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.
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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.