‘I’ll be 90 when my son turns 21 – but you trying saying no to my wife!’: How veteran BBC presenter Harry Gration’s partner was ‘absolutely determined’ to be a mother again at the age of 51
- BBC sports and news presenter and his wife are expecting a baby this year
- He said: ‘I realised it was an absolute determination of hers to be a mum again’
- Helen is 21 weeks’ pregnant after finding an egg donor and having IVF in Cyprus
Harry and Helen Gration are about to welcome a child at the age of 68 and 51 respectively
A year ago, veteran BBC presenter Harry Gration had little more on his mind than deciding what he’d tick off his bucket list come retirement.
The boys, 16-year-old twins Harrison and Harvey, would be at university in a few years’ time. He could play more golf. Fulfil a lifetime wish to watch a test match in Australia. Relish, in the years ahead, becoming a grandfather.
Or that’s what 68-year-old Harry thought until his wife Helen, 51, suggested a run in the park last June.
‘I’ve got to talk to you about something,’ she said as they jogged. ‘I’ve been thinking about needing to have another child. I want to explore the possibility.’ Harry stopped running.
‘I think I actually staggered,’ he says today. ‘I asked: ‘Are you absolutely serious about this?’ She said: ‘I am deadly serious.’ I could see it was something she was passionate about.
‘I could not dismiss it and say: ‘Oh, come on. In a year’s time you’ll feel differently.’ Helen is very determined. You can’t fob her off. You’ve met my wife so you know what she’s like.’
Indeed. Helen is, at 5ft 2in, a pocket dynamo of a woman. Until she began sharing her life with Harry two decades ago, she worked as a TV news director in the BBC newsroom.
Today, she’s a ‘driven’ mother who runs her home with the efficiency of a blue chip company CEO, as well as a chain of nurseries in Yorkshire.
She is also 21 weeks’ pregnant after finding an egg donor and having IVF in Cyprus. Harry, who has worked in broadcasting for three decades, chuckles in a sort of ‘there’s-no-stopping-her-when-she-sets-her-mind-to-something’ way.
‘Helen’s a very strong person. I suppose, to start with, I was wondering whether it was something she really, really wanted to do or if it was a fleeting moment. I certainly wouldn’t have suggested we have another child.
‘I suppose she’d have got over it if I’d turned round and said no. She’d have had to, wouldn’t she? Or, if the boys had said no.
‘But I realised it was an absolute determination of hers to be a mum again. That swayed some of the argument but not all of it as the rest depended upon how my boys would react.’
The boys were 15 when their parents broached the subject with them on holiday in Portugal. ‘Right at the start, Harvey said: ‘I don’t know about that,’ says Harry. ‘Then he thought about it. A few days later he said he thought it was a good idea. Now they’re absolutely behind their mum’s decision. Although I’m sure they’ve had some ribbing at school.’
Joy: Helen and Harry with sons Harvey, left, and Harrison. Helen ploughed her every waking hour into her sons who she raised alongside running her nursery business, without any help in the house
No doubt. Harry announced the news on BBC Look North this week. It attracted huge criticism. Let’s just say, ‘too old’ and ‘how selfish’ were common themes.
After all, when the child — ‘It is a boy,’ Helen reveals — is 21, his mother will be 72 and his father, who is 69 in October, will be 90. That’s if he’s… oh dear, how to put it.
‘That has been part of our consideration,’ says Helen. ‘While I don’t want to be sad or gloom-ridden, we have talked as a family about the fact that, as Dad’s age increases, things might come to an end.
‘But, very importantly within this family unit, this child will have two other role models who will be his big brothers. Look…’ — she sits forward on the sofa in their spacious kitchen, which is full of stuff suggesting a warm family life. ‘Any question someone could ask me now, I’ve already faced myself and worked out the answer. Ask me anything.’
Okay, here goes.
Is it fair on a child when he’s, say, a teenager to have parents who are both old enough for free bus passes? For, if you’re a geriatric mother at 35, this is definitely geriatric-plus.
Yorkshireman Gration is well-known among viewers of the BBC’s Look North programme
‘You can bet your bottom dollar me as a 70-year-old won’t be people’s idea of a typical 70-year-old,’ says Helen. ‘That’s the biggest question I asked myself. The answer was: ‘No one knows what’s round the corner.’ Assuming I’m going to age in a very dignified, healthy and youthful way, the answer I would give is the security will be there.
‘We’ll have a different family to the one I had before but, if I live to the average age of 84 for a woman, this child will be in his 30s, so there will be other family available to that child in the form of our boys.’
What about the accusations of selfishness? Many women feel a sense of loss when the kids prepare to flee the nest. Most take up a hobby or find purpose in a career.
‘When I began to have thoughts of being a mother again, the boys were 13. I was bossy with myself. I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ I assumed, perhaps, I was starting the menopause and it was hormones speaking to me and confusing me. So I opened a fourth nursery to get myself busy again.
‘But that just did not do it. I still had these feelings. Fast forward a year and I decided to tell Harry.
‘I waited until we were out for a run. They always say if you’ve got a big conversation with your children do it when you’re driving or something so you don’t have to look at them.
‘For a couple of summers, I’d been saying things like, ‘Oh Harry, do you remember when we were on holiday and we’d have to bring the twin buggy and we’d always be wondering how we’d get it in the boot?’
Bear in mind that when Helen first met Harry he was freshly separated from his second wife, the mother to two sons. He also had a daughter from his first marriage and was so determined not to have any more children he had a vasectomy.
Within a year of their December 2001 wedding, Helen had changed his mind. ‘I was about 42 and still in my second marriage when I decided to have the vasectomy,’ says Harry, who separated from his second wife a year before he met Helen in 1996.
‘I probably felt I’d done enough in terms of populating the human race, but you don’t know what the future holds. It would have been criminal to have denied Helen the possibility of becoming a mum. She was a natural mum. That’s why we went down the IVF route 17 years ago.’
The boys were born in May 2003. ‘I was a motivated mum,’ says Helen. ‘I think that’s characteristic of IVF mums. The journey you’ve been on, the thinking processes mean, when you’re finally given your bundles, you’re not going to fail.
‘I just remember being totally inspired and in love. I couldn’t believe how I loved them more each day. Harry was there. He was helpful. He could do a nappy.’
Helen ploughed her every waking hour into her sons who she raised alongside running her nursery business, without any help in the house. They are both high achievers. Harrison is talented double bass player and choralist. Harvey, a brilliant all-round sportsman has, much to his father’s delight, played cricket for Yorkshire under-15s.
Harry began to notice a growing sadness in his wife as the twins matured. ‘She couldn’t believe how quickly the years had flown from them being a bump in her stomach to being young men.’
Mr Gration, pictured receiving his MBE in 2013, has said he takes any criticism ‘on the chin’
Helen says the idea of becoming a mother in her 50s began to take seed when she read about a celebrity giving birth aged 49 two years ago.
‘I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ I decided this was something I could do. Whether these feelings in me were hormonally based or whether it was just because I love being a mother, I don’t know. I knew I wasn’t ready not to be a mother. That feeling took over to the point where we had to find out if it was possible.’
The Grations wrote to a consultant at Leeds Fertility Clinic, Tony Rutherford. Helen spoke to him on the phone shortly after they returned from the Portugal family holiday.
‘I was very chirpy, saying my periods were every 28 days and asking how we should proceed,’ says Helen. ‘He said, ‘We wouldn’t touch your eggs after 45. They wouldn’t be viable.’
‘That was a shock. He carried on speaking for a few minutes before I got back on track. I assumed because I was still having regular periods I was fertile. If I was going to have a baby, it would have to be with a donor egg. It was a significant kick.’
As if on cue, she pats her stomach as the baby moves inside her. ‘I think he heard that,’ she laughs.
Helen is a youthful, fit 51-year-old who runs daily and goes to Pilates classes several times a week. To learn her eggs were not viable was tough. The Grations took 24 hours to consider their options.
‘I’d never thought about having to have a donor egg. Harry felt it was a great pity my genes wouldn’t input as they have with the two boys.
‘Whether we would go ahead was my decision to make, assuming Harry’s contribution was okay [she means Harry’s sperm]. I eventually realised I didn’t want to have a child in order to duplicate me — I wanted to be a mother.’ They booked an appointment with the consultant.
‘I didn’t want the baby to interfere with the boys’ GCSE year,’ says Helen. ‘I wanted them to have a clear run at their exams. I didn’t want to bring in a new baby with all that going on. So, we planned to start the treatment at the end of their mocks.’
This meant she would be approaching her 51st birthday in April, an age at which the Human Fertilisation And Embryology Authority does not permit treatment for women in the UK. The consultant advised them to seek treatment at a Cyprus clinic where the cost for the donor egg and IVF treatment was £6,000.
At the end of September last year, they travelled there for Harry to give sperm, which was tested.
‘They sent the results to the Leeds clinic,’ says Helen. ‘Harry was definitely smiling. I started calling him Supersperm, which made him grin. While we were in Cyprus we also had to fill in a donor form of the physical characteristics you’re looking for.
‘You stick down as much as you want. I probably wrote a novel. I wanted: white, blonde, blue-eyed, my height. We put down our likes and dislikes. The most important thing for me was that the donor was a graduate. I also put down I like to run and I read avidly.’
There were two donor matches so, following the twins’ mocks in January, the Grations returned to Cyprus for the IVF treatment and the embryo to be implanted.
‘I was put on a bed in theatre where there was an ultrasound screen. You could watch as the embryo was put in,’ says Helen. ‘I watched it go to the back of my womb and sit there. It was this little white dot. I thought, ‘Hello dot. I hope I’ve prepared everything all right for you.’
‘The way I’ll explain it to the baby is it took three people to make him. It took my body, my blood, my energy. It took an egg from someone else and it took Harry’s sperm. Seeing it on the monitor was very emotional.
‘In a way, I wish we’d gone during February half-term so we could have gone as a family.’
‘But that was also a critical time building up for the boys’ GCSEs. How the baby was going to fit in with their school routine had been their biggest question.’
They returned to the UK the next day with the medication Helen needed and instructions to take a pregnancy test in ten days’ time.
‘I didn’t sleep all night,’ says Helen. ‘I got up at 5am and went to the loo to do the little thing on the stick. It came up one to two weeks’ pregnant. I was so excited I sent a message to a couple of friends.’ Didn’t she tell Harry first?
‘No. I came downstairs and just got on with things. It was a school day so I had to get things going. Harry wandered down at about 6.30am and said, ‘So?’ I said, ‘Yes, it happened.’ I….’
She holds her hand to her mouth as her eyes fill with tears. This is the only time she has shown deep emotion. Mostly, she has a dogged determination to get on with things. ‘I get really upset thinking about it,’ she says. ‘There was a huge smile and a hug. Harry said, ‘I knew it would.’
‘Families are changing,’ she says. ‘I might be on the cusp of the change but I truly believe the world has moved beyond people thinking it’s absurd for a 51-year-old woman to have a baby.
‘With the progress of fertility science it gives women in their 40s and 50s a chance that they wouldn’t have had years ago. If you don’t want to stop being a mother, why should you? I’m a trailblazer and I want other women to know it is possible.’
Whatever your feelings of geriatric-plus motherhood, it is impossible not to be struck by Helen’s infectious delight.
But perhaps the last word ought to belong to Harry — who insists he is ‘selfless not selfish’ to be abandoning his bucket list.
‘Mind you, the next Australia tour is 2021, so you never know…’ he says with a twinkle.
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