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.

A pregnant woman holds her stomach. Photo: Getty
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.