I was 21 the first time I was told that if I wanted children, I should start thinking about having them now.
Granted, I’d just been diagnosed with a health condition that can make it harder to conceive. But since then, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve received warnings to contemplate my declining fertility from people – relatives, colleagues, countless journalists in glossy magazines – who have no idea about my medical history. The messaging is so pervasive, I find it hard to imagine any woman in this country can make it to her 30th birthday without realising her biological clock is ticking.
So I was surprised to read in the Times that students at one of Cambridge University’s women-only colleges are to receive “fertility seminars” where they will “be taught that if they want a family, they should plan to start one by their mid-thirties or risk ending up childless”.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with offering women this advice, beyond it being a waste of time and resources that could be spent on something more useful (a masterclass on pay negotiation, for example). But what I find fascinating is the framing. The birth rate in England and Wales, the article notes, has fallen to just 1.53 children per woman, while the average age of a first-time mother has risen to 30. (As a woman who turns 31 this month, this detail was about as comforting as you’d imagine.) Clearly women don’t understand how brief their childbearing years are. They must be educated, to avert the looming population crisis!
Leaving aside for a moment that many women know they do not want children and do not deserve to be interrogated and pressured about that decision, we need to stop and consider how bizarre this is. As teenagers, we have it drilled into us that getting pregnant is the worst thing that can possibly happen, a tragic mistake that will ruin your life. Then suddenly, almost overnight, the equation changes: your eggs are dying, your motherhood potential is about to fall off a cliff, and if you don’t start thinking about babies now you “risk childlessness” (as the Times headline put it), which will also ruin your life. I can still remember the emotional whiplash I felt in that doctor’s office nine years ago. After years of being instructed to “be responsible” or risk derailing my future, here I was being told the responsible thing was to put pregnancy at the top of my to-do list. The fact that I was a single and unemployed grad student was irrelevant.
And speaking of being single, where are the men in this discussion? While it is possible to have a baby without much male intervention beyond the initial deposit, most heterosexual women do not dream of single parenthood. While women are bombarded with reminders to get going on the whole baby-making enterprise as soon as they’re out of their teens, my general sense is that some men in their twenties don’t think too hard about the logistics of children unless something unexpected happens. While it is true that the male fertility window is much longer than the female one, if men are dating their contemporaries at university, the question of when is just at pertinent to them as it is to their female partners. Perhaps if we remembered that, and talked about male attitudes to fatherhood a bit more, we might get to the bottom of why couples wait so long to have children. In my experience of millennial adulthood, it’s not the women who are drifting around in their late twenties waiting for a life plan to fall from the sky.
And even if men are on-board, that’s only the start. I know I want children – I have spent nearly a decade trying to figure out when and how I can feasibly do that. And what I’ve learnt is that society – from career paths, to housing, to men’s views on childcare – feels purpose-built to put women off parenthood as long as possible.
Our generation has been barraged with the message that it is irresponsible (there’s that word again) to have children you can’t afford. Certainly that’s the response I get whenever I talk about how extortionate childcare in this country is (the third highest in the OECD). Today’s graduates face a marginal tax rate of 42.25 per cent on a salary below the median wage. A third of millennials will never be able to buy a home, and are getting hit with a tax rise in April to protect the inheritances of people far wealthier than them. The housing market is severely broken, with renters that live in London spending almost 40 per cent of their income on rent, and that’s before you consider the logistical implications of raising children in insecure rental accommodation.
Women are not stupid. We have noticed that society is stacked against parents – mothers in particular. We know that women face a parenthood penalty that stalls their careers and leaves them earning less than fathers for decades after the birth of their child. We’ve cottoned on to the fact that companies don’t like employing mothers – and yes I am acutely aware that I am limiting my own future prospects by admitting I’d like children one day. We’ve seen the data on unpaid care and know that the burden of child-rearing never quite seems to fall equally even in the most egalitarian of marriages. We watched during the pandemic as a government predominately made up of men completely overlooked childcare when making policies about schools and nurseries and remote working. We’ve all observed couples where the woman has had to give up her job or go part-time to juggle parenting responsibilities, only for her lack of earning potential to become self-perpetuating, with decisions made to prioritise her husband’s career now that he is the main breadwinner.
And we know if we dare to expect better, we’re told we should have thought about all this before having children.
Well, maybe women are thinking harder, and the result of all that thinking can be seen in the birth rate data. A few seminars on fertility won’t change the odds – not when what’s needed is a structural rethink of societal attitudes to parenting, adequate childcare provision, a functioning housing market, and an acknowledgement from men that they are half of the whole child-rearing endeavour.
Trust me on this: women don’t need to be reminded to think about having children. We just need the rest of society to start thinking about us.
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm