Forget the scare-mongering headlines, doctors’ warnings and peer pressure, Stylist reader Carrie Burton explores why this decision is yours alone
How many times have you found yourself sitting with a group of friends when the talk has turned to motherhood? In among the chat about which of your attributes you’d like your baby to inherit, how many you’d like, how motherhood may affect your career or whether or not you can actually afford one, someone usually feels the need to insert the caveat, “If I can still have one, that is” or at the very least touches the nearest available bit of wood. Probe a little deeper, and what becomes clear is that many women today feel like we’re tempting fate by automatically assuming that we have a choice. We’ve consumed so many articles about how we’ve left it too late or put our career ambitions ahead of our desire to be a parent, and we’ve absorbed the insensitive remarks (“You do know your chances plummet after 30”) of well-meaning friends and relatives that it’s easy to be convinced that if we do manage to conceive, it will be nothing short of a medical miracle.
The Parent Trap
At my age – 30 – the pressure to have children is escalating on a weekly basis. I’ve been told by doctors that if I want children, I should “probably get started”. But the reality is I’ve yet to reach the point in my career or my life where I feel ready. I am in a relationship, and it’s definitely something I think about but I want to be earning more than I currently do before I go on maternity leave and I admit I still have a thousand things I want to achieve. Yet despite this, the idea that I won’t be able to have children when the time does come round scares me and I've suddenly found myself desperate to know whether I'll actually be able to have children at all.
I am not alone: a survey by the natural family planning company fertilityflower.com found that over two thirds of adults who admitted being “scared about infertility” were female, indicating that women are disproportionately concerned with their fertility. What’s more, only 8% of respondents had actually tried to conceive, so the whole panic seems premature.
That many women are feeling anxious over their future fertility, regardless of whether they’re ready for a child, is hardly surprising, given the moral panic and media hysteria surrounding our decision to defer pregnancy an average of just six years later than our grandmothers. Headlines are hurled at us every day: “Fertility plummets after women reach 30”, “Britain is facing an infertility time bomb” and “The female fertility clock starts ticking at 27” are choice samples from the past month.
And it’s not just about our age. We are also being told that our lifestyle is sabotaging our future chances of being a mum. Smoking the occasional cigarette, drinking a post-work glass of wine, and eating the odd doughnut (complete with trans fat) are all billed as decisions which don’t just affect us, but affect the British population. “If you are a woman of 35 and older, you’ve been subjected to a decade of news stories set to the ominous sound of a ticking clock and bent on creating fertility anxiety. And lately the anxiety peddlers have been expanding their danger zone to include women in their late 20s and early 30s,” says Elizabeth Gregory, author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing The New Later Motherhood. “But indications are that health and medical advances have improved our natural fertility rates. The rate of decline is nothing like what is suggested by a story with the headline ‘Women lose 90% of eggs by 30’.”
Ticking the baby box is your right and shouldn’t be influenced by anyone but you
In fact, take a closer look at the actual facts and it seems the headlines can be very misleading. Indeed it is estimated that of every 100 couples, 95 will conceive naturally within two years. As the National Institute for Clinical Excellence defines infertility as failing to get pregnant after two years of unprotected sex, it is not quite the drastic baby drought we’ve been warned about. Similarly, the most recent figures on fertility from the US reveal that only 11.8% of women of all ages (15-44) have problems conceiving. Pretty interesting when you consider how many stories tell us that our fertility falls dramatically after we’ve toasted our 29th birthday.
Indeed, figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal that the average age of women giving birth is now 30 and in 2010 nearly half (48%) of all babies were born to mothers aged 30 and over. Yes, more women give birth in their 20s than in their 30s, but there’s hardly a huge gulf between the two age bands: 336,545 births vs 318,298 births, respectively. What’s more, the number of women over 40 giving birth has almost doubled, accounting for 26,976 births last year. More good news: between 2009 and 2010 fertility rates in women of childbearing ages increased (except for those under 20).
Reassuring as the statistics are, the baby pressure doesn’t begin and end with medical scare stories about the tick-tock of the biological clock. We all have a well-intentioned friend or relative who has informed us how devastated we will be if we miss the baby boat. Sam Thomas, a 30-year-old PR from Glasgow, who got married last year says, “A friend of mine – a mum of two – insists on telling me, ‘Get a move on!’ every time she has a glass of wine. I roll my eyes, but later on I find myself wondering if she’s right, and if I’ll kick myself later.” But viewing children as a fail-safe route to happiness and satisfaction has actually been proven to be untrue. Researcher Nattavudh Powdthavee, of the University of York, says, “Using data from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found evidence that parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness. What these results are suggesting is that having children does not bring joy to our lives.” So while any parent will undoubtedly tell you that children bring a huge amount to your life – having children because you believe your life will be empty without one is possibly misguided.
There is also the internal pressure you inevitably feel when you realise that the rest of your social group are moving on. “I’ve noticed that since one of my friends had a baby three years ago, a few others have followed in quick succession,” says Sam. “It’s a domino effect, because nobody likes to be left behind.” Psychologists have found that even the most independent among us conform to social pressure when we are in a group of people. Dr Nicole Hess, anthropologist at Washington State University, believes this may also be an evolutionary imperative. “If everyone else is fertile, it means environmental circumstances are such that it is a good time to get pregnant – food is abundant, wars aren’t going on with the group next door – so we follow suit. It could also be that you want your children to be in the same cohort as those of your friends, as that makes it more comfortable. On a more negative note, it could be a form of competition – if a peer is having a baby and getting all the attention, then we want one too, to get that attention and praise,” she says.
We also have to contend with others’ broodiness – our own parents or in-laws announcing their desire for a grandchild – and even pressure from our partners. Ange Spode, 30, a copywriter from Belfast says, “My husband has dropped heavy hints that he’d like a baby. But, as a father, it’s not his career that would be put on hold, or his body going through huge changes, and it’s not him waving goodbye to me-time for a few years. However much you try to share the load, you can’t escape the truth that being a mother is different to being a father.”
Figures on fertility from the US reveal that only 11.8% of women have problems conceiving
Psychologist Ingrid Collins agrees that “a fundamental source of pressure comes from within the woman and her partner themselves,” and acknowledges that the panic about fertility rarely extends to the male partner.
There is also a more general, hard-to-pinpoint source of guilt, which stems from a nagging sense that just maybe we are being selfish by prioritising our careers over children and that it’s misguided to try to wait until you’re at a comfortable point in your career before you get pregnant. But there may be good reason to hold off until you hit a salary high, if that’s what you decide to do. This year, the Labour Force Survey released data that had been compiled from over the past decade, which revealed that for those with a degree, earnings increased with each year of age, levelling off at the age of 35, meaning, in theory, it could make sense to take advantage of that.
Recent statistics also show that women who have a baby at 24 rather than 28 stand to lose £400,000 if you look at projected earnings. And each year an estimated 440,000 women lose out on pay or promotions as a result of pregnancy, according to a 2009 report from the Fawcett Society. Indeed, the motherhood “pay penalty’ has been estimated to reduce average earnings by one fifth. So while no-one would suggest you put off motherhood simply because of a salary, you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty for focusing on your career first.
In the right place
For many the fear of starting a family stems from our own upbringings. “Psychologically speaking, women look to their mothers as their first role model on how to define themselves as female,” says Collins. “Their mothers have either physically given birth to them or fulfilled that role through adoption or fostering. Therefore, they are seen to be more fundamentally successful as women.”
The result of this is that the decision on if, and when, to have a child is fraught. Psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson of Therapy-on- Thames says, “We are more scared than the generation before us, as we now know so much more about infertility. We all know someone who has had a failed treatment and we hear scare stories of what the NHS may or may not cover.” But our fear over our future fertility means some women are having children before they are ready. Surely, it’s OK to want to be professionally fulfilled and with the right partner before we reproduce? And you know what? It isn’t necessarily selfish to put it off. Sarah Wright, 31, a nurse and mother of four-year-old twin boys from London says, “If I’m honest, I’m jealous of my friends who are going on ‘babymoons’ – extended honeymoons where they travel around the world. With twins, it will be years before I get to backpack again. Would we really have lost anything by waiting a year?”
Ticking the baby box last – after you have had a go at the rest of your bucket list – is your right and shouldn’t be one that’s influenced by anyone but you. Collins’ advice? “Remember that the woman is the one who is in charge of her own body.” Perhaps it is by freeing ourselves from guilt about things beyond our control that will enable us to make clear-headed decisions about the right time for us to become mothers, within it.
Are You Ready For A Baby Yet was written by Carrie Burton, English and drama teacher
Main picture credit: Rex Features