I was wrong to have a baby at 57: Her partner's left her and she's had a brush with death, here Britain's oldest first-time mum reveals her regrets
22:52 GMT, 23 March 2012
'My hope is that I'll have 25 years with Freya,' said Sue Tollefsen (with her four-year-old daughter)
Sue Tollefsen’s only child Freya turns four tomorrow and an epic weekend of celebrations is planned.
As well as a trip to the Moscow Ballet and a family get-together, Freya and 15 little friends will mark her birthday with an adventure playground party.
‘And after that, I expect I’ll come home, flop into a chair and put my feet up,’ smiles Sue, who, at 61 is Britain’s oldest first-time mum.
If there is a sense that she is cramming every hour of her daughter’s young life with incident and experience, it is because since a life-threatening virus floored her just after Christmas, Sue has become sharply aware that her time with her daughter may be depressingly short.
And it is this realisation that has made her revise her opinion on post-menopausal mums.
‘There is an age at which having a child can be selfish.
'If you’re 66 when your baby is born, what are the chances you’ll be there until your child can stand on its own two feet’ she asks.
Critics of late-life motherhood may well argue that 57 — the age at which Sue gave birth through IVF — was perilously late to ensure she will be around to pilot her daughter into adulthood.
Indeed, her recent illness has served as a stark warning that she is not invincible.
‘I had a virus which attacked my blood system and if I’m honest it knocked me for six,’ she says.
‘I lost a stone in weight. Even now, some days I’m so exhausted I go to bed when Freya does.
‘The illness began with a fever. First I was freezing cold, then sweating so profusely my bed linen was wringing wet. I was admitted to hospital.
'For two weeks I was unable to care for Freya. I thought I was dying. I was crying as I said my prayers.
‘I said: “Thank you God for letting me have four years with my daughter. I thought I’d have at least 20, but if it isn’t meant to be I’m grateful for what I’ve had.”
'I felt desolate. Freya had given me more happiness than I’d ever known and I thought it was going to be snatched away.’
In the dark hours of her illness, when doctors feared the virus could attack the walls of her heart and prove fatal, Sue reflected on the wisdom of becoming a mother at 57.
‘I think now there has to be a cut-off age, a point at which a woman should not be allowed to have a baby,’ she says.
‘Fifty is a very good point. Hopefully you have 20 to 30 years left to raise your child. In my heart now I’d say that was the right age. And even at 50, if you have health issues, the decision to have a baby should not be taken lightly.
‘You have to think: “We’re talking about a child; it’s about their future, their prospects.” As a sensible adult I’ve made provision for Freya.
'I’ve put aside money from my lump-sum pension payment and my savings for her education. If I’m not around there will be people to care for her.
Longed-for family: Sue and Nick Mayer with newborn Freya in 2008. However, 14 months ago they separated amicably after a decade together
‘I thought: “I’ve been wise. I’ve planned for every eventuality” but of course you can never know when ill health will strike. It can come at any time, and when you’re ill you become so conscious of your own mortality and its implications for your child.
'My hope is that I’ll have 25 years with Freya, but my real regret is that I was not able to start my family earlier.’
It is, of course, a perennial ethical dilemma: should women be permitted to have children as late as Sue did
Many IVF clinics in the UK have a cut-off age of 50 to 55 — not just because bearing a child can be perilous to the mother, but because an older woman is less likely to be able to see a child through to independence.
Sue is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent woman, but she did not anticipate the changes that have occurred in her life since her daughter was born.
When she became pregnant after her third attempt at IVF, she was living with her then long-term partner, Nick Mayer, who is 11 years her junior. She felt fit and vigorous; practically invincible, in fact.
However, 14 months ago she and Nick, 49, a warehouse manager, separated amicably after a decade together.
Sue, who now lives with Freya in a two bedroom end-of-terrace home in Harold Wood, Essex, has retired from her job as a special needs teacher and her health has been precarious.
Freya was just three months old when Sue was told she needed a knee replacement. She was still incapacitated following the operation when she suffered a ruptured peptic ulcer (an ulcer in the stomach or upper intestine).
‘It was only two weeks after the surgery on my knee. I was still hobbling on crutches. I really wasn’t very well and I had to go back to hospital for emergency surgery when the ulcer burst,’ she recalls.
‘There were complications after the operation. That was when I first started to think about my own mortality.
‘I thought: “I have to stay around for Freya”. It scared me and made me very aware that if my health failed Freya would not have a mum.
Sue became pregnant after her third attempt at IVF. She felt fit and vigorous then
‘It made me realise, too, that despite all the eventualities Nick and I had anticipated and catered for, we’d never actually thought that I might get ill and wouldn’t be able to look after our daughter.’
As it is, Sue — a chatty, vivacious blonde — has remained on such good terms with Nick and his mother Maggie, 79, that they have pitched in to share the care of Freya when Sue has been ill.
Close friends also rallied.
Indeed, when I visit, one of them, also called Maggie — a glamorous granny of 65 who is one of Freya’s six godparents — arrives to take the little girl on a shopping trip. They leave happily, a beaming Freya trundling her new dolls’ pram.
Freya, Sue reflects, was a ‘miracle’ baby and in this instance, it seems, the description is not exaggerated.
She was born after Sue and Nick had given up hope that she would become pregnant and after Sue had spent her childbearing years caring for her terminally ill father and her ailing widowed mum.
A brief early marriage had ended with her husband’s infidelity. Then she moved in with her parents, to help look after her father, who had liver cancer.
Before he died in 1986, Sue promised him she would care for her mother Gladys, who suffered from emphysema and osteoporosis. Duly she became Gladys’s carer until her death, aged 80, in 2002.
Sue’s sense of filial duty was exemplary, but looking after her mother as well as holding down a demanding job as a teacher meant she had neither the time nor the freedom to consider becoming a parent herself.
Looking back, she does not resent the sacrifice: ‘My parents gave me life. I would never have said: “Let’s stick them in a home”. Old people fare so much better with family,’ she says.
Nevertheless, she does not expect Freya to feel honour-bound to forfeit her chance of motherhood to look after her.
‘When people accuse me of having Freya for selfish reasons I’m deeply hurt,’ she says.
‘I didn’t have her for what she could do for me. I wanted a child because it is the most natural thing in the world to do so.’
Sue was 51 before she and Nick, who she had met on a blind date in 1998, began to think about having children. A wistful longing soon became a mutual yearning.
Sue began to wonder about having IVF using donor eggs and Nick’s sperm, but it was Nick — who also had no children of his own — who spotted an article in a magazine which inspired them to go abroad for treatment.
Because Sue was deemed too old for IVF in the UK, they travelled to a fertility clinic in Russia.
They’d had two fruitless attempts and had spent 15,000 when they resolved their third try would be the last. And it seemed, to start with at least, that this final attempt would also fail, because four weeks after two embryos were implanted Sue, and her doctor, were convinced she had miscarried.
‘I was bleeding heavily and the tests were negative,’ she explains.
‘A gynaecologist confirmed that the signs were unpropitious. I continued to bleed. I felt tired and breathless. My appetite diminished. Even so, my stomach seemed swollen. I hadn’t been pregnant before so I didn’t realise this was an obvious sign, but I felt so unwell I went to see a private doctor.’
'Your child becomes the most important thing. It's a love like no other,' said Sue
Assuming she could not possibly be pregnant, Sue failed to tell the doctor she had undertaken IVF treatment.
He duly diagnosed a ‘hard abdominal mass’ and was concerned that it could signal ovarian cancer.
‘He referred me to a private hospital for a scan,’ she recalls.
‘I was terrified. I sat in the waiting room in tears, clutching a piece of paper which suggested I could have cancer.’
The revelation that she was, in fact, pregnant therefore came as a huge relief.
‘I was lying on the bed thinking I was going to die when the sonographer said: “Congratulations”. I thought: “That’s a strange way to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.” Then he said: “You’re pregnant”. I was speechless.’
Then came another surprise — Sue was actually 30 weeks into her pregnancy, which had come about as a result of her IVF treatment. Nick, meanwhile, was on his way to meet her, expecting the worst.
When Sue told him the news he burst into tears. They had just eight weeks to acclimatise to the knowledge they were to be parents.
When Freya was born at 38 weeks by Caesarean section, they were overwhelmed.
‘Bringing her home was frightening,’ recalls Sue. ‘Like any other first-time parents, we were worried about the life-changing responsibility of becoming a mum and dad.’
Since that day, Freya has continued to be the hub around which Sue’s world revolves.
‘You can never give a child too much love, can you’ she asks as Freya, who has a mop of blonde hair, snuggles on her lap.
Freya is bilingual in her mum’s native Norwegian and English. She is learning tap and ballet dancing and Sue takes her to theatre matinees, church, on picnics and for walks in the park with their two Bichon Frises, Buster and Poppy.
There are often sleepovers and friends for tea. I wonder why Sue’s relationship with Nick ended — he clearly remains a besotted and committed dad and they still ‘do things as a family’.
Sue also told her story in this week's Closer magazine, on sale now
But Sue explains: ‘You do change when you become a mum. Your child becomes the most important thing. It’s a love like no other.
‘When Freya came along I invested all my love in her. Romance went out of the window.
'She often slept between us, and because Nick kept up all his hobbies — he’s a great football and cricket fan — we started to drift apart.’
Still, neither of them has ruled out the possibility of rapprochement. But for the time being, it seems that Sue’s love for her little girl is so all-consuming that there is no room for anyone else.
Sue still looks youthful. She wears a diamond stud in her nose and bright jersey with a logo on it. But there are days, she says, when she feels that ‘Hurricane Freya’ has hit the house and she falls into bed exhausted.
‘Freya was walking upstairs carrying some of my mum’s Coalport china the other day and she broke it,’ recalls Sue.
‘I didn’t scream at her. I never do. I thought: “It doesn’t matter. They’re only things, aren’t they”
'Being an older mum has its benefits: you’re more patient and experienced.’
Most people, she says, are not censorious of her decision to have a child so late in life, but she has become accustomed to registering shock on strangers’ faces when they hear Freya call Sue ‘Mummy’.
The odd barb of criticism has also stung her.
‘One mum said: “Do you realise, when your daughter is a teenager you’ll be 70”,’ she recalls, ‘and I said: “Of course I do. I can add up.” I wanted to say: “What were you doing when you were 36 Because I was caring for my parents”.’
In a sense, of course, Sue is her own sternest critic. She acknowledges that her daughter’s adolescent years could be tricky.
‘I worry that when she is 13, 14 and 15, she’ll want to go shopping for make-up and fashionable clothes with her contemporaries.
‘I just hope I’ll be able to give her sound advice and that we’ll weather her puberty together.
‘I’m acutely aware of my age and I just hope my health holds out. Nick, of course, is very involved and he is a much younger parent.
‘My hope and dream is to be able to provide a good and stable home for Freya; that she will have a fulfilled and happy life and that I’ll watch her grow into a delightful young lady.
‘I hope to be able to encourage her through her education — perhaps even see her marry.
‘I’ve watched her from birth until now and it has been the most wondrous journey. It’s been such a bonus to see her turning into this little person who is always curious, constantly asking questions.
‘I hear her chatting and the house is full of laughter and I’m tickled. It puts a smile on my face.
‘But sometimes at 2am if I can’t sleep I’ll worry. What if I’m not here for her All the negatives crowd in on me. I worry and panic.
‘But then I reflect. I get a little snapshot of her climbing a tree, or of her face turning towards me laughing.
'I’ll flip in my mind through a photo album of each stage in her life. I’ll think to myself: “Where have these four years gone”
‘My real regret is that I was not able to start earlier. If I could turn back the clock I’d have done it all a lot sooner — and what a huge difference that would have made.’