Geriatric motherhood

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.

20 thoughts on “Geriatric motherhood”

  1. Firstly Squarepeg – I’ve put a ‘More’ tag in this – so that it doesn’t take up all the front page!

    I’m inclined to agree with you – and will no doubt be called all sorts of names. Motherhood is far more than just giving birth to a child, and I really wish a few more people of every age would realise that.

    I’m probably well out of step with ‘modern’ thinking – but I question the whole idea of providing IVF freely under the NHS, or Medicare as it is here.

  2. Boadicea –
    I’m so sorry about taking up the front page – so what should I do next time to avoid it (other than only writing short posts!)

    The problem is that if something can be done, it will – such as that “man” (who was of course nothing of the sort) having a baby in America. No-one seems to think of the children: it is all about the “rights” of the parents. We live very much in an “I want therefore I must have” sort of a world. There is also what you might call the tyranny of choice – once, such a thing would not have been possible, so people would not have fretted over the fact that the moment for having children had come, been and gone – it would simply have been a fact of life.
    Also, in an overpopulated world, can we really justify extending the bounds of motherhood, and creating babies that in all probability will have to be looked after at best by other family members, and at worst by the state?

  3. You are correct – it’s all about ‘my rights’ and not ‘my responsibilities’. I sometimes think people have children like they are acquiring a new fashion accessory:

    I’ve got the house, the car, the dishwasher and a career – now it’s time to have some children. By the way, government, will you please pay me a year’s maternity leave so that I don’t have to go without anything and at the end of that year provide me with a nursery place so that I don’t actually have to look after the children

    As you may gather, I feel very strongly about this!

    Long posts are very welcome! When you write your draft in the Visual Mode there are two rows of ‘buttons’.On the top row four from the end there’s a symbol like two bits of paper with a dotted line through the middle. If you run your cursor over the ‘buttons’ you’ll see the tip ‘More’. Put your cursor where you want the break to come and click on the button. If you edit what you have written you’ll see the buttons and where I’ve put the ‘More’ Tag.

  4. Nature generally knows best, so it seems “wrong” of sixty-year old women to want to have a child when in the natural way of things their reproductive days are long gone. Susan Tollefsen seems to me on the same level as those unhappy teenagers who want a baby so they “have someone to love them”. Emotionally needy. Everyone at the school gate is going to assume she is the child’s grandmother. I think the child will at some point feel very embarrassed.

    That said, I recognise that I have three children so have never felt the pain of being childless. I still think, however, that nature knows best.

  5. sheona :

    That said, I recognise that I have three children so have never felt the pain of being childless.

    Neither do I. However, I do wonder why a woman who has passed the ‘normal’ child-bearing age decides that she wants children. Me – cynical? Probably…!

  6. I can understand the total biological and emotional need to have children; I have a friend who has tried everything with no success, but IVF treatment is not a guarantee and after the age of fifty or so, then I think it is entirely selfish.

    The fact that this is possible is really in some ways quite cruel, for those who spend a fortune and for the children conceived by this method, if the mother is not of “normal” child-bearing age.

  7. One of the things that worries me is the incidence of abnormal births after the age of 40. All sorts of defects statistically go off the scale, especially if a first child. Who is supposed to look after and pay for all the ‘duds’?

    Personally I think IVF should be cut off at 40, old mothers of first children are quite repulsive. It is patently obvious that a new mother of 60 is more than likely to leave children orphaned in their minority. That Spanish woman did just that left two under 4 wasn’t it?

    I was the fourth child of a couple with my mother in her late forties and my father in his late fifties, I was a dreadful accident! I never played with either parents I never expected to, the grandparents were well dead! People always assumed they were my grandparents, not that that embarrassed me. I am well aware that I was never ‘bought up’ in the conventional sense. By the age of sixteen I would announce that I would be staying ‘in town’ overnight and not to expect me back until the morning, they never even asked which town! Not surprisingly I grew up to be as eccentric, if not more so than they were!
    All they were ever concerned with was that one should go to a good University, nothing else ever seemed to be of interest. Mother sat around reading Anglo Saxon poetry and father was always in a ‘flap’ at some ‘unknown address’. Needless to say made the most horrendous bog of life as you can imagine and no thanks to either of them that I emerged as a human being in due course! (Some may still doubt that!)

    Strangely I allowed the boy to do similar roamings around but always talked it through with him, something my parents never contemplated doing, they were plain too old to realise that life had changed completely in the 60’s and they did not even know the questions to ask, sad really retrospectively.

    Women who even contemplate this over 50 ought to be sterilised involuntarily for the putative child’s sake in my opinion. There is something wrong with them in their heads.

  8. I would argue that no IVF, or assistance to reproduce be available on the NHS. The whole service needs to be re-oriented toward treating, (or preventing,) illness and such corrective surgery as is available for post-trauma, severe disability or disfigurement cases. Infertility is not an illness, it’s nature’s way of saying, ‘the gene pool is better off without these particular genes.’

  9. I go with Sheona’s and Bravo’s point about ‘nature’. Evolution has filtered out any tendency to late childbirth, so messing with the odds is dangerous, not to say foolish. Christina’s own story is salutary too. Young parents cope with kids because they have to energy (and the naivety?) necessary for the job. Parenthood isn’t about self-fulfilment but procreation.

  10. I’d go with Janus on energy. On one posting, my ex became friendly with the wife of a very senior person. it was a May-September marriage – a very successful one – but the father was ‘grandfather age,’ and the chilren bracketed my youngest, 3 years old at the time. The first time I met these children, I found them very articulate, very sociable and very polite – but they didn’t know how to play. When I started rolling around on the floor with my son, throwing him around, and tickling him, they were completely non-plussed and had no idea how to join in. Mind, they soon learned 🙂

  11. Right, bravo, I don’t think the NHS can afford this IVF treatment just at the moment. Those women who go abroad for IVF then expect the NHS to look after them and the baby. They should be paying their own way. And then, as Christina points out, there is the increased incidence of birth defects in the children born to older women. It always annoys me that the NHS also has to pick up the tab for those who go abraod for cheap cosmetic surgery, return to Britain with an infection or other medical problem and expect the British taxpayer to fund their NHS treatment until they recover.

  12. Interesting – it seems to be almost unanimous that free medical services should not be picking up the cost of IVF treatment.

    Bearing in mind what someone said earlier about defective genes, I wonder if there has been any research on children born from IVF – do they also have problems conceiving? I know there is a procedure which can repair defective Y chromosomes, the only problem with that is that any males born will need their chromosomes repaired as well.

  13. I still don’t know how I feel about IVF. It seems to me such a cold and sterilised way to start a child’s life – or several children’s, as the case might be. Surrogacy sits only marginally better.

    I had my son at 36, conceived after six months of leaving it to nature. I want another, but once more I’m going to leave it to nature to decide, and if it’s not on the way by my 39th birthday, it will all be over. My dad died unexpectedly at 58, when I was 17, and my biggest fear is not living to see my kid(s) grow up. I know I still needed my dad then.

    If nature won’t let you have a child of your own, perhaps one should take the hint. Passing on my own genes isn’t all that important to me. Instead of dithering over artificial conception, people should concentrate on making adoption easier. It’s a shame to have everything it would take to make a child happy and have just bureaucracy standing in the way.

  14. Good blog; interesting thoughts.
    A friend of mine who has no children paid a visit this week. She regaled me with tales of surfing, plans for Glastonbury, ad hoc weekend trips to Scotland. Then she sighed and said all she really wanted was kids and to get married. She has an itinerary, all set out, which will kick in once her other half pops the question, from conception date, to birth date, to how long she will have off work and how she plans to make her kids fit in around her part time work afterwards, and how she plans to discipline her children…
    She told me this as I picked up squashed raisins and tried to stop my two from pulling the remains of each other’s hair out -(which they cut with paper scissors last week.)
    I couldn’t help thinking, you have no idea love! I was just the same before having kids -thought it would be not much harder than popping out for a new handbag.
    But the thing that noone tells you about having kids is that, even if it does go like a dream, it’s nature’s perogative to pick you up and wring you out like an old dishcloth when she’s done!

  15. Besides the fact that it is rather creepy, I don’t really have any objection to older women having babies. I think everybody worries far too much about the child under such circumstances. Children adapt extremely well. What may seem unusual to other people is normal to them. Many children are raised by their grandparent and go on to live happy and fulfilled lives. There is a lot to be said for older parents raising a child; they are generally wiser and better off than young parents. As for the worry that the child will have to look after his aging mother, the chances are the mother will not be around for very long to be looked after anyway and will likely be dead by the time the child has entered employment.

    All that having been said, I am much more in favour of women having 4 children before they are 30. That is as it should be to maintain a stable society. At the rate we are going, the Anglo Saxon will disappear completely in a century or so. Mothers should be mothers and fathers should work and people should stop thinking they can have everything. They cant and even if they could it would not make them any happier.

  16. true, Sipu. Or as my mum said recently, ‘When we were your age we made our own furniture. We had nothing – no second car, no holidays and no expensive face creams and we didn’t miss it.’
    CUe lots of piss taking from me and my sisters. You know, ‘Oh them weert dayz. One fork betwint ten of uz…’
    But sometimes I think we – and by that I mean our society – have got our priorities seriously wrong.

  17. I do think most people were happier with a lot less!
    Possessions are a millstone, after 48 addresses and five moves over the Atlantic you can take my word on that!
    Sort of concentrates the mind!

  18. Quite bravo, done it twice in a lifetime, walked out on my home with just a suitcase.
    Always managed to take my jewellery though!
    My little golden rule, I only ever sold the pieces given me by complete shits, the rest I kept!

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