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What I've learned from having my first child at 23 and my second at 40

Claire Deehan, 47, is an online retailer and lives in Sheffield with her husband Paul, 43, a chef, and their son Bradley, six. Claire's daughter Alice is 24 and her son is six. Here she shares the highs and lows of having children with an 18-year age gap.

Claire Deehan unexpectedly became a single mum after having her daughter Alice at 23. Pictured here with Alice, 24, and her son Bradley, six. (Supplied)
Claire Deehan unexpectedly became a single mum after having her daughter Alice at 23. Pictured here with Alice, 24, and her son Bradley, six. (Supplied)

Many a time I’ll be bouncing on the trampoline in our garden with Bradley, or playing endless games of football or hide and seek with him, and in my head I find myself wishing for the energy levels I possessed when I had my first child, Alice, almost two decades before he was born. Either that, or a sit-down for five minutes.

As I've discovered, one of the disadvantages of having a baby at 40 – I’m 47 now – versus 23 is that my energy levels have dwindled. However, the positives far outweigh those moments of longing for a peaceful cup of tea or the chance to crack on with a few domestic chores without my little shadow in tow. That’s the thing with Bradley, unlike his sister when she was his age, he wants my attention all the time. Of course, there’s part of me that cherishes this and knows just how lovely it is, but at the same time it can be exhausting.

Alice was born when I was 23, conceived with a partner I’d been with for a few years. Despite the pregnancy being planned and our daughter very much wanted, he upped and left me when she was just five weeks old. Never could I have imagined how tough it would be to suddenly be alone with a newborn, a broken heart and no idea what the future held. I stayed in the house we’d rented together as it was close to my parents, who gave me so much support.

What I lacked in wisdom and patience as a mother at 23, I made up for in stamina, which is just as well given that I'd never planned to be a lone parent.

Claire Deehan says she's wiser and more patient as a 40-plus parent. Pictured with her husband Paul, her daughter Alice, 24, and her son Bradley, six. (Supplied)
Claire Deehan says she's wiser and more patient as a 40-plus parent. Pictured with her husband Paul, her daughter Alice and her son Bradley. (Supplied)

Motherhood at 40

In many ways it's tricky to compare having a child in my twenties to giving birth in my forties, because Alice and Bradley are completely different. She was the perfect baby, sleeping soundly, and taking the likes of weaning and teething in her stride. As she got a bit older, she’d happily sit and entertain herself with her dolls and toys if I needed to get on with jobs in the house.

Bradley is a different story – albeit equally as gorgeous. As a baby, he was very clingy, never wanting to be put down or left alone for a few moments, and he still demands lots of attention even now he’s six. Playing alone isn't his thing, he likes to have a playmate – me! – and prefers to be outdoors, never having been a fan of traditional toys.

I might be more worn out than I was with Alice, but the bonuses are that I’m wiser and a far more patient mum. I can pause for breath when Bradley's behaviour is challenging.

Still, after a while he’ll get bored outdoors and take me inside to watch TV, but before long he’ll be grabbing my hand to go outside again. And so it goes on. He’s just joined a local kids’ football team, and attends martial arts classes and swimming lessons, as we need to keep him busy.

This time around, I might be more worn out than I was with Alice, but the bonuses are that I’m wiser, and a far more patient mum. I can pause for breath when Bradley's behaviour is challenging and try to understand what might be behind it, rather than immediately deeming it naughty.

Much of the time, he’s just being a child, he doesn’t know any differently, it’s our job to teach him. Looking back, I know I may not have been as perceptive as this with Alice at a stage in life where I barely understood myself.

Claire Deehan, pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice and son Bradley. (Supplied)
Claire Deehan, pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice and son Bradley. (Supplied)

Our IVF journey

I was a single parent until I met Paul in 2010. We soon began trying for a baby but had fertility issues which resulted in us enduring three failed attempts at IVF in the space of just a year. I was in a rush as I realised that time wasn’t on my side with my forties fast approaching. It was incredibly stressful, took a toll on our emotions and I was quite poorly after the third round, so we made the difficult decision not to have any more treatments.

My daughter Alice had always wanted a sibling so she was beyond excited when Paul and I told her on my 40th birthday that we were having a baby.

We agreed to take a break and then explore perhaps trying again using donor eggs. In the meantime, we got married in 2016. To our utter amazement, shortly afterwards I fell pregnant naturally. We were thrilled, of course, but also extremely cautious as I’d suffered two miscarriages previously from natural pregnancies.

As for Alice, she’d always wanted a sibling so she was beyond excited when Paul and I told her on my 40th birthday that we were having a baby. Paul and I had been for our eight-week scan that morning so were reassured that everything was looking healthy so far. Of course, there were lots of hugs and happy tears, but we explained to her that we were going to keep it all very low key, conscious of the heartbreaks we'd suffered before.

Sibling bond

Thankfully, Bradley arrived safely in September 2017. He and Alice have a wonderful bond which was forged right from the start. She was still living at home with us when he was born and loved to help with nappy changes, feeds and cuddles. They share a similar sense of humour and he really looks up to his big sister.

Alice fell unexpectedly pregnant herself aged 18 – just 15 months after her brother was born she gave birth to my granddaughter, Isabelle. I wasn't expecting to be a grandmother so young.

Alice then fell unexpectedly pregnant herself aged 18 and just 15 months after her brother was born she gave birth to my granddaughter, Isabelle, who's now five. I wasn't expecting to be a grandmother so young, but it's something I've grown to relish, acutely aware that if Bradley ever has kids of his own the chances are I won't be around for a lot of years to enjoy them. Initially Alice and Isabelle lived with us but moved into their own home nearby three years ago.

Claire Deehan, pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice, son Bradley and Alice’s own daughter Isabelle. (Supplied)
Claire Deehan, pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice, son Bradley and Alice’s own daughter Isabelle who is just 15 months older than Bradley. (Supplied)

Parenting styles

Watching Isabelle and Bradley playing together is very special and I learn a lot from observing how Alice parents and connects with Isabelle. She can ask Isabelle to do something such as tidy her toys away and she’ll happily do it, whereas Bradley will say no or ask me to do it and refuse so I find myself adopting Alice's tone of voice and tactics to try and achieve the same result with him.

I encourage Alice to treasure these years while Isabelle is young, however hard they may be, because time will go so quickly. You don't get to your late forties without becoming increasingly aware of the passing of time, and the fact I’ve already experienced how quickly those childhood years whizzed by with Alice makes me doubly appreciative of having a young child again now. Financial stability is another bonus of being older – I couldn't even drive when I had Alice, and certainly didn't have the disposable income for day trips and holidays.

I encourage my daughter Alice to treasure these years while Isabelle is young, however hard they may be, because time will go so quickly. Being in my late forties, I'm increasingly aware of the passing of time.

Of course, parenting this time is easier and more enjoyable because Paul and I are a team so we make decisions together, and if either of us is having a challenging day with Bradley the other acts as a sounding board. But at the same time, everything else is harder work because Bradley is full on in a way that Alice never was and I’m much older.

Occasionally I feel bad that Bradley has older parents than his friends and it makes me sad that Paul and I won't be around for him forever – by the time he's Alice's age now I'll be in my mid-60s. On the flipside, I can’t think of anything else that would keep me feeling as young in my late forties as having a six-year-old child.

Claire Deehan says she wouldn't have planned the big age gap, but there are many positives. Pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice, son Bradley and Alice’s daughter Isabelle. (Supplied)
Claire Deehan says she wouldn't have planned the big age gap, but there are many positives. Pictured with her husband Paul, daughter Alice, son Bradley and Alice’s daughter Isabelle. (Supplied)

Parenting advice

Most of the other mums at the school gates, parties and playdates are a decade or more younger than me too, which helps to keep my outlook youthful.

I wouldn’t swap either of my children for the world, but I can’t help but think it might have been easier to have had them the other way around – Bradley when I was younger and could match his energy levels, and Alice now when I'm more exhausted. I’d never have planned it like this or for there to be such a huge age gap between them, but that’s how life goes.

Most of the other mums at the school gates, parties and playdates are a decade or more younger than me, which helps to keep my outlook youthful.

More than anything, I just think I'm so lucky that I got a much longed for second go at motherhood and that Paul, me, my children and my granddaughter are all so close.

The piece of parenting advice I remind Alice of the most – and would encourage all mums and dads to heed, whether they have age gap children or not – is that being a parent is never easy, it's relentlessly hard work and just as you get through one stage, another one pops up to challenge you.

But you have to make the most of it even in those moments when you're on your knees with tiredness or frustration, as it's only when you look back that you realise how quickly those years passed and how they really are there to be cherished.