What Sex Education Gets Right About Older Motherhood

Women who gave birth in their forties have a lot of praise for Jean Milburn.
Netflix

“Turns out you’re right. You’re perimenopausal. You’re also pregnant.”

When Jean Milburn’s doctor delivered the news of her pregnancy during the final episode of Sex Education’s second season, she had the same reaction as many viewers: “But that’s impossible.”

The thing is though, it’s not. It’s entirely possible for a woman to get pregnant, even as her levels of oestrogen begin to decline – we just don’t see it on TV very often. In reality, women only reach “the menopause” when they’ve had a full year without periods. And if you’re under 50, it’s advised you have two bleed-free years before stopping contraception.

Season three of the hit Netflix show sees Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, navigate pregnancy as a 48-year-old. She does so while continuing to work as a sex therapist, promoting her new book, parenting her teenage son, figuring out her on/off relationship with Jakob – and wearing a wardrobe to die for.

Other women who have given birth in their 40s are jumping for joy at the portrayal.

“As an older mum, it is great to see characters like Jean on the screen,” says Julie Leonard, a 50-year-old life coach from Glasgow, who gave birth to her first child at 43 after meeting her partner at 41.

“Women are having children in their late 30s and 40s and it’s so positive to see TV reflect the changes in modern motherhood. And as a life coach, I love Jean’s character and to see a woman who is cool, independent and stylish instead of the usual ‘mumsy’ dowdy and frumpy look that is often portrayed.”

Julie Leonard, who gave birth to her first child ged 43.
Julie Leonard
Julie Leonard, who gave birth to her first child ged 43.

Jean’s storyline also resonates heavily with Lynda Sorrell-Fleet, who, like Jean, didn’t plan to become a mother again. Sorrell-Fleet found herself pregnant with her fourth child at the age of 46 after a weekend away celebrating her husband’s 50th birthday.

“It wasn’t a planned pregnancy and I didn’t get pregnancy symptoms, but I knew something was going on with my body,” says the now 63-year-old, from Eastbourne.

“I was convinced I was going through the menopause. I went to my GP and he then sent me almost immediately for a scan, and I was told I was nine-and-a-half-weeks pregnant.”

Surprise and joy were met almost instantly with fear, as doctors took Sorrell-Fleet – who was working as a medical secretary at the time – into a side room to discuss the risks of older motherhood.

“I was totally on my own, and I was told that because of my age, I had a one in 17 chance of the baby surviving and it was better for me and the baby to have the baby terminated,” she says.

“I was devastated. I remember almost fainting and passing out. I’d only just found out I was pregnant and then within 20 minutes, I was told there was almost no way I was going to be able to carry this child to term, and if I did carry her to term, she might be born with a disability.”

Sorrell-Fleet and her husband decided to continue with the pregnancy and she now enjoys watching Sex Education with her 17-year-old daughter.

A scene where Jean is called “an older mother” at the hospital reception – then repeatedly reminded of her age during a scan with a judgmental sonographer – struck a chord.

Fiona Scott, a media consultant who had her third child at the age of 41, also says the show reflects her experience of antenatal appointments.

“I was made to feel I must be a dried up old prune with little fertility,” she says. “In reality I was pregnant within 24 hours of having my coil removed. I do acknowledge I was very lucky in that.”

The number of women having children over 40 continues to rise, but Leonard says she was also “othered” because of her age.

“When I had my check-up at the hospital prior to the birth, the doctor called me an old mum,” she says. “When I half-jokingly challenged him, he replied matter of factly that at 43 I was!”

Yes, it’s important women know that fertility drops with age and there are some health concerns associated with older motherhood, but they don’t need to be patronised again, and again, and again. As Jean says on the show: “I’ve been reminded of the risks many times, thank you. I didn’t go into this lightly.”

Scott says one of the worst things about pregnancy at 41 was being described as a ‘geriatric’ mother in medical notes – “and it was written everywhere”.

“I found this very insulting, as if somehow being a little older makes you somehow ‘less’ when in fact I was ‘more,’” she says. “I was more comfortable in myself and just enjoyed my baby. I didn’t listen to any ‘advice’ about how to bring him up or breastfeed him, I knew what to do and I took the time to do it.”

Gillian Anderson as Jean Milburn, with Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn in Sex Education.
Sam TaylorSam Taylor/Netflix
Gillian Anderson as Jean Milburn, with Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn in Sex Education.

Search “how to tell your child you’re pregnant” and you’ll find no shortage of articles aimed at parents with children under 10. Sex Education shows something different, but realistic: a family with older children learning to accept a new addition. Jean’s pregnancy comes as a shock to her and Jakob, but also to their teenage children, Otis and Ola.

Sorrell-Fleet’s three daughters were also surprised to learn of her pregnancy. Her two eldest had moved out and she asked them to come home when she shared the news.

“They were relieved when I was pregnant, because they thought I was calling them home because I had cancer or I was dying or something,” she says. “They bought me a t-shirt that said: ‘My mum doesn’t know what contraception is.’”

She felt a little guilty about the pregnancy at first, because her two eldest daughters were trying to get pregnant, but thankfully they both conceived later.

“My oldest grandson is only nine months younger than [my youngest daughter] Olivia, so they’ve pretty much grown up as brother and sister,” she says. “From that point of view it’s been joyous.”

As well as her 14-year-old son David, Scott has two other children, Sam who is 22, Georgia who is 19, and a stepdaughter, Lauren, now 27. She made the choice to involve her older children with everything from the start.

“It felt like we brought him up together and they spoiled him far more than I did,” she says. “I’ve asked David if it’s okay to have an older mum and he says he never thinks about it. I do think though, that if you have children from different relationships or bigger age gaps, you do have to recognise that and make a real effort to come together as a family and act as a family. Not just expect that those relationships with older children will just happen naturally.”

Jean is so much more than her outfits, but her brilliant style also has viewers lusting after her wardrobe – despite her ever-growing bump. That’s thanks to costume designer Rosa Dias, who wanted to show that pregnant women and new mothers can still retain their style.

“I didn’t want her to suddenly start wearing things that weren’t her,” she told Metro.co.uk. “There’s this notion that when women fall pregnant, suddenly they just start wearing comfortable clothes and they lose their style and become sort of all mumsy.

“There’s a real thing about that in terms of when people get pregnant and then after they’ve had babies. And I’m like no, that doesn’t have to happen. It really doesn’t.”

Jean also retains her identity as a complex, kind, sexual and successful woman, and it’s this that truly makes her a character worth celebrating.

Taboos are slowing shifting surrounding pregnancy in your 40s – and the mums we interviewed say it’s been a long time coming.

“The main benefit of being an older mum is that I don’t feel that I have had to give up my life or that I’m missing out,” says Leonard.

“I had a lot of fun in my 20s and 30s and felt ready for this next chapter in my life. I have also done a lot of work on myself and feel in a really good place mentally and emotionally to take care of myself and my child.”