‘Sometimes I wish Mum was younger so I could have her for longer’: Sue Tollefsen was one of Britain’s oldest mothers when she gave birth at 57. Now she has turned 70 just as her daughter Freya enters her teenage years
Freya Tollefsen has become accustomed to parrying intrusive questions from strangers about her mother’s age.
‘Sometimes it’s a bit awkward,’ she concedes, ‘because people ask you over and over again “Is this your grandmother?”
‘Once, Mum and I were on holiday in Turkey and a lady said: “It’s very nice of your granny to bring you with her,” and I said: “She’s not my gran. She’s my mum!”’ Freya remembers her indignation.
‘And when people ask me what I think about having an elderly mum, I say: “Well, she’s the only one I’ve ever known.”’ She smiles shyly.
Freya is 13 and her mum, Sue Tollefsen, is 70. In 2008, she became Britain’s oldest first-time mother when she gave birth to her only child at the age of 57.
As such, she is well-equipped to observe supermodel Naomi Campbell who last week shared the news that, just before turning 51, she had become a first-time mum.
Announcing on social media that she felt ‘blessed and grateful’, the model posted a winsome photo of her hands cradling her (unnamed) baby’s feet.
Little is known about the circumstances of the birth of Naomi’s baby but one obvious possibility is that she employed a surrogate.
Sue is nothing but positive about this idea. ‘And why not if you have the money?’ she says. ‘I presume she’d had her eggs frozen and that’s quite sensible. Science has decreed that you can have a child when you want and she’s taken advantage of that.
‘She’s very affluent. She can hire nannies. She can take all the good bits and delegate all the tiring and stressful parts of being a mum. And I don’t think 50 is so old today.
Freya Tollefsen, 70, with her 13-year-old daughter Freya who says she is well used to parrying intrusive questions from strangers
‘That said, having an IVF baby isn’t like buying a designer handbag. There’s a lot to think about. You have to consider health issues and whether you’re likely to have the energy to look after a toddler — and be around for 20 years to see your child grow up. But Naomi will never be vulnerable, never without a support network. She’s in a different position from most of us who strive to bring up a child alone.’
There is a special poignancy in Sue’s comments because little in her life has panned out as she had planned.
When she became pregnant on her third IVF attempt, she was living with her long-term partner Nick Mayer, 11 years her junior, at her neat semi in suburban Essex.
A special needs teacher, having worked hard for 40 years, she had salted away savings to ensure a comfortable lifestyle and secure Freya’s future. She felt fit, vigorous; almost invincible.
But four years later, she and Nick split up. It was amicable, she says, but nevertheless it left Sue, approaching pensionable age, bringing up their longed-for child alone.
Since then, the catalogue of misfortunes that has befallen her has been nothing short of catastrophic. Today, she subsists on pensions of £1,800 a month and lives in a rented house, having lost her own home and all her money.
How an intelligent, resourceful, articulate woman reached such a desperate situation makes for a heart-breaking story.
First Sue, who reproaches herself for being ‘naïve, gullible and trusting’, handed over a staggering £165,000, between 2012 and 2016, to an internet conman she met on a dating website.
Believing she was paying the money to a personable widower called Glenn, she was actually handing it to swindlers who had stolen his identity.
She sold a property, a flat in Sweden, cashed in all her savings, sold treasured family heirlooms and even borrowed £32,000 from friends: all to feed the insatiable financial demands of a bogus businessman she never actually met.
Naomi Campbell last week shared the news that, just before turning 51, she had become a first-time mum
And she did so because she firmly believed the stranger had become her friend, and was convinced by his promises that he would repay her generosity with a greater prize: a half share in a £1 million land deal that would secure her adored daughter’s future long after Sue had died.
I have met Sue four times now — our acquaintance stretches back almost ten years — and I believe her to be kind, honest and utterly without guile. A Christian, she sees the best in everyone: a trait that leaves her vulnerable to the greedy and unprincipled. Add this to her gullibility and you have an explosive mix.
Sue told me why she fell for the palpably false promises of conman ‘Glenn’.
‘He kept telling me what a good person I was, how whenever he needed help, I’d been there,’ she says. ‘That’s why I believed him when he said he’d sold a parcel of land and wanted to share the proceeds with me in recompense for my kindness.
‘I was convinced I’d have £500,000 and Freya would never have to worry about money, and that was very reassuring for a single mum of my age.’
But, of course, this promised largesse never materialised. Sue was bled dry; fleeced so comprehensively, in fact, that she was forced to return, aged 66, to full-time teaching just to make ends meet.
You might imagine she would have learnt from this disastrous error of judgment. She did not.
She tried to redeem her parlous financial situation by digging herself into deeper trouble. When I next met her in 2016, she was virtually destitute having entrusted £50,000 to a binary trading company.
She had raised the money by releasing equity on her £290,000 two-bedroom home near Romford, Essex, having spotted an advert promising her such a healthy return on her money each month she believed she would be able to look after Freya and never work again. In the event, because the trader was also a scammer, she forfeited virtually everything.
‘I blame myself for being so naive. I’ve lost £50,000 and now we might even lose our home,’ she told me five years ago.
And tragically, when I meet her this week, this had proved to be the case. Sue’s life had taken another shattering downturn.
Outwardly resilient and cheerful, she tried to find a way out of the debt she’d become mired in.
Having sold her home, in March 2018 she and Freya decamped to Derby — where property rental prices are cheaper — and, resigned to full-time teaching again, decided to supplement her income by fostering.
So she completed a fostering course, rented a five-bedroom house and furnished it with a view to welcoming her first intake of children.
But all did not go to plan. Stranded in a town far from her support network of friends, Sue became isolated and depressed.
‘I was very lonely,’ she confesses. ‘When you’re an elderly single woman with a child, you tend not to be invited out. And when Freya went away for a few days to see her dad, I felt as if the walls were closing in.’
She saw a psychiatrist and was diagnosed as bi-polar and put on medication. Vulnerable and depressed, in September 2019 she abandoned her fostering project and moved back to more familiar Essex, where she lives now with Freya and their two adored dogs.
Sue, who worked full-time until she turned 70, has now retired. Freya, recently diagnosed as dyslexic, was miserable at school and Sue wanted to teach her at home.
They both meet me at the station when I visit, Freya courteously opening the car door for me. Dressed in jeans and a jersey, she is sweet-faced and impeccably well-mannered.
‘If I’d ordered a daughter made-to-measure it would be Freya,’ says Sue. ‘She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.’
The affection is mutual. ‘Sometimes I wish Mum was younger,’ says Freya, her blue eyes swimming with tears, ‘just because I’d have her for longer.’
Sue stretches out a hand to clutch her daughter’s, then she’s briskly deflecting the sadness, joking about the misapprehensions that often crop up in their lives.
In 2008 Sue Tollefsen became Britain’s oldest first-time mother when she gave birth to her only child at the age of 57.
‘I usually sense it when people are wondering if I’m Freya’s granny and sometimes I just put them out of their misery and say: “Actually, I’m her mum.” Then I laugh and say, “Better late than never!”’
Indeed, Freya was born after Sue and Nick had given up hope that she’d become pregnant and after Sue had spent her childbearing years looking after her terminally ill father and then her ailing widowed mum.
‘I didn’t know I’d be looking after my mum for 17 years and I didn’t think I could juggle a child, a sick parent and a full-time job. I don’t resent it. I’d never have said: “Let’s stick them in a home”. Old people fare better with family,’ she says.
But she doesn’t expect Freya to make similar sacrifices. ‘I wouldn’t wish it on her. I didn’t have a child to be my carer,’ she says.
‘But I wouldn’t mind looking after you, Mum,’ says Freya.
‘Don’t worry. I intend to be the oldest swinger in town!’ chuckles Sue, who looks youthful in jaunty spotted socks, casual trousers and a top embroidered with little pearls. Her hair is thick and curly; her eyes, blue as cornflowers and she wears a tiny diamond in a nose piercing.
She’s intent on being a modern mum — with frank talks about periods and sex — and she keeps up with teenage musical trends.
‘I like Little Mix,’ says Freya. ‘And Dua Lipa.’
‘And you like Sam Smith,’ prompts Sue. ‘She loves my music, too: Motown, The Beatles,’ she adds and Freya nods her agreement.
Smiley though she is, Freya admits that the pandemic, house moves and home schooling have meant a falling off of friendships.
‘Sometimes I’m a bit lonely,’ she says. ‘And I used to wish for a brother or sister.’
Sue confesses that she briefly toyed with the idea of trying for a second child but decided against it: ‘Even though I ran in the parents’ race when Freya was at nursery school and I didn’t come last!’
She has a habit of deflecting sadness with humour, but in unguarded moments she admits to worrying about what will happen to Freya if she is ill or incapacitated. She’s had two knee replacements.
And twice in recent years she has fallen; once when she was in Derbyshire, away from the support of friends. ‘I fell on my back in the ice and snow and I started to panic. I was worrying about Freya, walking home from school across two busy main roads on her own. You realise how important it is to have friends around you can call.
‘And again, a couple of months ago, I missed my footing and fell downstairs. I was just starting to recover when I went to Chelmsford and fell flat on my face. My first thought is always: “What will happen to Freya if I’m not here to look after her?”
‘But she’s such a help. She finished the ironing for me; she helps with the cooking…’
Freya sees her dad — Nick, 59, a delivery driver — intermittently, but it is clearly Sue to whom she cleaves.
I ask her if her mum’s age has ever been an embarrassment and she replies: ‘No, but I was upset when a girl at school said: “I bet she’s your grandma pretending to be your mum.”
‘And once a teacher put up a big picture of me and Mum on a whiteboard and said my mum was the oldest in Britain. That did make me a tiny bit embarrassed,’ she concedes.
Sue bridles at this. ‘The teacher broached my age without my permission. That definitely shouldn’t have happened. I was cross about that.’ But she does not harbour resentment. Patience and kindness are central to her ethos and she strives to imbue Freya with these qualities.
‘She never asks for the latest trainers. One Christmas I bought her three bales of hay and a sack of carrots to give to a donkey sanctuary.’
Freya attends Norwegian Church with Sue, helps with coffee mornings and cooking for the homeless. Like her mum, she speaks Norwegian. Her ambition is to go to performing arts school and become an actor — Sue supports her aspirations, wanting only that she is ‘fulfilled and happy’.
‘One day,’ adds Freya, ‘I hope to have kids: maybe when I’m 29 or 30. I won’t wait as long as Mum.’
Sue smiles. It is her most fervent wish that she’ll be around to see the day. ‘I hope I’ll be there for her wedding and, yes, perhaps I might even live to be called grandma.’
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