Having a baby at 47

"It was people about our own age who were most excited about the idea of bringing a tiny baby into already full lives."
"It was people about our own age who were most excited about the idea of bringing a tiny baby into already full lives." Photo: Getty

A few months ago, aged 47, I had my second child.

While I was pregnant, there were many people to tell and there seemed to be several standard responses. One was to ask my first son's age - he's nine - and then to tell me, as if I hadn't noticed: "That's a big gap." My standard response to this was, "It's a long story."

The long story began 10 years ago when child No. 1 was born via IVF. It continued on through my breast cancer diagnosis (on his first birthday), surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and five years of hormone therapy. All that time, I kept in my mind the frozen embryos we had in storage, hoping to use them.

Once I was "clear", we used those embryos over 12 months, transferring them one by one, failing each time. We moved on to another two years of almost every flavour of IVF, as the likelihood of falling pregnant became increasingly remote. It's such a long story that I rarely recount the whole thing.

Another response was the open-mouthed gape (or long silence on the phone) while the other person processed the information. This usually came from people who knew me better, and assumed I'd moved on from having babies; that surviving cancer was enough of a win. But "just" surviving wasn't enough; I'd spent those nine years working towards the second baby that the cancer had tried to take from me. I'm stubborn that way.

Next, people would tell me how well I looked, as if a pregnant old lady should appear exhausted and drawn. No, I'd think, that comes after the baby's born. I was full of feel-good hormones and the recharging effects of afternoon naps. Being middle-aged and pregnant is tiring and potentially more risky, but cancer has made me a diet-watching exercise addict; I don't work as hard as before and I'm more willing to put my own needs first.

The pregnancy was problem-free, and after cancer and IVF, it was a pleasant change to be of no particular interest to my doctors.

But mostly people gushed. They hugged. They were so happy for me and for my husband. Then they'd let slip that they'd love just one more baby themselves.

Having a baby at 47 can disrupt a standard-issue life trajectory as much as at 17, so all-out enthusiasm is not necessarily called for. I could clearly see the downsides. We were just getting some freedom back in our lives; now we're back at square one with its midnight horrors and 24/7 responsibilities.


Yet it was people about our own age who were most excited about the idea of bringing a tiny baby into already full lives. I'm living out something they've toyed with, even dreamt of, and sensibly allowed to pass by.

Some women admitted to a desire to revisit their younger, first-time-mother selves. Others were frank about the biological urge - their near-menopausal bodies nagging them to have one more before it's too late.

And it wasn't just the women. A friend's husband talked about a fourth child, even as his wife cleared every last bit of baby paraphernalia from their house.

Kansas State University researchers Gary and Sandra Brase say "baby fever" is a real phenomenon, particularly among people in their 40s. "Baby fever," they say, is "a visceral physical and emotional desire to have a baby", unconnected to any logical reasons for reproducing. These aren't people who have reached their 40s childless - that's another story. These are people who have kids, usually the number they planned. Those kids are becoming independent.

These baby-hungry 40-somethings have no good reason for their desires. Nor, often, do they consider how difficult it would be to get pregnant. Happy stories about late-life celebrity babies buy into the dream, but they rarely document the reality: the medical intrusions (I had at least 50 blood tests in three years), the cost, the time, the tears. Then there are the hard decisions that come with ageing ovaries, about things like unviable embryos, miscarriages, and whether to try donor eggs. Medicine offers hope, but hope can also make it hard to let go.

If I had completed my family in my 30s, I might have toyed with the dream of a later-life baby, but I wouldn't have subjected myself and those around me to all it involved. I embarked on the attempt with optimism, but over time nearly lost that hope and I'm almost surprised to find an actual baby in my arms.

In parenting, for every joy there is a loss or a drain. My husband and I may not have the natural resilience of younger parents; we can, though, change our priorities to compensate. Fewer nights out, more naps; we'll cope.

As for my age (I'll be 68 when the baby's 21), I come from a long-lived family, and after surviving a cancer that gave me not-great odds, I figure every minute's a bonus.

I know my friends won't envy me the downsides of being a middle-aged second-time mum. But when I need half an hour to shower, or drink a cup of tea before it gets cold, I won't want for experienced arms to hold the baby. 

This article first appeared in Sunday Life.