Tracey Britten wants everyone to know she’s fine. More than fine. Fine and dandy, happy as can be and coping very well, thank you.
She’d like to silence all those ‘nasty folk’ online who utterly crucified her last year when she hit the headlines as Britain’s oldest mother of quadruplets.
Then aged 50, and a grandmother of eight, she’d conceived her bumper brood — three girls and a boy — with her younger, second husband through IVF at a clinic in Cyprus.
Tracey, a former drugs counsellor who married Stephen, a 40-year-old roofer, in 2012 is exhausted. Seriously, bone-achingly tired. She is pictured with her four children George, Grace, Fredrica, and Francesca
They were delivered by Caesarean section, nine weeks premature, at London’s University College Hospital, on October 26 last year.
The quads’ first birthday is looming and, let’s just say, some of the reaction Tracey has encountered over the past 18 months, since announcing her pregnancy, hasn’t been terribly enthusiastic or kind.
A selfish, vain and immoral drain on the welfare state is a fair summary of some of the more vitriolic criticism thrown her way.
‘People were saying they’d have to put in extra hours at work to look after ‘those poxy kids’. Well I want them to see how well I’m doing, and how well the babies are,’ says Tracey defiantly. ‘And they can eat their words.’
Then aged 50, and a grandmother of eight, she’d conceived her bumper brood — three girls and a boy — with her younger, second husband through IVF at a clinic in Cyprus. She is pictured above pregnant with her baby bump
Can they? To be honest, she does look well. Hair shiny and washed. Make-up on. Tracksuit bottoms nowhere in sight.
Instead, she’s wearing a pair of fitted trousers and a (swoon) ironed shirt — she even finds time to iron the babies’ bedding. There’s not even any post baby tummy fat on her.
‘I keep the house clean and tidy, too. A mess would make me feel depressed,’ she says.
Indeed, her three-bedroom bungalow in North London is spic and span, although the living room could easily be mistaken for that of a childminder, so sprawling is the array of baby bouncers, walkers and brightly coloured plastic toys covering every inch of floor space.
The babies are bonny too. There’s George, the only boy, the happy one, who smiles from the moment he wakes to when he goes to sleep.
And identical twins Fredrica and Francesca with the conflicting personalities, Fredrica the feisty one with Francesca her meek and doting protégé.
Then there’s little Grace, the stoic, self-sufficient one, who prefers to leave the drama to her brother and sisters.
Yet before any empty nesters or broody, menopausal 50-somethings start booking themselves in for IVF treatment, maybe take a more forensic look at the reality of life for this poster-girl for third-age motherhood.
Tracey, a former drugs counsellor who married Stephen, a 40-year-old roofer, in 2012 is exhausted. Seriously, bone-achingly tired.
She puts a brave face on it — and some seriously good make-up — but the truth is she averages about four hours sleep a night ‘and not always in one stretch’.
Her parents are long gone, and her three grown-up children from her previous marriage are busy with their own lives and families, and not exactly queueing up for babysitting shifts (although they did step in so Tracey and her husband could have a romantic, six-day break recently).
Her body, although aesthetically in very good condition, is still struggling with the side-effects of carrying four babies for eight months in her sixth decade.
Her diary was chock-a-block with hospital appointments last week: she has carpal tunnel syndrome in one wrist, a nerve cell cluster in the other, a painful foot and lower back ache that require three doses of ibuprofen most days, plus aches in her shoulders and arms from lifting babies all day and night.
So yes, she says, there are times when she thinks ‘God, what have I done?’ As do most new parents, but multiply that despair by four, and add some serious financial worries that could actually make this family homeless shortly, and you get a taste of the reality of life as a 51-year-old mother of baby quads.
‘When I’m really tired, like when I’ve done a 24-hour shift because they can’t sleep through colds or teething, it goes through my mind,’ admits Tracey, before adding quickly: ‘But I don’t regret it, I don’t regret a thing.
‘I’m usually shattered by the end of the day but I’ll think, ‘They’re another day older, another day easier’. I wonder if one day it might catch up with me . . . I don’t mean post-natal depression, just a mad day when you want to cry. I haven’t even had that.
‘Wherever I take them, in their quad buggy, people point and stare and say. ‘Oh my God, baby quads!’
‘They’ll ask if I had IVF and some will say, ‘You’re so lucky!’ and I’ll say ‘Yeah, come around to our house at 2 o’clock one morning when they’re all awake and you’ll see how lucky I am.’ ‘ She bursts into deep, throaty laughter.
There’s George, the only boy, the happy one, who smiles from the moment he wakes to when he goes to sleep. And identical twins Fredrica and Francesca with the conflicting personalities, Fredrica the feisty one with Francesca her meek and doting protégé. Then there’s little Grace
It is surely, in part at least, her ability to see the humour in the back-breaking demands of life with four babies — who between them still need 12 bottles, 12 spoon-fed meals and up to 28 nappy changes a day — that has got her through.
It was a £7,000 inheritance from her late mother, who died in 2007, which paid for the successful IVF treatment — her first — at the Team Miracle Cyprus IVF Centre in which four embryos were implanted, three successfully, and one of those then split into two, creating identical twin girls.
Tracey admits that part of her motivation to have an assisted conception shortly after her 50th birthday was the guilt and regret she has felt since terminating a pregnancy at 19 weeks, aged 39, after she and Stephen decided it was ‘the wrong time’, as she was about to become a grandmother.
Still, she burst into tears when a sonographer, conducting a private scan nine weeks into her pregnancy, revealed the procedure had been so successful that she was expecting quads, and asked, rhetorically: ‘How am I going to cope with four babies?’
While her daughter and younger son were supportive from the outset, it took Tracey’s eldest boy, no doubt worried about how his mum would cope, a little longer to come around to the idea.
A typical day begins at 5.30am for Tracey — although if she’s woken by one of the babies any time after 3.30am she doesn’t bother going back to bed — and 6am for Stephen, who heads to work at 6.30am, leaving his wife flying solo.
She serves breakfast of Weetabix, mushed up with cow’s milk, to two babies at a time, followed by a ‘strip wash’ for each of them.
Nap time comes at 10am. The quads top and tail, two to a cot, as there is not enough space for a cot each in the bungalow — Tracey’s 21-year-old son still lives at home.
When Tracey hears one wake, usually around 11am, she will whisk them out of the bedroom to avoid disturbing the others.
Come 1pm it’s time for lunch, usually blended macaroni and cheese or mashed potato and gravy — Tracey batch cooks and freezes portions — which she spoon-feeds them, two at a time (whoever complains loudest, goes first).
Between 2pm and 4pm they settle down for an afternoon nap, for up to an hour-and-a-half.
Stephen arrives home between 5pm and 6pm and together they give the babies dinner, a favourite is blended sausage and beans.
Each quad is then bathed by Stephen who passes them to Tracey to dry and dress and, after another bottle, on a good night — all four have recently had colds leading to many sleepless nights — they will each nod off some time between 7pm and 9pm.
None of the tots is yet crawling — a fact Tracey puts down to their prematurity and only the little boy, George, who can say ‘Dadda’, is attempting to speak.
While some might see advantages in their relatively delayed mobility, given that it limits their chances of getting up to mischief, or crawling off in four different directions, Tracey is looking forward to the year ahead, when they should all be on the move.
‘I can’t wait for the next year because I know it will get easier,’ says Tracey optimistically.
‘They won’t need to be carried all the time and they’ll be able to tell me what’s wrong with them, or when they’re hungry.
‘When you’ve just got one you want them to stay as a baby for a long time but when you’ve got four, oh my God, you really don’t,’ she says with telling candour.
Modern parents often feel societal pressure to feed their children only healthy, organic foods for as long as possible, plus to limit exposure to screens.
However, Tracey, who raised her older children during the Eighties, doesn’t have time for such things.
A couple of salty chipsticks or a bright pink marshmallow biscuit are often deployed in desperate times. Cartoons blare out constantly from the TV, too.
With every waking, and even sleeping, moment over the past year having been taken up with caring for their young family, how has their marriage fared, I wonder . . .
‘People have one baby and end up arguing but, do you know what, we haven’t,’ insists Tracey.
‘We’ve never once fallen out about the kids and I’m not waiting by the door when he comes in screaming, ‘Right you have the kids, I’m sick of them.’
‘I honestly think it’s because we’ve both got more patience now we’re older. I don’t want to be grumpy around the babies and never have been because I think it would affect their mood too.
‘I stayed mellow throughout my pregnancy for the same reason and they’re all placid. I hope they stay that way, otherwise I’m in trouble.’
The babies are certainly not deprived of kisses and cuddles, but does she worry about the impact on their development of rarely being able to give them her undivided attention?
‘No, I don’t want them to be soft, crying for me all the time,’ says Tracey.
Her biggest challenge is attending hospital appointments, which she dreads. It’s hardly surprising that they cause Tracey so much stress as getting everyone ready to leave the house takes three hours, followed by 20 minutes getting the babies into her people carrier and another 20 minutes at the other end lifting them out and into the buggy.
A few weeks ago the couple jetted off to Turkey for a break, staying with friends, leaving two of the babies with Tracey’s daughter and her partner and the identical twin girls with her son and his girlfriend, who handily works in a nursery.
While they were looking forward to the six-day break, by the second evening the couple desperately missed their little ones.
‘We knew they were in safe hands but I felt really guilty and couldn’t stop thinking about them,’ says Tracey.
‘We’d talk to them via Facetime and Stephen would get all choked up when the calls ended, saying, ‘I just want to be home now.’
I couldn’t find a single airline that would allow two adults to take four babies on a flight, because they have to sit on your lap until they’re two, but we wouldn’t go away and leave them again.’
Instead of feeling hindered by her age, Tracey, who was in her late teens when her eldest two children were born within a year of one another, insists it is a positive advantage.
A typical day begins at 5.30am for Tracey — although if she’s woken by one of the babies any time after 3.30am she doesn’t bother going back to bed. George, Grace, Fredrica and Francesca are pictured above
‘I don’t get agitated, or cross, if they’re all crying at once. I’ll say, ‘All right, all right,’ and try to keep them calm,’ she says.
‘When I was younger and my babies cried I found myself getting really annoyed and always wanting more sleep. You find you’re calmer as an older mum. There’s no rush.
You’ve had your life and are slowing down now. When I was younger I felt I was missing out on things but I’ve done it all now.’
Tracey’s friends’ children are all grown up meaning that, although she still sees them occasionally, they are at a very different life stage to her, and she is yet to make friends with any new mums.
She hasn’t ventured out to playgroups or baby music sessions believing there is little point until her quads are able to play.
Although she insists it’s not the generational differences between her and the other mums holding her back, you can’t help wondering what she’d have in common with a gaggle of 30-something North London ‘yummy mummies’.
No amount of positive spin can take away the reality of the cost of raising four babies, however. The average cost of raising a child to 18, is put at a scary £230,000. For four that’s nearly £1 million — which she and Stephen do not have.
Tracey got her first taste of this recently when she went to inquire about fees at a local nursery, hoping they might be able to spend one day a week there to give her a break. They turned out to be a prohibitive £83 per baby, per day.
‘Obviously I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park but I expected some help from the government covering childcare costs, though there’s nothing available until they’re two,’ she says.
One other terrifying fly in the ointment is that the landlady who owns their rented bungalow is putting it on the market and, although she gave the couple first refusal, at £625,000 it is out of their price range.
Tracey has put her name down on the local council housing waiting list and is also looking for other private rentals.
However she has not given up hope of being able to buy their current home and, to that end, has self-published a book, Against All Quads, about her quad pregnancy and birth — astonishingly she somehow found time to write this around caring for her babies — and hopes to raise money for the deposit through sales on Amazon, price £13.99.
While she may be approaching parenthood a little differently to most modern mothers, no one could deny Tracey is coping.
This week, on the quads’ birthday, Tracey and Stephen will take the babies to visit her mum’s grave in Preston, Lancashire, for the first time.
They will then spend the weekend in Blackpool, seeing the illuminations. They will have a birthday cake and sing happy birthday, but there’s no big party planned.
That’s one year down, with many, many more to go.
You can only wish her the best luck in the world.