Why having a baby at 51 was far easier than being a mum at 21. So says Renee… and this time around she was discharged within 24 hours

By Dr Renee Hoenderkamp For The Daily Mail

00:00 20 Nov 2023, updated 00:14 20 Nov 2023

When I told my son I was pregnant at the age of 50, he was pretty startled, spluttering: ‘Aren’t you getting on a bit, mum?’

He was born when I was 21, and I was planning to deliver his brother or sister at the age of 51, when most people are thinking about grandchildren, rather than launching into another round of endless nappy changes and sleepless nights.

Having two children with a 30-year age gap allows me to compare pregnancy and motherhood three decades apart, and, despite all the tut-tutting levelled at older mothers such as me, I can hand-on-heart say having a baby in my 50s is the best thing I have ever done — yes, including having one in my 20s.

Alice is now five, I’m 56, and apart from aching joints and menopause (thankfully controlled by HRT), I’m loving every single minute of late-life motherhood. 

In fact, I’d say the whole process has been easier this time around: I’ve got more time, patience, self-belief and I’m certainly a much better mum than I was 30 years ago.

Dr Renee Hoenderkamp, 56, gave birth to her daughter, Alice, now five, when she was 51. She had her first child, Calum, now 34, when she was 21

I get angry with the way high-profile older mothers such as Tana Ramsay and Victoria Coren Mitchell are sometimes criticised. The assumption is that they must be utterly exhausted, and that they will be far too old to cope with the trials and tribulations of their children’s teenage years.

This is so completely wrong! Being a mother in my 50s is the most joyful thing I’ve ever done.

I think late-life babies are going to become more and more common. As a GP, I tell my patients not to lose hope: it’s never too late. Women have options that include natural pregnancy (rare, but it does happen over 50), your own frozen eggs or frozen embryos, or donor eggs or embryos.

I’m delighted to see more and more women are joining our little gang and we have got some high-profile role models: Cherie Blair had her youngest child at 45; actress Rachel Weisz (married to Daniel Craig) at 48.

Many of the older mums I speak to agree that they are better mums at 50 than they were at 20. Yet the older women tend to attract criticism while high-profile men are busy fathering children in their 80s without raising any eyebrows.

My pregnancy with Calum, who is now 34, wasn’t planned. I had been with Calum’s father for five years but we were both very young: he was 24, I was just 21. 

We split up pretty quickly after Calum was born, although we stayed friends and he has always played an important part in Calum’s and my life. Alice calls him Grandad Micky.

As a single mum with a mortgage to pay, I had little choice about returning to work when he was just 28 days old. My career progressed very fast (partly thanks to a string of brilliant au pairs) and I reached the heights of publishing director for OK! magazine.

Pictured with Alice at five weeks, Renee says she has more time, patience, self-belief than she did 30 years ago when she had her son

When Calum was 12, I decided to change career and study medicine. That’s where I met my partner Colin, a spinal surgeon.

I was 43 and he was 50, divorced with five children, now aged between 25 and 34, so we all bundled together with Calum as one big happy family.

My two best friends had given birth aged 43 and 49, so I had a strong belief that something could happen. And if you think about it, for people who want a baby but can’t fall pregnant naturally, there are many options. The door is never as truly closed as it used to be, and how you conceive is irrelevant.

I went out shopping just two days after I gave birth 

It’s nobody’s business bar the parents and the child, and aiming for a happy, well-balanced child should never be decried or judged by anyone.

For me, a healthy pregnancy was a state of mind: I refused to believe it would be hard at 50. I was determined to do it well and properly.

Although I had been initially referred to the ‘high risk pregnancy unit’ at UCL in London, the doctors discharged me the same day, telling me I was considerably fitter than most of the 30-year-olds on their books.

I think I probably look younger than my years, so you would be unlikely to identify me as an older mother unless you studied my notes anyway.

I was working as a GP in a busy practice in the capital and, although friends and family knew, I decided not to tell anyone at work until 24 weeks. 

Renee was encouraged to have a C-section because there’s a high risk of stillbirth in older mothers (the placenta can be unreliable but it’s not something that shows up on scans)
Renee, a GP, loves to run and was determined that pregnancy would not stop her from keeping to a schedule of 5 km three times a week

My bump was so small I probably could have got away with concealing it longer. It certainly helped that I did not ever really feel pregnant.

One of the reasons I kept my pregnancy secret is that one of my bosses had spoken out against the idea of older women having babies. She believed you’d be stupid to get pregnant after the age of 30. In fact, when I did eventually tell her, she asked if I’d considered a termination.

The truth, as I discovered, is that pregnancy — at any age — can either be wonderfully easy, or hard, problematic and complex. It’s a very individual thing and age is just one small factor. 

Yes, older mothers are at risk of genetic complications and potential problems, but the monitoring and testing process is very sophisticated now and that is hugely reassuring.

I was so hyper-aware of all that could go wrong that I paid privately to have my pregnancy hormones tested every three days in those early weeks, to make sure all was going as it should (expensive neurosis on my part!). The seven-week scan was terrifying.

I remember the relief on seeing and hearing that tiny heartbeat as if it was yesterday.

The whole experience could not have been more different to when I was 20 and completely oblivious to any potential risks or complications. Back then, I remember being furiously hungry all the time and by the time Calum was born I had gained three stone.

This time I set myself a mental target of 10kg max (one and a half stone). I had (and still have) an incredibly healthy plant- and fish-based diet.

Wife of chef Gordon Ramsay, Tana Ramsay recently gave birth aged 49. She is among the high-profile older mothers who are sometimes criticised for their decision to have a child later in life

I love to run, and I was determined that pregnancy would not stop me from keeping to a schedule of 5 km three times a week. I kept going right through to the end (I did wear a support band under my bump in the last few weeks) and I was meticulous about doing pelvic floor and abdominal exercises every day.

Although Calum’s birth had been quick and pretty easy, Colin urged me to book a C-section. I was initially horrified but my consultant agreed, telling me that there’s a high risk of stillbirth in older mums (the placenta can be unreliable but it’s not something that shows up on scans) and that even if I started labour naturally, there was a very high chance of things ending with an emergency C-section anyway.

Alice was born at 38 weeks, weighing 6lb. I was back home within 18 hours and out shopping after two days. I was so proud of my fitness levels — they really held me in good stead.

When I stopped breastfeeding after three months, my hormone levels went into full menopausal freefall 

I remember saying to the consultant as he prepped me for the birth, ‘Please look after my abs!’ — and when he popped in to check on me afterwards he said: ‘That’s the first C-section where I actually came across a full set of abs!’ I’m very proud that I walked out of that hospital in my pre-pregnancy, size 8 jeans.

Now, when I socialise with other mums, I think I blend in pretty well. I certainly don’t look as if I might be Alice’s grandmother.

But when new friends discover my age their reaction is usually surprise. They exclaim: ‘You must be exhausted!’ and ‘How on earth do you cope?’

The truth is, I’m finding the whole process significantly easier than I did when I was 21.

As a doctor, I know when to worry and when to stay calm, and that experience takes away so much of the stress I had as a young mum.

Victoria Coren Mitchell recently gave birth to her second child, June Violet, at the age of 51

I know I’m lucky to enjoy far more financial security than I had at 21 and that removes a big layer of stress. I still work as a freelance GP (and Talk TV presenter), but part-time.

I’m just not the ambitious person I used to be. The career drive has gone. When she’s not with me, Alice is with my mum who lives just around the corner.

That’s another big difference: Mum was working full-time (as a PA to a dermatologist) when Calum was young, but she’s 80 now, and was happy to give up work to help me out. She says caring for Alice has given her a new lease of life. She’s so fit and active, people often mistake us for sisters.

When Calum was tiny, I was so busy I confess I found babies boring, but with Alice I’ve been enthralled by every minute.

Every stage adds to the wonder and I’m very conscious I missed all this with my son because I just wasn’t there. Calum and his girlfriend gave birth to my granddaughter, Bella, just two months after Alice was born.

The little girls are auntie and niece, and they get on brilliantly. We all spend lots of time with Colin’s brood and Alice has grown up loving the fact that she’s got loads of brothers and sisters.

I will admit that mothering in your 50s is not all plain sailing. Although I did experience a few menopausal twinges in my late-40s (the odd missed period and a few hot flushes), my body was bathed in lovely oestrogen for the full nine months of pregnancy (no need for any hormone support) and the buffer continued while I was breast-feeding. 

But when I switched to bottles after three months, my hormone levels went into full, menopausal freefall.

Renee describes having a baby at 51 as the best thing she ever did and her advice to women at her stage of life would be ‘go for it’

I knew exactly what was going on, and got myself put on HRT, but I’ve been left with horrid joint pain (a common menopausal symptom) and I seem to pick up every round of coughs and sneezes Alice brings home from school.

Alice, meanwhile, is thriving. She is in her first term of reception year at primary school, which she loves. I do think she is a shining example of older, wiser and more time to be involved parenting.

My daughter is aunt to a girl two months younger 

I’m fully aware that I’ll be 69 when Alice is 18, and 71 when she’s 20. Her dad, Colin, is 63 now and says he doesn’t care if anyone thinks he’s Alice’s grandparent. I think I would care, because I’m very proud to be her mum — and I’m proud that I’ve worked hard to stay young and fit and healthy.

My advice to women at my stage of life would be ‘go for it’ — but do it from a place of fitness. Your start point dictates your journey and endpoint. Having a baby at 51 is the best thing I ever did.

I couldn’t imagine being without Alice. Watching my little girl tearing around, I can’t help thinking how empty life would be without her.

And being in my 50s has allowed me to enjoy every wonderful moment and so much more.


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