Friday, August 31, 2007

The end of the line

Like Cherie Blair, Corinne Sweet had a miscarriage in her mid-40s. Several, in fact. But the trauma didn't end there. She then had to accept her child-bearing days were over and bow to the inevitable - middle age and mortality

'You'll get over it" or, worse, "it was meant to be". Nothing can be more upsetting, or gratingly infuriating, when you have had a miscarriage than hearing such well-worn phrases being trotted out by undoubtedly well-meaning people. "It's just a bundle of cells," others chirp. But it's not "just" that to a mother.

You don't give birth to, breastfeed or change the nappy of "a bundle of cells". Research by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) indicates that parents start bonding with their "baby" the minute they see the first scan. This can often be quite early, at four to six weeks, especially for older mothers, who are usually scanned more frequently, even weekly.

I don't know Cherie Blair personally, and I don't know what she is feeling precisely, but I can identify with the agonising ache of losing what may well have been her last chance for a child. I had my first baby at 43 after years of saying I would never have children. I hadn't found the "right" man until late, and doctors said it would take me at least two years to get pregnant. In seven months I was up the duff and, amazingly, had a trouble-free pregnancy. Another age myth scotched. Then, gazing at my beatific baby, I felt the urge to have another almost consume me and, being 43, thought we should get on with it. Immediately.

Over the next two years I suffered four miscarriages, losing twins with one of them. I was devastated. Having had such a seemingly simple first pregnancy, I was utterly shocked by my first and subsequent miscarriages. It was extremely hard not knowing precisely why I was miscarrying. I had tests under Professor Lesley Regan (the author of Miscarriage: What Every Woman Needs to Know) at her miscarriage clinic at St Mary's hospital in Paddington, London. She drew a blank. My age was probably the main factor. My eggs were past their sell-by date and I didn't fancy egg donation - couldn't afford it, either. Reluctantly, and with some persuasion from my emotionally battered husband, at the age of 45 I stopped trying.

However, the grief of losing five potential children, and the ache of longing for another, did not stop. If anything, my body screamed even louder each month, urging me on to try just one more time. I'd already got one in before closing time. Surely I could do it again? Look at Iman, Madonna, Emma Thompson, Jenny Agutter and, yes, Cherie Blair. They could do it. So could I. My emotions, heart and mind were in one place, my body in another. Even four years later, still ovulating furiously each month, I yearn to try again. It's almost an addictive pull. For many women, it does become an addiction, staving off emptiness and loss, and compensating for an emotionally unsatisfactory 21st-century world.

I resist the urge because the grief of losing babies nearly tore my marriage apart. The hidden trauma gnawed at my husband and me even as we lit candles to remember our other children's possible birthdays. I was also reminded, by my brilliant obstetrician at University College hospital, London, that I was in danger of missing my only daughter's childhood by pursuing the quest for elusive baby number two. The difference between having none and one had to be remembered.

Still feeling broody, but not trying again, has been a major act of mind over ovary. It's been tough, also, seeing my younger friends giving birth to their second, third or even fourth child. It has also brought with it regret that I didn't try earlier, although my first husband and I didn't want children. At least we didn't want them with each other, as it turned out. Which is fine, as I truly believe it's better to not have children than have them in the wrong relationship or wrong circumstances. Ironically, he has gone on to have two with a woman 10 years younger, and no one seems to mention the fact that he is in his late 40s. It's different for men, clearly.

One of the main driving factors for women over 40, like myself, who don't want to give up trying, is often not being able to face the end of the reproductive line. It raises the thorny question: what's next? The menopause. Yuk! All that shrivelling up. No longer fecund, sexually redundant and on the reproductive rubbish heap. Of course, there is HRT (controversial in itself) and a swathe of powerfully optimistic books about alternative remedies and the best being yet to come. Nevertheless, saying goodbye to the possibility of having a last baby is hard to face. The end of childbearing years needs mourning, especially for women like me who only got round to it somewhat late.

A miscarriage is a traumatic slap in the face at any age. But in your late 40s it can't help but make you confront your own middle age and mortality. Up until then, you may have pushed back the years by determinedly donning youthful styles and claiming you still felt 20 inside. If you've had a late first baby, like me, you may have even held off the menopause by surrounding yourself with mums 10 years younger and crawling, just like them, on all fours, covered in goo and poo, to find Lego under the sofa. But not being able to sustain a pregnancy because of your age forces you to face the uncomfortable reality of your physical limits.

Some would argue, quite vociferously, that those of us who try to procreate in our 40s are not only mad but utterly irresponsible. It's another way of chastising women for not being perfect or not doing things in the right order. Some of my friends got very irritated with me for trying again after my daughter arrived. "Why don't you give it a rest?" they snapped. "At least you've got one." Some simply gave me the cold shoulder. They were right in that one was definitely better than none. Up to a point. However, I made them uncomfortable as I longed for a sibling for my only darling. Perhaps Cherie longed for Leo to have a playmate as her three eldest are not far away from flying the coop. Fear of an empty nest leads many women over 40, or even 50, to long for new babies. When Lynne and Derek Bezant had their controversial IVF twins (she was 56), it was almost as if they were creating their own grandchildren, as their three thirtysomething children had not produced the goods. Were the Bezants just trying to fill their empty nest? Or were they trying to fend off old age by creating an illusion of eternal youth through eternal parenthood?

Age and ageing is a strange business these days. We say 40 is the new 30, but in the baby stakes 50 is really the new 40. When I researched and wrote my book Birth Begins at Forty: Challenging the Myths of Late Motherhood, I was astounded and warmed by the women I met who were merrily having planned babies in their late 40s or even 50s. One woman had been butchered by the NHS at 33 after a late miscarriage and had given up all hope, only to have a natural birth at 50. Late babies challenge our idea of women's sexuality and fecundity. We want older women to be neatly tucked away, being useful in sensible suits and shoes, safely asexual. The idea that women in their 40s, even 50s, should be sexually active and procreating strikes many as faintly obscene - like thinking of your own mother or grandmother having sex. But there are, amazingly, as many over-50s as under-16s having abortions.

But every woman at some point has to facing the end of reproductive life and the end of her menstrual cycle. Having that last child - or trying for one - can be a way of trying to keep the inevitable at bay. For women like me, the pain of letting go of late motherhood can take a long time to heal. But for others it can be a release from hormonal chains. Some women even celebrate the fact that they no longer have to worry about contraception and are free from the bloody monthly treadmill, which can be disruptively messy and painful. Others enjoy feeling free from the gnawing question of whether, or with whom, to have children, as physical limits thankfully remove the possibility.

Approaching 50 is dreaded by many women, especially those who have defined themselves mainly through family and children. Hurtling towards 50 can be even more daunting for women who have left having children until their 40s. What if they fail to become pregnant before it is too late? This can bring up all the unfinished emotional business of life: Did you spend years with the wrong partner? Should you have put your career before childbearing? Why did you never take the leap into motherhood, even alone?

On the upside, many women now regard post-childbearing midlife as a refreshing new era. We're living longer, we're fitter than ever, we have more choices and greater affluence. The end of our reproductive life can actually herald a new coming of age, where women can concentrate on themselves, their careers and completing all that unfinished business. Even the grief of a miscarriage can be put behind you, if not forgotten.

I'm telling myself that there's an exciting new beginning ahead. I hope Cherie does, too.

· Corinne Sweet is author of Birth Begins at Forty: Challenging the Myths of Late Motherhood (Hodder, £6.99). She is setting up a Fortyplus Parents network for people who have had babies over 40. To contact her, email .


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