Is there ever a right time to have a baby?
If the media is to be believed, the answer is no. But do the casual assertions that fly around about women's reproductive choices have any basis in fact?
Whether you are having babies or not, somebody somewhere seems to have something to say about your timing and choices. I wonder how many of our objections to older or younger mothers, those who don’t time their children in the way we did or would have, are in fact just prejudice against what we assume this says about their class or wealth. After all, young mothers are associated with lower class, and older mothers with higher, and anything that doesn't fit in with our own pigeon-hole makes us feel uncomfortable.
I had kids at 25 and 30, neatly pre-empting any fear of the "ticking biological clock". Now as an engaged divorcee I’m considering it again at 35. Does that mean that I’ve hit the mythical right time with at least one child? I don't think any pregnancy has been similar, and none has yet been accompanied by a burst of primary-coloured confetti signalling the one true perfect piece of timing, and certainly none has come with universal approval. According to those-that-comment, apparently 25 was too early, 35 too late and 30 too mid-career. I can understand, if not condone, the excitement over the Royal baby, but given the miniscule likelihood that I will produce a future monarch, why do so many people care what I do with my uterus? Why is this the topic that never goes away (as demonstrated in this article, for instance)?
Medically, despite all the panic, it doesn’t seem to matter. Roger Marwood, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, thinks a mother’s date of birth matters very little “Really, age does not affect the pregnancy significantly compared to say, social class. Risk factors do start to increase after 35, but only very gently.”
Similarly Dr Emma Hayiou-Thomas, a language development specialist at the University of York, sees socio-economic status as the part that really matters. “Teenage motherhood carries with it a whole host of more proximal risk factors, from poor nutrition to less verbal input,” she says. “With older parents there is a greater risk of developmental disorders, but if you avoid these pitfalls, there is a small but reliable trend for better language and educational outcomes for the children of older mothers, perhaps because they have more resources to invest in their kids.”
Holly Baxter, of the feminist magazine Vagenda, believes there’s also an equality issue here. “The idea that women do or should have this paranoia about procreation leads to the endless articles discussing whether 'women can really have it all; suggestions that timing your baby-making should be a central concern to your life and career; and open social judgments about those who harvested the bun in their oven 'too early' or 'too late'.” She believes that our inability to separate motherhood from other issues - friendships, intellect, education, careers - leads to a sexist expectation that a woman will be defined by motherhood, but fatherhood only adds a facet to a man's life and identity.
Traditionally, we’ve never been a nation to ignore a good class indicator, and older or younger parenthood seems to be a popular one. Whether consciously or not our allegiances show through our objections to perceived difference. Post-natal most people I’ve spoken to felt their own timing was just right for them, despite ages ranging from 17 to 47, and yet messages of avoiding teen pregnancy and not leaving it too late still bombard us. If we all gave it a little thought, though, we could perhaps just agree that it doesn’t really matter how other people procreate. Yes, class is associated with access to resources, and affluence is going to help in your quest to give your mini-me the best start, but the effect is relatively minor.
Even the myth of older mothers being “too posh to push” turns out to be just a misinterpretation. Marwood assures me that if anything, age and high income reduces the chances of a caesarean section. Personally, I’ve had two caesareans despite starting young. I’m sure that in the future people will say “Can you believe that they used to cut them out?” but unless the teleport arrives really, really soon there’s going to be violence; or at least a lot of blood. However you have a baby it’s terrifying, and awesome, and someone is going to judge you for it. Even status anxiety can’t fully explain why it’s so common for people to express unprovoked concerns on this. Are we all experiencing some common herd instinct? Perhaps we’ve all just acclimated to being opinionated: every day celebrities and wannabes are held up to the spectacle for us to pass verdict on. And if we are talking about when or if we should have children, here is something we can all feel like experts on. The good news, of course, is that we’re all right. Quite simply if someone else lives their lives differently to us, they are not intentionally embodying a comment on our choices, or our status. Let’s not feel so obliged to return fire.