delivering a live infant, as I suspect that Susan Tollefsen will discover. She might find that having a teenager when you are in your seventies is not quite all that she has bargained for.