When I was a journalist in my late 20s in the North East of England, I noticed how older women had this knack of steering the conversation in a certain direction: ‘You’re a nice girl,’ they’d say. ‘Are you courting?’
I thought this question was really sweet and old-fashioned, but looking back, I think those old ladies were trying to tell me something. They knew something I didn’t.
Then in my 30s, there was a spate of women my age who’d suddenly announce they were marrying someone quite unexpected. Often exciting and attractive women, who seemed to be rushing into marriage with someone who was nice, but, well, just a little bit dull. Again, looking back, there was a message there, one I clearly wasn’t picking up.
Meanwhile, I was moving blithely through my 30s and through an exciting career, travelling widely on the investigative ITV programme World In Action, where I became a producer, before being appointed editor of ITV’s Big Story. I had relationships, but nothing that lasted. My job was all-consuming.
Dorothy Byrne said she didn’t appreciate how physically gruelling it would be to raise a child, on her own in her 40s. Pictured: Dorothy Byrne, with her daughter Hettie, who was conceived through fertility treatment
It was when a relationship ended in my early 40s that I suddenly realised that somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten something important. I’d forgotten to have a baby.
Those hidden messages: the old ladies, who could instinctively see in me the ambitious young girl, with both eyes on the horizon, and no thought for the passage of time and biology, and the contemporaries selling themselves short in a panicked dash to get married and have children. All of them should have been a warning, that this day would come.
And now it had. I made myself stop everything for two days and just sit at home and really think how a childless future would make me feel, and I realised that I would be very sad.
Why hadn’t this occurred to me before? I loved children and had always assumed I would have one.
I decided I needed to try to have a child, on my own, using a sperm donor. I had no time to find Mr Right. If it didn’t work, maybe I would adopt or foster, but I knew if I didn’t try I would always regret it.
What followed was several rounds of invasive and expensive fertility treatment which resulted in me having a baby girl, as a single woman, aged 45.
And I was lucky, really lucky. By her mid-40s, a woman’s chances of getting pregnant stand at a mere three to four per cent. What I didn’t appreciate was how physically gruelling it would be to raise a child, on my own in my 40s.
The sheer exhaustion, the pangs of guilt, the body that never lets you forget you are a middle-aged woman treading a young woman’s path — no one ever warns you about that.
Dorothy who often gives talks at schools, said she always encourages girls to plan their whole lives, not just their careers. Pictured: Dorothy with Hettie, aged two
Also, I raised a little girl who, although deeply loved, would never know what it was to have a daddy.
That is why I make a point now, to encourage girls — and my own daughter — not to forget to have a child, if that is what you want.
As the head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, I was often invited to give talks at schools. And while I always encourage girls to work hard and aim high in life, I also tell them they have to plan their whole lives, not just their careers.
I say to them: ‘Your parents and teachers tell you lots about how not to get pregnant. I’m here to tell you how to get pregnant.’
The message became even more relevant recently when statistics revealed that the average age for a woman to have her first baby now stands at nearly 31. A generation ago, it was 23.
The Government’s technology tsar Eileen Burbidge was reported as saying that good employers should offer egg freezing and other fertility treatment so that young women don’t feel under pressure to have children at crucial times in their careers.
While I’m not against women receiving such benefits, the fact remains there is a time pressure for women who want to have children, and the success rate for live births from frozen eggs is not great: often cited as less than one per cent. Of course, these odds were not what I was thinking about as I booked my first appointment at a Harley Street clinic for fertility tests, back in 1995.
Dorothy (pictured) said it took five attempts, cost around £10,000 and she was given only basic physical details about the sperm donor
When I was told I could, theoretically, have a baby, my next thought was: ‘Should I? Was it right to bring a child into the world who had no father?’
I loved my own father very much and my child wouldn’t have that. But then, I argued to myself, many children without fathers had done very well. I had a large family and plenty of male friends, and my own dad could play some of the fatherly role.
Being older and Roman Catholic, I thought my parents would disapprove, so I didn’t tell them what I was thinking. But I canvassed opinion among friends. They were not judgmental, but women were worried — quite rightly as it turned out — about the impact on me.
After asking people, I didn’t mention it again. They just assumed I had given up on the idea. I thought it was just something I had to get on with myself. My chances were slim, so why spend hours on the phone wailing to people if it didn’t work?
It took five attempts and cost me about £10,000. I was given only the basic physical details of the donor and his profession; he was 5ft 10in tall with brown hair and eyes and gave his profession as goldsmith.
Yet the pregnancy was just step one: I knew my chances of miscarriage were much higher than for a younger woman, so I still told nobody.
Dorothy said she had to go back to work when her daughter was just six weeks old. Pictured: Dorothy and Hettie as a child
Finally, when I was five months’ pregnant, I told people. The first person I told was a niece who lived in Australia. She rang me to say she wanted to be an au pair and asked me if I knew anybody who needed one. I said I knew just the person.
Most people were astonished, only my mother was upset. But the person who really surprised me was my father. He said it was the best thing I had ever done and he had always wanted me to have a baby. He wasn’t shocked at all and played a fatherly role in Hettie’s life until the day he died.
A friend came with me to the birth, and I paid a bit more to have my own room so I didn’t have to look at other women with their partners.
Once home, reality set in. I was freelance and had no maternity rights so I had to go back to work when my daughter was just six weeks old. My niece looked after Hettie but, sometimes, my need to see my baby would overpower me so much that I had to ring home and ask her to bring Hettie to me urgently.
My love life and social life diminished to nothing. Often, after inviting a friend round, I would wake up on the settee to find a note saying: ‘I was talking to you but you fell asleep, so I’ve let myself out.’
There were moments when I felt such sadness for Hettie as I could see she was jealous of other children when they played with their fathers. I would watch her watch them and feel awful. But I would snap myself out of it, reminding myself that if I hadn’t got pregnant the way I did she would never exist at all. I couldn’t imagine life without Hettie.
Dorothy revealed Hettie is now 23, with a boyfriend and wants to have children young. Pictured: Dorothy and Hettie as a baby
I decided to tell her the truth about her conception, as soon as she was old enough to understand. One trouble with being an older mother is that you hit the menopause before your child is even a teenager.
When my daughter was 12, I developed two serious related auto-immune diseases, polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis, which only affect women after the menopause. There was a terrible evening when Hettie came into my bedroom and said: ‘I’m hungry, Mum, and I can’t find any food.’ I told her to have toast and felt a complete failure as a mother.
Hettie is now 23, with a boyfriend and a job in TV production. She was always clear she wanted to have children when she was young — I am glad my message to her was received loud and clear. Those old ladies who asked me: ‘Are you courting?’ knew a thing or two. Now it’s my turn to pass on the message. ‘Don’t leave it too late. I was lucky. You might not be.’
Having a baby at 45 was the best thing I ever did in my life. But it was also the hardest.
I so admired Mum – but it was tough not having a dad
Hettie revealed she would get upset growing up, seeing her friends sitting on their fathers' shoulders. Pictured: Hettie, aged five
Growing up, I was aware I was different to other children as I had no father. It was tough, writes Dorothy’s daughter, Hettie, 23.
I missed out on those things only fathers can do. I used to get upset when I saw my friends sitting on their fathers’ shoulders.
I will never forget one day when my friend’s father said he would carry me on his shoulders after he had carried his daughter. When it was my turn, he said he was too tired. A heart-breaking event for a four-year-old.
Children can be cruel without meaning to be. In my nursery, they would ask me why my father never came to events like our concerts.
My mother had taken me to see the Chinese State Circus. Afterwards I asked her how far away China was, and she told me it was 5,000 miles from us. So, when I went back to nursery, I told the other children my father was away working in China. I figured it was so far away that they would stop asking where my dad was.
When I started at infant school, at first I told other children my father was dead. I had worked out that in this country even children don’t talk about dead people.
Eventually, when we moved up to primary school, I told the truth: I was a donor child and my mother gave birth to me using a seed from someone she didn’t know.
Hettie said in hindsight she's grateful that feeling annoyed by her mother was the biggest family problem she had. Pictured: Dorothy and Hettie as a child
One boy was really cruel and said that because I didn’t have a father, I was an ‘alien’. That was horrible.
I told my mother and she came into the playground one day and confronted the boy. She told him I was a donor child and explained what that meant.
She was forceful, and he never said mean things about me again.
My mother was a single parent who worked all hours of the day and night. I missed her but it meant the time I did get to spend with her was all the more important.
Growing up in a house where it was just me and my mum was both fantastic and frustrating. Two women living together for 18 years wasn’t always easy. There were times where we drove each other crazy. However, in hindsight I am grateful that feeling annoyed with my mum was the biggest family problem I had. By the time I was 15, the parents of many of my friends had divorced.
I always thank my mother for giving me a relatively boring life, free from bitter divorces, parents who lived together but never spoke, or infidelity.
When I was conceived, the law stated that the donor could remain totally anonymous. All I know is my father’s height, colouring and the profession he gave.
Hettie said she wants to have had all of her children before age 35. Pictured: Hettie, aged four
When I was 18, I was able to apply through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to find out if I had any half-siblings. It turned out I have at least ten half-brothers and sisters, through women who used the same donor.
Although initially it felt exciting, and life-changing, I soon came to realise that, in fact, nothing had changed. I still have no relationship with them. I was allowed to register with the HFEA to state that I would like to meet my half-siblings if they would like to meet me. But so far none of them has applied to do the same.
Overall, I’d say I had a happy childhood. Being a donor child is not something I see as a negative, but rather as a pretty unique experience. After all, if I hadn’t been a donor child, I wouldn’t exist.
Being the child of an older mother has shown me that I want to have had all my children before I’m 35. I want to have the energy to play with them and keep up with them. I want them to have both a mother and a father.
It’s my goal to carry my children home on my shoulders, having chased them around all day.