The truth about having a baby in your 50s

This is the title of a wonderful article in today’s Guardian G2. What struck me most on seeing the supplement was that the front cover is a coloured drawing of a woman (of indeterminate age) with a baby asleep on her shoulder, NOT the wonderful full page colour photo I know was anticipated by the commissioning editor.  The journalist, Joanna Moorehead, tried her best to find women who had had a baby after 50 who would agree to being named and photographed but only one agreed to her real first name being used.  The other two had full pseudonyms and none was willing for a photo to appear.  All three had used egg donation to achieve their pregnancies.

Carol’s children are now 13 and 10 and she,understandably, did not want her children exposed to questioning by their schoolmates about their beginnings. Both children have known about their origins since they were little but Carol felt media exposure at sensitive ages would not be helpful for them.  The other two women have babies who will be told about their origins as they grow up, but neither woman would be photographed or have even her real first name used.  Despite their protestations that motherhood is a great leveller and no-one asked their age in mother and baby groups, I suspect that exposing themselves as older mothers, rather than the fact of egg donation, was what kept them from revealing their identities.  Men are very rarely berated about becoming fathers after 50 (quite the opposite sometimes) but women face criticism, taboo and even ostracisation for daring to challenge the menopause barrier to having children.

But there are other downsides to maternity post 50.  Moorehead quotes fertility specialist Adam Balen on the greater risk of miscarriage and pre-eclampsia for older women.  Caesarian delivery is always recommended for women in this age bracket and was indeed the way all three of the interviewees gave birth.  Nina Barnsley, Director of The Donor Conception Network points out that “motherhood after fifty will only ever be a choice for the well-off and that some women will spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t in the end, work out.  Imagine borrowing £50,000 and then being unsuccessful.”

More importantly Barnsley brings in the perspective of the child.  “I’m thinking of the 21 year old who, instead of travelling the world, will be looking after a parent with Alzheimers.”  Our daughter had a schoolfriend whose father was in his seventies when she was in primary school.  He was in such failing health when she was going through teenage years that she could not bring friends home and had to stay and look after him in the evenings when her mother went to work.  Older parenthood can be fun  at the beginning and older parents may be wiser guides for their children but ill health and disability strike much more quickly as we age.  Children, many of them singletons, may well end up carrying a heavy burden of responsibility for parents at an age when they should be being supported by parents as they explore the world.  They are likely to find themselves raising their own family with no grandparents around – a situation that is already becoming common as having babies later and later becomes the norm.

Fertility education, as advocated by Balen on behalf of the British Fertility Society, is a good idea but what is likely to eclipse this call for women to have babies in their twenties and thirties is the continuing reality of many men not feeling ready to commit to parenthood before forty or so and the economic imperative of simply being unable to afford to have a baby at a time when one’s fertility is at it’s peak.

The online version of Moorehead’s article is illustrated with photos of celebrities who have recently had babies over the age of 50.  Brigitte Nielson is the only one to have addressed the question of how her pregnancy was achieved.  She says she froze her eggs ‘in her early forties’ as her previous marriage came to an end and she was beginning to know her present husband.  This may be true, although modern vitrification of eggs was not available at that time and frozen eggs rarely survived the thaw.  This child was also her fifth and it is known that women who have had several pregnancies before sometimes do conceive another late on, but as she gave birth at 54 the clever money is on donor eggs and it is a certainty for all the others.  Why is this anyone elses business?  Simply because not acknowledging egg donation gives a false impression to many impressionable people that a woman’s fertility is almost endless and that IVF can perform miracles if you have enough money.  Sadly it can’t.

About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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