I had my first child at 42, and it was the exact right age

Fortysomething parenting can be late but great

Late motherhood
(Image credit: Catherine Gray)

It’s probably the first time I’ve been bang on trend. I’m usually the person watching Saltburn six months after everyone else, and my first pair of Gazelles arrived at the door the day they became passé. But in 2022, I joyrode on the zeitgeist by having a baby aged 42, just as ONS figures were released that showed not only were mothers continuing to get older, but half of all Millennials now turn 30 without having had kids—“the first cohort” to do so, the report said. I spent most of my thirties adamantly not wanting kids. I even wrote a piece about not wanting kids for this very magazine. I was set, definite, resolved.

But beneath the breeziness in that article about being a sensitive, sleep-fond, book-reading, nomadic introvert fundamentally unsuited to parenting (all still true. Pls stroke me, give me a book, then leave me alone) was this: an unshakeable conviction that I would be a terrible mother. Given I’d only just learnt how to mother myself in my late thirties (that’s a whole other article), how could I be trusted with a brand new human? The parenting police would be alerted, surely, and snatch the apricot-cheeked fuzzball away.

It’s become archaic to auto-pilot into parenting. We now examine the previously unexamined: whether we actually want to be parents. Whether we would actually be good (enough) at it. Once I found that the answer to both was a definite yes, my partner and I decided to start trying.

Beneath the breeziness was an unshakeable conviction that I would be a terrible mother

I knew from my research for a previous book that fortysomething fertility is often understated. The stat often wheeled out by IVF clinics et al. (profit-turning, private ventures) is that women over 40 have a five per cent chance of conceiving naturally, but they often neglect to mention that five per cent is per menstrual cycle. I knew the reality was brighter: given I was 41, we had a 44 per cent chance of conceiving naturally within a year.

I was urged by well-meaning friends to start various fertility treatments now. “I want to just see,” I said. I was a curious blend of cautious optimism + being braced for a potentially long, agonising, potentially expensive wait. It turned out we were one of the enormously fortunate 44 per cent. We fell pregnant naturally and, unbelievably, within two months.

We fell pregnant naturally and, unbelievably, within two months.

Being pregnant at age 41 brought its own quirks. I was the eldest in my NCT group by many years, and tempted to ask that they call me Gandalf. I was subject to some open judgement, most memorably being told that “our bodies aren’t meant to have babies over forty” by a distant colleague, who then furiously back-pedalled when she found out my age.

The space where I was the most wary, where I’d been warned of patriarchal language around lazy ovaries or incompetent cervixes, was the space where I was actually treated with the most respect. “Have the NHS called you a geriatric mother yet?” people kept nudge-wink asking me. (No, they haven’t; in fact, nobody has called me that until you just now).

Of course, late-but-great motherhood comes with a higher set of risks.Because of this, certain corners of the press are quick to label fortysomething first-time mothers as ‘selfish’, whereas older fathers are always championed for their super sperm, even though paternal age also comes with a set of increased risks. My partner and I reframed it as a positive. We were getting extra attention that thirtysomethings wouldn’t.

I never felt selfish, nor did I feel regret at not having done it younger, because thirtysomething me never had the right constellation of partner + desire + circumstances. It’s really tough to line those three up.

I never felt selfish, nor did I feel regret at not having done it younger.

“Aren’t you knackered, though?” is the phrase lobbed at me again and again, often by people who had kids in their early thirties. Yes, of course, I have been / am; that phase where you have to wake up five times a night to feed a squalling, sharting newborn is very tiring. That’s stating the obvious.

But I’m much less knackered than I would have been had I procreated at the societally ascribed ‘perfect’ age of 33. Back then, I found walking up a gentle hill arduous, given my daily diet of Pret croissants, five menthol cigs, a bottle of wine and absolutely zero cardio.

In comparison, fortysomething me ran daily until she was eight months pregnant (I’ve slipped into the third person, help!), did handstands regularly, had quit all of the above indulgences (save the occasional croissant) and was fitter than a butcher’s dog. I would have been slayed by parenting in my early thirties. In my forties, I could handle it.

I would have been slayed by parenting in my early thirties. In my forties, I could handle it.

Finally, I was ready for the sacrificial impact. As Sienna Miller said of having a baby aged 41, you’re going into it “much more psychologically aware.” Not only because I now know the corners of my own limitations (my micromanaging, overwhelm in messy environs, and so on) but also because I have witnessed my friends become husks of their former selves due to mastitis or struggle to keep their cool as a toddler whacks them repeatedly in the face. I knew of the reality awaiting us. There was no rose-tinting.

Given I knew I was temperamentally unsuited to motherhood, I became fixated with reading around nature vs nurture and how to provide the best possible start for my unborn child (incidentally, this obsession turned into my first novel).

So, I have found ways to deal. You just do. I recently read Lessons in Chemistry - two years after everyone else - and there’s a line where the main character, who’s suddenly pregnant, is told of parenting: “No one can do it, but then you expand.” This rang true, although I think it’s more of a mining process. The seam of grit required is already there, but crisis (and make no mistake, the first year of parenting is a beautiful crisis) is the only way to excavate it.

Many life experiences demand the same carving-out of untapped resources – losing a parent, quitting an addiction, getting divorced, a move overseas. Such psychological excavation is not the exclusive reserve of parents.

But you find it. And you use it. And then you can.

Versions of a Girl by Catherine Gray is out now. A split-reality narrative, it explores how much our parents shape who we become.

Catherine Gray
Journalist and bestselling author

Catherine Gray is a Sunday Times bestselling author of five books, including The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober.