Patricia Rashbrook suffered because of it.
Newspaper headline writers were aghast. So were some social commentators. It’s not right, they said, for women to have children so old.
The actor Charles Dance is expecting a baby with his 39-year old partner. He’s 65 and people seem to be happy for him. Donald Trelford, the former editor of The Observer, who has become a father again at 73, has written about his baby putting a spring in his step.
Is this another case of double standards, of older mothers being treated differently to older fathers?
If so, I have a confession to make. When I read about older mothers I feel uneasy; when I read of older fathers it’s with a sense of warmth. Am I prejudiced? I don’t think so. It seems to me that even in this day and age the role of the mother is fundamentally different to that of the father.
Mothers are intrinsically bound up with the welfare of the child until it is an adult. Fathers are important but their role is a supporting one. A fatherless child has a much better chance than a motherless one. And these older fathers tend to have children with younger mothers.
I say these older fathers because they are becoming too numerous to count.
The list I have so far compiled includes: John Simpson, the veteran BBC foreign affairs correspondent; John Humphrys of the Today programme; former Beatle Paul McCartney; war reporter Jon Swain and photographer Don McCullin.
Then there’s singer Rod Stewart, actor David Jason and Ben Bradley of the Washington Post who was immortalised in All The President’s Men. (No, I didn’t know he was still alive either.)
There was a time when Picasso and Charlie Chaplin were the rare examples. Now, one child in 10 born in the UK has a father who is more than 45 years old. Perhaps this is why older fathers no longer seem odd, and why they don’t arouse the hysteria which greets older mothers.
Perhaps my attitude also comes from my own experience. I have a soft spot for older fathers because I had one. My father was in his 40s when I was born. He sounds like a stripling by comparison to today’s dads but 45 then equates to 65 now. My brother was 20 years older than me, my niece only six years younger.
My father wasn’t a constant daily presence but he did have the other qualities older fathers claim for themselves. He was mellow, wise, calm and willing to be amused. He talked across not down and he listened to my witterings as if they were pearls.
Outings were infrequent but always memorable: walks on wild, west of Ireland beaches, political rallies, new pretty shoes that were not needed, knickerbocker glories and unexpected plunges into hardware shops to marvel at gadgets that made tea or put your slippers on. (I retain a weakness for hardware shops.)
I had a much better deal than my older siblings. They knew him in his 20s when his family was growing and so were the bills. He was stressed and strict. They looked at the benign neglect in which I flourished and told me I didn’t know my own good fortune.
Those older fathers who have been interviewed or who have written about their babies remind me of him. Mr Trelford says he doesn’t even mind the broken nights with baby Ben since he’s up twice a night anyway to go to the loo. He has also waxed lyrical about the joys of choosing baby clothes and pushing a buggy.
He relates how his 10-year-old grandson wrote a card to his baby uncle saying, “Dear Ben, hope the birth went well.”
It doesn’t seem fair that such unexpected happiness should be celebrated when it is the lot of older men and be denied to older women, does it? Is it because we fear for the welfare of their children or because we live in a culture that is in thrall to youth and beauty?
Maybe it’s a bit of both, although I hope the latter isn’t what weighs with me. For I also had a mother who was relatively old -- 40 -- when I was born. She couldn’t have done a better job of raising me but she was 70 when I was 30 and it was beginning to be my turn to look after her. Thank goodness I wasn’t 10 years old or even younger.
Mothers in their forties are nothing new. They reached 2178 in Scotland by 2010. But cast your eye further back and you’ll see that after the Second World War there were twice as many as now. In 1945 more than 4000 babies were born in Scotland to women aged 40-50. By 1951 that had risen to 4632.
It was the baby boom and a long time before reliable contraception which may explain why births for this age group remained in four figures until the 1970s. The lowest point was in 1978 when only 534 births were recorded but by 1998 they’d crept back up to 1069.
Childbirth for women in their 40s is natural, just as fathering a baby for men in their 60s is natural since they retain fertility. This, I think, is the crux of my differing attitude to very late parenthood. We can and do manipulate nature but we need always to be wary of the consequences and to be sure that it is for the best long-term.
Thanks to science we can turn the clock back for post-menopausal women for the nine months of a pregnancy but can we sustain it for the 20 years it takes to raise a child to independent adulthood?
Am I wrong in thinking that children will get there easier without a father than without a mother? The 10% of babies born to older fathers will probably have the best of their parent even if he isn’t around all the way.
There’s another benefit from older fathers at this particular point in our social development. More women are finding themselves approaching 40 and single. On Sunday I read the story of one who said she’d been brought up to believe she would always have the option to marry. Then she found that the supply of educated, high-status men ran out.
Maybe now women like her can start looking further up the age scale. Maybe they too will find they can have offspring with an older, doting dad -- and I mean doting in the nicest possible way.
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