Earlier this year, a former London art gallery boss made headlines for becoming Britain’s oldest first time mum at 64. Dame Julia Peyton-Jones had an extremely successful career; she is considered one of the leading figures in her field, dubbed “Queen of the Arts.” She co-directed the revered Serpentine Galleries of London for 25 years where she worked wonders, and was made a Dame in 2016, the same year she stood down from the role she had held and excelled in for so long. Many awaited the announcement of her next move in the art world, but none came. Instead, the news broke that she had become a mother at 64.
People talked. Everyone had something to say on the matter, with the majority screaming she was too old, how very unfair on her child to have such an old mum. A few maintained if she loved the child and had the means to support it, how can it be wrong? How are we to know she won’t love the child all the more for having waited so long to have it? What’s to say this child won’t have a better, more loving upbringing than one who is born to a mother of the “perfect” age who doesn’t want it?
The debates raged on, and even in my own mind I kept chopping and changing my opinion. Very quickly, I reflected how very unfair we were to condemn her. Isn’t every journey to motherhood entirely different from the next? Who are we to tell one individual she’s doing it wrong? Everyone, myself included, has ideas about what is right and wrong in all aspects of life, including parenting, This is one of those things though that has no set boundaries; there is no right and wrong, there is different.
I know a number of mothers who have become parents in entirely different ways, at entirely different stages of life, planned and unplanned. Their situations could not be more different and yet, I do not think any one of them has done it wrong; they just did it their own way.
Speaking to four such women I know, the idea that there is no perfect age to become a mother was reinforced. Sometimes I look at people who have babies young and think “No, you’re missing so much!” but they would just as easily say the same about me. No matter the age and stage, one thing remains true: every mother I know says they wouldn’t change a thing. Rather than be quick to judge, not just in motherhood, but in so many areas, we should accept others’ lifestyles not as right or wrong, but simply their own. These 4 demonstrate that.
Nicole - a younger mum by choice
Mother of three
Married at 21, had children at 22, 23 and 25
Had you always wanted to be a young mum?
I have always known that I wanted to have kids when I got married, although I wasn’t sure when that would be. When I met my husband Joel, I knew that he was the right one and we both felt right about having children straight away. So I hadn’t necessarily planned what age I wanted to have kids.
For me, marriage was the first condition of having children, but before getting married I did think in your 20s if possible is the ideal age. Now having become a young mum, my opinion is still the same, just backed up by my own experience, and those of others I know.
Having kids so young means you don’t get much time as just a couple first; do you think this is important?
Rather than quantity of time together before having children, I think the most important thing is the quality of your relationship, and your commitment to each other. You will both change as a result of having kids no matter how long you’ve had together, so there will be adjustments to be made.
What do you think are the benefits and disadvantages of being a young mum?
There are lots of benefits. A younger body (in good condition) can handle pregnancy and birth – which are physically tough – better. You have more energy to cope with the demands of parenting and more time (years) to be with them, and their children... our kids have 3 great-great-grandparents on Joel’s side! We’ll still be relatively young when our children grow up and move out, so there will be lots we can still do. Having kids young, there are naturally experiences that you will miss out on, which may be seen as a disadvantage to some. But for me, I felt there was so much to be gained from having children, so I don’t feel like I’ve been disadvantaged at all.
Do you think it is important for women to have careers and experience life on their own before having children?
I think it’s important for women to do what they find is fulfilling, to never stop learning, and to help others. It doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone, or with the same timing. So no, I don't think having a career or certain life experiences are essential before having children, and having children doesn’t necessarily end your opportunities to learn and explore.
Do you ever miss your pre-mum lifestyle?
Yes and no. There are some things I look back on that I realise I should have enjoyed more; the ease of getting in and out of the car without kids, cooking and cleaning without little people needing attention, date nights without organising babysitters, sleeping in! But it they’re such trivial things and I know that they’ll come around again; I’m just in another season of life now. I look back on some of the things I used to do and I have really fond memories, but at the same time I am so happy in this stage of life I’m in.
Are there things you wish you’d had the chance to do before becoming a mother?
There are lots of things I could have done, but if I had to choose between them and having children, I would choose my family easily. I feel so fortunate that I have been able to do what I am so passionate about, so early in life.
Do you think overall it is better to be an older mum, or a younger mum?
I think there are so many benefits to being a young mum, but that option is not always available for everyone so it’s really just a case of having children when you can and giving them your best.
A few final thoughts on your experience becoming a mother...
Joel and I both consider it a very real blessing that we have been able to start our family young, when we planned to, and that we have healthy and happy children. There are so many for whom that is not possible. Some people we love dearly have lost children, have had trouble conceiving or are dealing with health or other issues with their children. There is no way of knowing everyone’s situations and everything I have said is in relation to our lives, beliefs, and experiences. But I also believe that people should have the freedom to choose how they live their lives, and take responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make.
Mari, a younger mum not by choice
Mother of one
Fell pregnant at 25
So you hadn’t planned on becoming a mum this young... what was your lifestyle before you became pregnant?
I had finished my Master’s in Literature, and was living a lifestyle typical of someone between student and working class hero. I travelled, partied, went to theatre often, read and watched TV in bed. I worked at a museum and as a freelance writer.
Had you ever thought about becoming a mum, and when you’d like that to happen?
For a long time I actually thought having babies wasn’t for me at all. I’ve never been particularly fond of children and I saw what happened when people got pregnant, how they suddenly disappeared into a cloud of diapers and poop and couldn’t keep a conversation going about anything else than their offspring... terrifying. But then not long before I got pregnant, I talked with my boyfriend (it was more of a monologue, actually) and came to the conclusion that I did want a family one day... Not now, but in the future. I set the age to 30.
What was the thought process when you found out you were pregnant?
When I took a test and read the word “pregnant,” my body stopped working. My brain went blank and I just put the test back in the box and didn’t think a single thought for 20 minutes. After the test my boyfriend, Olav, asked how it went and I said “good” and he went to work. My first thought was that I had to get this thing removed from my body immediately. I wasn’t done living. But then I thought that I am 25 now, I have my Master’s, I have work, I’m living with a man that I love, maybe this is when it should happen.
But still I was in shock... I was going to be fat and probably never be able to be spontaneous and adventurous again. When Olav came back from work he knew something was wrong because I looked like I’d been kissed by a dementor. He asked me what was wrong, and when I didn’t answer (because I didn’t know how) he asked if it was the test. I nodded and started crying. He just laughed and laughed and repeated how crazy and absurd this was. When he said “I guess we’re having a baby” we both started laughing, a crazy, desperate, anxious laugh.
Do you think it’s the perfect timing, or too young, too old..?
I don’t think there is a perfect timing. There will always be something you want to do first. Travel, get the job of your dreams and swim with dolphins. I’m happy it happened for me the way it did and when it did. If it hadn’t, I don’t know if it ever would have. I’m not saying you need children to be happy or to make sense of your life, I don’t believe that at all, but it made me happy and I’m glad I got to experience it the way I did.
Your mum was a young one too; what advice did she give you?
She was 20 when she had me, so she became a grandmother at only 46, which she thinks is ridiculous! She told me to embrace it, not to worry so much and to not have too many ideas about how to raise him.
Do you miss your pre-mum life?
Yes, sometimes I do miss it. I miss the carelessness, the parties and the books. And I miss the sleep. But I try not to be my worst nightmare of a mommy-mom. I find time for my friends and I try not to talk about his poop all the time even though at times it’s all I think about. And I watch the news... sometimes. And I’ve read three essays and one book. Not bad when all you really want to do is look at your baby sleep. Because he is – objectively speaking – the most beautiful, cute and funny creature in the world.
Do you think there are more benefits to being a younger mum, or older mum?
Neither. I think it is just as challenging being a young mother as an older one. My mother was very young and we ended up being very close, but I know that you can be just as close with your child even though the age difference is bigger. Anyway, you don’t want to be your child’s best friend; you want to be a parent and maybe that’s easier with a few more years under your belt?
How has having a baby at this stage changed your relationships, and changed you?
I’ve only been a mother 6 months so I’m still figuring out how I have changed. My relationship with my parents is maybe what has changed the most; it is strange being a daughter-mother. I need them in a whole new way. I took what they gave me, mixed it with something else and made a new generation. And I still get to be the daughter; cry, cuddle and be completely irrational. My friends are still there. Some of them are very interested in the baby and some of them aren’t, and that’s not a problem, I understand them completely. Next time I have a baby I’ll make sure some of my friends are planning it too – it has been a bit lonely to be the only one with baby. Olav is a dream. We both love the lifestyle (so far). The slow days. The new to do-lists. Shopping diapers and pacifiers. Looking for the best kindergarten. Falling asleep at 9:30pm. And it is an absolutely amazing thing to share – first growing a baby on the inside, then watching it develop so terribly fast on the outside, knowing that we made him together and that he needs us to love him. It is good to share the anxiety as well.
A few final thoughts on your experience of becoming a mother...
For a long time I was embarrassed telling anyone I was pregnant; I guess it had something to do with the way I used to look at young pregnant women. I’d think “Oh, so you’re having a baby now... done living? Couldn’t find anything else to do with your life, no more books to read?” Then suddenly I’m one of them, and I loved it. As I got bigger though I felt like just a machine for making babies; I was way too close to Mother Nature and I felt vulgar, like I was pushing my body in people’s faces. And people felt they had the right to touch me... what is that about?! Plus, I did not feel sexy at all. Now, 6 months postpartum, I kind of miss it, just a bit. When my son was born, it took me by surprise – after 11 hours, I was purely trying to make the pain stop... I forgot it was a human being that was coming out of me. But when they put him on my chest, I just knew what everything was all about. This is it. Totally cliché, I know.
Chris, an older mum by choice
Mother of two
Married at 38, had children at 38 and 42
(P.S. Yes, the younger one is me!)
Had you ever given much through to when you wanted to have kids? Why did you wait until the age you did?
When I was a kid I assumed I’d have kids of my own one day; it was the norm back then. But by the time I was in my late teens and I realised that having kids wasn’t an essential part of my life plan. My feeling was that if I was with a partner and he was keen to have kids I’d be happy to have them too. As it happened for me, I hadn’t met a long term partner by the time I graduated, and I was keen to travel, so I set off on my OE (Overseas Experience). I met my future husband about the time I turned 30. He was several years older than me and had three children from his first marriage. We thought we wouldn’t have a family of our own, and had several years just the two of us. But in my mid thirties I became aware my time to have my own children was becoming shorter, and I had the feeling that maybe I was missing out on an important aspect of life without children. In our case, we simply stopped trying not to have a child!
30 years after you had your first child, it is more common now for women to start families later; why is this, in your opinion?
It was already becoming more common for women not to start their families till their 30s when I did it, though I was probably the oldest of the first time mums in the local mums group I belonged to. These days, I think more women want to establish their careers before having children, and there’s the fact that it now takes so long for many couples to be able to afford to buy a house. This is certainly a factor in New Zealand where home ownership has traditionally been considered the norm.
What has been a benefit for you of waiting until later in life to have children?
For me, a benefit of being an older mum is that I had already been able to live and work overseas with no commitments, which is something I wanted to do. Also, by the time we had a baby my husband and I probably didn’t go out socially as often as a younger couple, although we still missed the possibility of being able to spontaneously go somewhere without having to arrange a babysitter at no notice. Possibly I was a little more patient by the time I had kids than I would have been as a younger mum! I also enjoyed having young people around when I was at an age when otherwise I would probably have been even more out of touch with the younger generation.
Did you experience any disadvantages?
A disadvantage that I wasn’t really aware of but which affected my younger daughter is reduced energy. I was no doubt a bit less energetic in my 40s than in my 20s, but she has told me that she actually remembers often wanting to be picked up and being annoyed when I didn’t because I said she was too heavy! But I don’t remember thinking that I felt unduly exhausted being an older mum. . I was old enough when I had my second to wonder if I would ever be taken for my daughter’s grandmother, but I have never been asked, nor been aware of any negative judgement about my age as a mother.
Do you think overall there are more benefits to being an old mum, or a young mum?
I consider this very much a matter of individual choice. Not everyone wants to travel or build a career, and the age at which you meet the person you hope will be your life partner can vary greatly. I believe the most important thing is to have children when – and if - you want to, not when you think you should because it’s expected of you or from any outside pressure.
A few final thoughts on your experience becoming a mother...
I personally would never have chosen to become a mum on my own. As I said, my feeling about having children was always to have them in a long-term, preferably permanent, relationship, where my partner and I wanted them together. As things turned out I became a solo mum when my daughters were still quite young, which was not a situation I had planned!
Adria, older mum not by choice
Mother of two
Married at 29, had children at 35 and 37
Did you always have an idea of what age you wanted to start a family?
All I thought growing up was I wanted to be settled before having children. In my early 20s I was influenced by peers; frankly, we were selfish... having way too much fun. Of course you need to have that forever type beside you, so at 24 after finding him I felt strongly about having children in the next 5 years. I fantasised about engagement, marriage and babies in quick succession.
Why did you wait until the time you did to have kids?
30 sounded about right to me to try and start a family. At 29 there was a real urge to look at families passing by, kids frolicking... I was dizzy with excitement. We started to try but sadly it didn’t happen how it did for friends. I was pretty upset month after month, so after 18 months I went to the doctor. There was a 2 year minimum for IVF, so we decided we would pay for an IVF round the following year. Our miracle happened and I fell pregnant at 33... I was ecstatic.
Sadly it wasn’t to be. We lost our baby girl, Hope, at 25 weeks due to a heart condition. I had to give birth to her, it was cruel. We were then right off the public list for IVF as we had conceived a child so we paid $10,000 for a round of IVF the following year. I had six good embryos after egg collection but one by one, month after month, they didn’t work until I got to the lucky last. The very last embryo took; it had been in the freezer a year by that stage, a daunting thought.
Do you think it is beneficial to become a mum later in life?
Well, by the age I had a family I was well and truly ready and nested. I think that is a plus, the fact you may well be more tired is probably the down side of waiting longer.
What do you think are the benefits, and the disadvantages, of becoming an older mum, if any?
A benefit is certainly that you have had some real life experience as an adult. With that, the bumps in the road you have navigated are fresh in your mind, so there is some wisdom to pass to your children. The fact you are probably in a career and have split focus can be a bit of a negative – you feel like you don’t want to drop either ball but of course your child ultimately comes first. If you have to pause to take time out of the workforce, you find a way to do that. It helps to be financially stable, being able to buy nappies and have some money stashed away for a rainy day feels nice and safe for a new family. Also you are really at a stage where you are less selfish and ready to put yourself second. I think there are benefits to both older and younger mum, but too far on either end of the spectrum can present some issues.
Do you notice a difference between yourself and young mothers?
I look at young families and from the outside it looks like there are fewer pressures present in and around the family life. It looks like there may too be more happiness exuding from young parents who don’t have such big OTHER responsibilities like a mortgage, a business to run, staff to manage etc. These things that you often acquire later in life are things you can’t just drop when you finally have children, so you have to try and do both as well as you can. If you don’t have those things I mention you have at the very least a lot more thinking space and time to be really present. I think I sound a bit jealous, and perhaps I am.
Do you miss your pre-mum life at all?
Of course I miss things, I miss going to the toilet on my own. I miss my device being mine. I miss silence. I miss reading. But I would be crying myself to sleep to this day if I did still have to go to the toilet on my own. I wouldn’t swap my life as a mother to Jacob and Olivia for anything in the whole world
Have you ever experienced any judgement, comments or memorable moments where others reacted to you being an older mum?
I laughed when, in labour, the doctors wrote down “Geriatric Mother” on all the forms. I mean, really? At 35... Geriatric?! I did worry at first that I was older than some mums but what I am genuinely finding is that most mums are within 5 years of my age, only a few are a decade younger in my community.
Why do you think it is so much less common in 2017 for women to start families as young as used to be the norm?
Well certainly feminism plays a part; women do everything men do now. Also I look at the world and we don’t live or dream of such a simple life anymore, our dreams are more complex. We want more out of life, including extensive travel, luxuries, careers – these kinds of things are helping the delay. Women in the western world seem to want to make the most of life so it has become normal to have children just before it is medically too late. Technology is also fuelling the delay in general, our connectivity to the world and seeing what other people have/do via the internet helps to create desires of we want to do that before we settle.
A few final thoughts on your experience becoming a mother...
Only the foolish think they don’t need to worry due to IVF being available as an option. I caution those people. IVF is amazing but it is not 100% successful, and younger eggs are better, that is a fact. I am sure technology will get better but do we want to see loads of 50+ year-old women starting a family? It is difficult to answer. I was such a desperado, I NEEDED to be a mum that I am not sure if I would have stopped until I was say 48-50 and totally wrecked. I guess all I will say is, don’t you want to see your child turn 21? The later you have kids, the less time on earth you get with them.
Happy Mothers' Day to all the mums out there, young and old - you're all amazing!