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The ‘older’ mother and father


An interesting item in the news this week focused on new figures from the Office for National Statistics which reveal that, in 2014, more babies were born to women over the age of 35 than under 25. Various theories were put forward to account for this, including the fact that many couples cannot afford to get on the housing ladder in their twenties and feel that they need to have a place of their own before they can take the responsibility of bringing a child into the world.

This new demographic, and one that is unlikely to change in the near future, poses questions for childbirth educators and the antenatal curriculum. What do these ‘older’ mothers and fathers-to-be need to be reflecting on and learning during their preparation for birth and early parenting?

They might well be women and men who have given a lot of thought to becoming parents, people who have demonstrated that they carefully weigh their decisions and exercise caution in making big changes in their lives. All this is surely to the good.

What they might not experience is the unconsidered – or less-considered – spontaneity that younger people often bring to their new role as parents. In my own experience, I have met older mothers whose anxiety about cleanliness in the home, for example, once a baby is resident there, has got in the way of simple joyful responsiveness to their infants. ‘Older’ parents who had experienced difficulties in conceiving after waiting until their late 30s or early 40s to have children, were so focused on carrying a baby to term that they were singularly unable to project ahead to the time when their baby would actually be lying in their arms. Getting as far as parenthood was the be-all-and-end-all, with no mental space available to imagine what parenting might be like once achieved. Many mothers and fathers-to-be in the older age group were enjoying the progress they had made in their careers and were preoccupied with how to maintain their position in the workplace and be the excellent parents they aspired to be. Some men were facing difficulties in accepting that child-care might fall to them if their partner was earning more money than they were, and therefore, her career, rather than his, needed to be protected. While pregnant with this baby, couples were already wondering about when they would have the next one. Although they might not have know it, they needed to avoid a caesarean and minimise the risk of secondary infertility when they tried for their next baby.

Issues around grandparents were also aired in antenatal sessions when older parents-to-be discussed how they could not reasonably expect their own parents, possibly now in their 70s, to provide child-care as younger grandparents might have done. This presented the challenge of finding affordable childcare elsewhere.

A universal transition to parenthood offer, therefore, cannot be universal in terms of the content of the programme – or at least, its emphasis. Older parents may have good problem-solving skills, and greater financial security, but require more help than their younger counterparts in managing their expectations of parenthood and the impact of a baby on their relationship and working life. They may be more anxious about ‘getting it right’ than younger parents, more likely to demonstrate intrusive rather than sensitive parenting in their efforts to ensure that their baby’s every need is met. For those who have waited a long time to have a baby, or have needed help to conceive, depression may result when the day-to-day business of caring for a newborn or one-year-old proves less magical than they had imagined.

Never let it be said, therefore, that these ‘30 something’ or ’40 something’ new parents are less needy than the under 25 year olds. They may have different needs, but their vulnerability may be as great and certainly warrants the provision of skilfully facilitated antenatal and postnatal education, with an appropriately focused curriculum.

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