In 2011, 1,832 babies in the UK were born to women who were aged 45 or over. That’s out of a total for that year of 723,913 births. What do you think? Was that 1,832 too many? Do you imagine a group of high-powered executives (aka selfish bitches) who clung on to careers until the last desperate minute? Or do you think they were just a bit mad? Don’t pretend that none of those tabloid stereotypes flickered in your mind; they are the mainstay of newspaper banter. Indeed not only are these women thought to be monsters of one sort or another but they are also seen as endangering the health and happiness of their child. And there are greater risks. But, back off a minute because I am all for senior mums – and dads.
You see, in the 1960s my mum discovered that she was pregnant. She was 45 and my dad was 50. I am not sure how the conversation went that night when my dad got home tired from work but I imagine there was some silence and a lot of cups of tea, probably some tears. Thankfully not too much gin. This was not a plan on my parents’ part; I think I could have fairly been christened Mighty Accident. I guess my mum could have spoken to my sisters – two of whom were already grown up and out at work. However that night unfolded, the good news for me is that they pressed ahead and put off any ideas of taking it easy for another decade or two. They proved themselves brave from the get go.
Yet what irritates me about the older parents debate is that there isn’t actually a debate at all. So let me make clear, as far as I am concerned it’s an all-round good thing.
Sure my dad was perhaps slower on the “let’s play football” front and was probably secretly chuffed when it transpired that muddy playing fields also held no allure for me. But he enveloped me in his passions instead. He loved to garden, so I got a patch where I would take delight as the sunflower grew taller than me. Stamp collecting was another winner: I was more than happy to sit dreaming of all the exotic places depicted in miniature. Nature! Every Sunday we would head out for a country walk and in no time I knew the name of every butterfly and bird (I still sometimes get a quizzical look from a colleague as I name some feathered number on the Monocle terrace or from a friend because I can name every duck on Regent’s Park pond). At 50 my dad was happy to be at home, he wasn’t off to the pub or working late. His slower take on life was ideal for fatherhood.
It was the same for my mum. She had already done this job several times over and could bring up a child with ease. I think she also liked having a son around who was perhaps a bit too keen on helping with the baking. Comfortable with her parental skill set, she eased off quite early and allowed something with a tinge of friendship to grow. My sisters complained that I got it easy and no doubt I did; but actually it just came with the job description of older parents.
So the next time you see those statistics or stories about selfish older mothers, think whatever you like. But I know different. And here’s one more fact to trip up your prejudices. The number of British women over 45 who have babies today is just the same as it was back in the 1940s.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.