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The pros and cons of geriatric motherhood

Having children in your 40s may be all very well for the mother, but what about the children?

I was interested to read this piece by Mariella Frostrup and the comments attached to it in the Guardian recently.

Frostrup is a mid-life mother and very positive about it, but personally I have my doubts about how wonderful it is, having kids in your 40s when you're not a wealthy person with money for nannies. 

I did briefly consider having children in my late 30s, but decided against it for a multitude of reasons. The truth was, I'd left it too late. Eight years with a partner with whom I didn't want kids, and serious issues with both of my parents, especially my mother, had gotten me to the age of 37 or so before I'd really felt comfortable about the idea of ever becoming a parent. 

Fundamentally, I am not a well-adjusted, happy person. Nor are my siblings. Nor were my parents, or their parents, or their parents. I do feel that somewhere along the line, all this has to stop - you can't keep perpetuating depression and dysfunction generation after generation. Better to let the Devine family die out, frankly.

Perhaps I would have felt different if my husband had been pro-children, but he was not. And the thing is, if he had been pro-children, I might not have been interested in him. One does have to face the Freudian fact that I might well have chosen him precisely because he doesn't want kids. 

Another complication for me, though, was my fibroids. I developed these, coincidentally, at about the same time as I was coming round to the idea of possibly, maybe, one day but not yet, having kids. And that's a Freudian issue too. It's well known that fibroids can be caused by an internal conflict and that it appears some women develop them as form of a reproductive block. It is quite possible, medically speaking, that I GAVE myself fibroids in order not to have children. 

Now, at the age of 46, I find myself feeling that I've dodged a bullet, and one reason is something brought up by a commentator on the Frostrup piece - do the math. How old would I have been when my child was 10, 20, 30 years old? What responsibilities would I have been placing on a child's shoulders at such a young age? How fair is it to do this? If I had one now, I'd be 64 before he or she went to university, and I don't much like those odds - my dad died at 61.

I also have to admit that I HATED my parents being so elderly when I was still at primary school. Too old to play, too old to go in the sea, dragging me round museums and stately homes all day rather than anything fun like Alton Towers or an adventure playground. They were more like grandparents than parents, having had me at the ripe old age of 36 (old in those days). There is nearly a generation between me and my sister and when we recount our childhoods (which hardly overlapped), we realise that we had quite different parents. 

It is true that 40 is not what it was, but we needn't kid ourselves that it's really the new 30. That is all marketing bollox. My friend M knows full well that with her second child, whom she has when she was 40, she's permanently knackered, permanently run-down in a way that she wasn't at 35. She's delighted to have her, of course, but wishes plaintively that she had managed to get pregnant when younger, given that she tried from the age of 16. 

From the standpoint of 46, I now think 35 is a reasonable cut-off point for planning to have children. Of course, you might slip one past the goalie, but that can't always be helped, and if your circumstances are right, then you'll probably keep it. But planning is a different matter, where you need a clearer head, and if you're planning to have children later in life, it doesn't do to underestimate what you're asking of your child as well as of yourself. 

What do other readers think?


Love and life in the sandwich years

When Brigit Sapstead remarried in her 40s, she found herself with a new family to look after, covering all the generations

Brigit and familyI am so lucky to have found love and had a second chance to share life with friend, lover and altogether decent man. 

When I remarried a year ago I was under no illusion that our lives together would not be full of challenges. My stepsons had recently lost their mother to cancer, and my youngest teenage stepson has type 1 diabetes. My husband has had to cope with taking on a stepdaughter who suffers from the usual PMT, and falls apart when the loo seat is left up. Wow, the mixture of adolescent hormones, ascent (or descent?) into manhood, acceptance of a stepmother, and the constant fluctuation of blood sugars present a gamut of moods! My husband and I have started our married life together with an established family unit of four very different teenagers!  
Nevertheless, the biggest challenge we have faced together during this past year has been the failing health of our parents. Without each other, my husband and I both admit that we would not have been able to cope with the pressures and strains of dealing with the practicalities and emotions of our parents' declining years. His Dad, my Mum.
My mother is a feisty 87-year-old Irish lady who left her homeland when she was in her teens to travel the world as a nurse. She met my Dad in Cyprus and they spent decades living in exotic parts of the world, my father designing roads and railways, and my mother enjoying life as an expat wife.  They have been married for over 50 years and until last year enjoyed rude health and good times.
Then, suddenly, Mum couldn't see properly and her normally erect posture started to bend; she couldn't swallow and over the weeks she lost the ability to eat. Her eyes seemed to disappear into deep sockets - she started to look emaciated. But she had not lost her mind.
In hospital, she suffered a heart attack and by spring, she was dependent on morphine to get her through the day. We were told she wouldn't survive. My husband, a doctor, supported me and my Dad by dealing with the practicalities of hospital, deciphering that code which only medics seem to speak. Diagnoses ranged from Parkinson's to motor neurone, then finally she was tested for a rare neurological disorder called myesthenia gravis, and bingo, she started to recover.
During this awful time, my father, a bright, strong man seemed to fall apart.  I spent the first five months of this year spending part of the week with my Dad, caring for him and supporting him while my Mum was in hospital.  My parents' home was 120 miles away and I came to know every crack and fissure on the motorway.  Then Dad said he couldn't cope living so far from me and six weeks ago both my parents moved to a flat two minutes walk from my house.
My husband has taken all this in his stride and welcomes the additions to the family.  He jokes that he now has two mothers in law living close by! His father, meanwhile, is in and out of hospital and we travel the same motorway regularly to support his mother. But it is his genuine feeling that we are so very lucky to have the opportunity to care for our parents that fills me with love and admiration for my husband.
He's right - we are lucky. Mum's life is not easy - she is wheelchair bound and she gets frustrated that she can't do the things she took for granted - but I am so lucky that she survived and has a second chance to enjoy life. 
What a year!
The picture above shows the three girlie generations at my wedding last year.


The old school tie

Isn't it time the idea of children wearing ties was abolished altogether?

An article I read today about UK school uniforms is enough to make you bleat in despair.

The school tie as we know it is about to end, replaced by a clip-on that will be safer for pupils to wear, pulling off instantly if you get caught in machinery or catch fire in the science lab. 

Oh Lord above us. What nobody seems to ask is: why have a tie at all? What the hell does a child need with a tie?

What exactly IS a tie anyway? Are there many people around today who know what this garment is actually FOR?

The truth is, it is vestigial. It denotes rank, not utility.

Five hundred years ago, before buttons were widely used on clothing, the shirt was held closed around the neck by two strings. The shirt was an undergarment - a trace of which remains in the phrase 'shirt sleeves' - and at this point in time, as for several more centuries, it went on over your head. 

In the Elizabethan era, the shirt, which had always been slightly visible at the neck and cuffs (pulled through in order to keep your outer, less-washable clothing away from your skin) became gradually more visible, and was decorated with black embroidery (known as blackwork). The strings were also sometimes black. 

Roll on to a century later, and the shirt is being held shut with strings, but is tied over with kerchiefs, then stocks, then finally 'ties', all of which help to keep it shut or to hide a front closed by buttons and loops which bring the shirt edges together but don't overlap them.

By the Victorian era, however, the actual function of closing the garment is done entirely by buttons, the front sections overlap and yet the tie itself continues, much as the open holes of the brogue, originally designed to allow water to run out in boggy peat, are filled in and become a mere decorative device.

The modern-day tie has absolutely no function. It is a tie-sign denoting a shared background (the 'old school tie'), or a supposedly shared attitude to the workplace. 

But rather than dressing our children in a child's copy of an entirely useless adult garment, wouldn't it be better to acknowledge that they are, in fact, children, and allow them some more freedom and comfort?

Pull-on sweatpants, t-shirts and sweatshirts, and trainers are infinitely more comfortable, washable, cheaper and practical than traditional school uniforms with shirts and ties and at least might enable kids to have a few more years of caring more about how they feel than about how they look before they join our bankrupt adult world.

But then God forbid that the little darlings shouldn't look like our idea of 'smart' - along with obedient, compliant and preferably middle-class. Little carbon copies of our corporate selves.


The Homecoming

The Homecoming documentary last night left me more moved than I expected.

The Channel 4 documentary 'The Homecoming' that was on last night was excellent but still rather hard to watch.

Journalist Rachel Roberts had decided to track down some of the other children from her children's home in Doncaster, and ended up going on a very personal journey of self-discovery. 

The findings were often sad and grim - the parents who couldn't cope, the families left abandoned, a terrible sense of children's lives being desolated by their parents' actions. Often, this tiny children's home was the only stable environment they had ever known before being fostered off or sent to larger homes, or split up from their siblings. Roberts herself was fostered out with her sister, but her brother was sent somewhere else, and at 38 she still lives alone and admits to having difficulties with relationships.

She wasn't the only one. The scars of the past had clearly haunted the others. She found two brothers living together in a caravan, another three siblings in a council house, an ex-con, wrecked marriages, a suicide, and - most startling of all - her own half brother, landlord of the Becher's Brook pub, right opposite the children's home: a half brother of whose existence she had been totally unaware until the previous day.

It turned out that her father had abandoned his first family for her mother, raised another family and then, when she left him, couldn't cope and placed all of the children in a care home. In one instance the two families had even overlapped. It struck me as deeply Freudian that her half-brother, clearly a deeply damaged man, every day stands and looks out at the care home in which he lived (the Bechers has no fond memories for me, incidentally, as I was beaten up behind it when I was 11).

One reason that I was in two minds whether to see the documentary was because I lived near that home. The producer emailed me some months ago to ask if I remembered any of the children and I said I didn't, although it was only a few streets away, but I gave her some other names I thought might be helpful. 

But I was wrong. As it turned out, I did know two of them and it was an enormous shock to see them on television, as it was to see their photos in my old school uniform, and the headstone in the graveyard I played in as a child (our house backed onto it). I didn't recognise them as adults, but I certainly did as children, especially Florence - for starters, she was the first black person that I ever knew. We were at the same school but I didn't know she was at the home - I just thought she'd disappeared one day. 

I'd told the producer that I was glad Roberts' recollections of the home were happy ones (the people who ran it turned out to be the salt of the earth), but that what I remembered was discrimination. At school the children were treated as if they were guilty of some sin, back in the days when divorce or 'broken home' was a dirty word. These kids that came and went often had to sit at the back of the class, with the gypsy children - another set of kids nobody wanted. 

Thanks heavens, the documentary wasn't all bad news. There was the odd happy marriage among the interviewees, some determinedly caring parents and a couple of successful careers. But the overwhelming sense was of adults struggling forever against the damage done to them as children.  "I've not got many memories," said one, "because I choose not to have them." Can't say I blame him. 


British children don't feel loved

Life for British children is getting tougher, apparently, and the greed and selfishness of adults is to blame.

The Children's Society report that showed recently that British children are among the world's least happy has led to some controversy in the UK.

It quickly dropped off the headlines because of the unusual weather, but the report came to one truly dismal conclusion: that despite greater material advantages than ever before, children in the UK do not feel as loved as they should. 

First, a caveat. The Children's Society is a Christian organisation, and as such, comes from the traditional standpoint that the nuclear family is the best way to raise children, and that such a family should essentially consist of a woman, a man and their children.

This may be all well and good - a nuclear family works well when it works well, though when it doesn't it can be a crucible of horror - but it is in marked contrast to other cultures where childcare and child-raising are shared out. In many tribal cultures, childcare is the job of grandparents, aunts and uncles in an extended family, which means that children are highly socialised and used to play, and that there is always some adult or other around to take care of you when you scuff your knees. 

In Russia, childcare is usually the job of the grandmother - the babushka - and this has always struck me as incredibly civilised. It enables a young woman to go out to work and earn money for the family while she's still fit and able - even to concentrate on a career if she should wish one (though I DO wish sociologists would realise that most people don't have careers, they have JOBS), and it also gives older women a valued role as a beloved grandparent. Since, generally speaking, your grandchildren are as dear to you as your own children, and older people have more experience, patience and wisdom, it should work out well all round - the kids get more attention, the mothers get to be fancy-free and grandma has something to fill her time. 

British children get the rough end of the stick not just because of the UK divorce rate that separates so many of them from their fathers (God knows, my brother and I used to PRAY that our parents would get divorced...) but because British society simply doesn't want them around. Children are not welcome in restaurants the way they are here in France. They are banned from most pubs, unless there's a beer garden. A group of youths on a street corner is seen as a 'gang', whether they are or they aren't. There are few places for young people to congregate in safety, especially after hours, with parks and many recreational centres closed. Meanwhile their schooldays are filled with work and exams, the playgrounds where they once let off steam have been sold off for housing development and many of them don't even do sports any more because there are no facilities.

Parents' natural desire to protect their children has gotten so out of control that children are more isolated than ever before, reliant on their mobile phones and Facebook accounts. Here in France, you routinely pass children - on their own or in small groups with no adult present - fishing out in the countryside as my brother and I used to do. But today, British kids don't even walk to school in groups or get together on the bus as we did - it's assumed that if the little darlings walk, they'll get hit by a car.

Well, so they might. And so they might not. Not that it's incumbent upon the Government to provide decent pavements and walkways so that pedestrians CAN walk safely, or to encourage all local schools to reach a high standard so that parents aren't ferrying the sprogs 20 miles every morning to get to somewhere higher up the league table. It seems beyond them to realise that a society that is comfortable for children is a better society for everyone, just as a society that is comfortable for the elderly and the disabled is easier for everyone to live in. 

So what is to be done about it all? Well, the Children's Society recommends a civil birthing ceremony for those with no religious affliation (something the British Humanist Association has offered for a long time, doh) and "a radical shift away from the excessively individualistic ethos which now prevails, to an ethos where the constant question is, 'What would we do if our aim was a world based on love?'"

Well, it's a bit airy-fairy, but being a Zen practitioner, I think I'd broadly agree with that.



Don't want you baby, no way

I don't go much of a bundle on children - there now, it's out in the open.

Second Cherry is a child-free zone, and there's a particular reason for that...