Medical breakthroughs promise women greater control over their fertility but should they really delay motherhood? Stephanie Bell asks four mums if there’s ever a best time to buy a pram?
More and more women are following the celebrity-led trend of A-listers like Madonna, Celine Dion and Halle Berry by choosing to have babies in their 40s. Whether it’s due to establishing careers, social circumstances or just not meeting the right partner, it seems that, despite the risks, hitting middle age is no longer a barrier to becoming a mum for the first time.
New medical advances mean that more women will be able to make an informed lifestyle choice about whether or not to leave motherhood until later in life.
As well as recent news that IVF could soon become available on the NHS to women over 40, a revolutionary new test has also been developed which can predict the start of menopause. Of course as you get older there are more risks attached to pregnancy. Older women are more likely to develop high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy and also face a greater chance of having a Down’s syndrome child. The biggest obstacle for women age 35 or older may be getting pregnant in the first place. Fertility rates begin to decline gradually at age 30, more so at 35, and markedly at 40.
But despite the risks the number of older mums is growing. In 2000 the number of women aged 35 to 39 giving birth was up 30% from 1990. In women aged 40 to 45 the increase was 47%, and for those ages 45 to 49 the rate was an astonishing 190% higher. But what is the right age to have a baby?
We talk to four mums who started a family at different stages — one teen mum, one in her 20s, another who was 30 and a 40-year-old — to find out the advantages and disadvantages to motherhood, no matter what the age.
Gillian Brydson (34), a personal trainer from Newtownards, had her first son, David, when she was 15, while her second son, Charlie, came along 17 years later. She says:
I ran away from home and joined the circus in England with my boyfriend when I was 14. I got pregnant and had my son David a few weeks after my 15th birthday. I came home with the baby, although I stayed with his father for several years. When I found out I was pregnant, it was a shock and even though I was so young, I couldn’t wait to have this lovely wee baby and be a good mum.
I did go back and finish school although I got no qualifications and money was tight in the first few years. Not getting qualifications is probably my only regret. I never felt I missed out on anything. I never really went out with a group of friends, so I didn’t miss it. I didn’t have my first alcoholic drink until I was 21. When you are younger nothing fazes you and you take everything in your stride. I was very adamant that I wanted to do everything for David myself and he never left my side. My whole life revolved around him.
Looking back, I think that was a mistake as he grew up quite shy and lacking in confidence. With my second son, Charlie, I am happy for anyone to mind him or take him for a walk, whereas I wouldn’t let David out of my sight.
I never though I would have another child. I was happy to be on my own with David. I spent my 20s studying and trying to get qualifications and establish a career to give us both a better standard of living. I took courses to become a personal trainer and was able to buy my own house.
I think being on my own and being a teenage mum has made me a stronger person. Establishing a career has really helped me as a person and I have gone from being a very shy, insecure girl to a really confident woman and I know I can get through anything.
I met my husband-to-be Kenny a few years ago and we now have Charlie who is 22-months-old. I think being an older mum now I am maybe not as laid-back as I was in my teens. I also know what’s ahead for the teenage years and that terrifies me. I have no regrets and to any other teenage mums who feel they are missing out I would say they do have a future and it will be ok.”
Deborah White (46), a care worker from Maralin, had her children, Peter (21) and Adam (18), when she was in her 20s. She says:
I always planned to have a family in my 20s. I got married when I was 24 and Peter was born a year later. Adam followed three years after that. I didn’t work when the children were young. I didn’t have anyone to look after them to allow me to go to work and any job that would have been open to me wouldn’t have paid enough to cover childminding costs.
I’m glad that I did stay at home with them in those early years even though it meant that money was tight. Looking back I think I definitely had more energy in my 20s and was able to give both boys the attention they needed. Being a full-time mum also meant I didn’t miss out on any of the early stages of their development and I think it helped give them a stable start in life.
If I could change anything it would be that I’d had Adam sooner after Peter or had left a bigger gap.
When they were little, three years was too much for them to be able to relate to each other.
Adam was just too young to play with Peter. Now that they are adults, I feel that as a mum, I’ve had the best of both worlds. I am still young enough to relate to them and share their interests.
They are both independent now which means that my husband and I can do our own thing.
Being a mum is the best and you never stop worrying or feeling protective towards your children no matter what age they are.
My youngest son lives and works in England and my oldest is still at home.
Even though it’s nice to still be young enough to do your own thing, I dread the day when they have both flown the nest.”
Carmel Mulholland (35), an IT consultant from Jordanstown, is mum to Ruairi (4) and 18-month-old Aoibheann. She says:
I had always intended to try and have my children before I was 30 but to be honest Keith and I were having so much fun in our 20s and concentrating on building up our careers that I was 30 before I had Ruairi. I don’t regret waiting, I feel I did the right thing but I also know that we are very lucky that everything fell into place for us.
Keith and I met at university and married when we were 24. We enjoyed a real party lifestyle together in our 20s and I think we would have missed out if we had had our kids earlier.
I also wanted both of us to be settled in our careers so that I would be in a position to go part-time when I became a mum. It was important to me to be able to spend time at home with my children in those really important early years. I just started work for Belfast City Council before we decided to start a family and because of their flexible working policies I knew it was the ideal time to have my children.
Being able to go part-time has meant everything to me as I would have felt so guilty missing out on all the important early milestones. I’m lucky because Keith has a good enough salary to allow me to work part-time while still enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and being able to give the children everything we want to give them.
We also wanted to be in the right house before the children came along and so were able to buy a five bedroom house with a huge back garden before starting our family. It meant being in a home which has all the space we need rather than having the hassle of moving house with young children. We are lucky that everything worked out so well for us. Being a mum is the best feeling possible that you can have, there is nothing else to compare to it. While it worked out well for me, I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone who wants children in their 20s to wait. I have a lot of girlfriends in their 30s who waited and are now struggling to have kids due to fertility issues. It seems much more common nowadays and for that reason I would say it is not worth the wait.
Jill Hanna (44), a sales consultant from Dollingstown, is mum to Sam, aged three. She says:
Stephen and I got married when I was 29 and for the first few years we concentrated on our work and setting up a home. I was 34 when we decided to try for a family. All my friends and siblings were having babies and as we weren’t getting any younger we thought the time was right. You just expect it to happen and it is a shock when you realise it isn’t as easy as you think it is going to be.
When nothing had happened after a couple of years we decided to speak to our GP. We then went down the fertility route. The years really do slip by when you go through that as you seem to just spend your time waiting for medical appointments. We started with a treatment which involved me injecting myself to help produce more eggs but it wasn’t successful and the only other option open to us was IVF.
I didn’t feel comfortable with IVF as I felt it was too invasive and so Stephen and I took the decision to stop treatment. Going through fertility treatment is very tough. One month you are on a high hoping for the best and the next you are on a real low when nothing happens. We decided that we weren’t going to put ourselves through it anymore and instead just accept that we were not going to have a family.
We decided to just make the most of what we had and try not to think about it. Just a few months later, I started to feel unwell and thought I had flu. Stephen suggested doing a pregnancy test but I thought no way could I be pregnant. I bought one and when it showed positive I just couldn’t believe it. We were elated.
I was 40 when I had Sam and being a mum is just the best thing in the world. I think being that bit older I feel calmer and less stressed. We are also more settled which I think is a big advantage to having a child in your 40s.
I’m not worried about my career or climbing the property ladder, so there’s not the same pressure. I can also give Sam more quality time as I am able to work part-time. I think if I had had him in my 20s I wouldn’t have had that luxury and I would be depending on other people to mind him while I worked full-time. Sam is the best thing that ever happened to us and at our age, we can really enjoy him.