Career, life goals, holiday plans… is there ever a right time to have a baby? Kerry Potter examines the biggest decision you’ll ever make. When a woman takes a pregnancy test in a film and sees a thin blue line, one of two things happen: she whoops with joy or her world falls apart. She either wants a baby or she doesn’t – it’s black and white. Real life, however, is more complicated.
I remember sitting in my bathroom looking at my very own thin blue line with mixed emotions. I was mainly thrilled – I was 32 and married, we owned a house, this was our plan – a plan discussed and dissected with a large number of my friends at that time (to the point where four of my five university friends got pregnant within six months of each other). But even so, I was also slightly scared. I couldn’t even keep my plants adequately fed and watered, how would I cope with a real live baby? And there was a third thing too – had I done everything I wanted to do with my life yet? Should I have got another promotion under my belt? Should I have tried harder to fulfill my ambition of working in New York? Should I have gone to Glastonbury one last time? Had I completed enough of Project Life to begin Project Baby? Difficult stuff to ponder on a normal day – let alone one when you’re so pumped with hormones, the breakfast news makes you cry and you’ve got such bad morning sickness you vomit when you brush your teeth.
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Like most women my age, since turning 30, I have had many, many conversations with female friends about when to start trying for a baby; all of us increasingly spooked by the ‘fertility time-bomb’ headlines, accusing professional young women like us of putting our careers before motherhood. A GP friend was busy saving up to cover future maternity leave. A party-girl friend who had just got married described how her clubbing crew begged her to do another summer in Ibiza before she had babies. Another was experiencing the choice between IVF or continuing to try and conceive naturally after two unsuccessful years of trying.
A survey of 3,000 women by Centrum last year showed that some women take up to five years to plan motherhood, with a third aiming for certain career goals, a quarter saving £5,000 and 58% aiming to own a property. Meanwhile, the bucket list – once restricted to things to do before you die – now pops up on parenting websites, in the guise of ‘things to do before you get pregnant’, on the premise that there won’t be a lot of bungee jumping going on once you’ve given birth. There is a sense that we need to get our (metaphorical and literal) houses in order – and live a little – before we take the plunge. The career sabbatical for the gap year you didn’t have at 18, finally running a marathon, writing that novel, going on holiday on your own, travelling to three continents – all things you want to tick off before you settle down to a life of designer pushchairs and Ofsted ratings.
So when is best to have a baby? And can we really plan and control this aspect of our lives? Statistics show that we’re leaving it later, sometimes to our cost. The average age of women giving birth now is a year older than it was a decade ago; 29.5 in 2010 compared with 28.5 in 2000, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The Department of Health research shows the abortion rate for women aged 30-34 increased by 10% between 2009 and 2011 too, indicating more women choosing to delay motherhood until their late 30s.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the biological reality is stark. “The aim should be to have a baby before 35, certainly by 37,” says Dr Magdy Asaad of London Fertility Centre. “It becomes much more difficult after 35. The number and quality of your eggs are reduced. It’s difficult for women because life expectancy is increasing – it’s now 80-85 years – so a 40-year-old still feels young. But it’s a different story with your ovaries. If circumstances allow, you should be considering babies in your late 20s or early 30s.” Ah, yes, “if circumstances allow” – and that’s the crux. When do any of us feel the timing is 100% right? There is no completely perfect time to become a mum
And, of course, it’s not always a simple weighing up of whether your job, relationship and experiences are where you’d like them, there’s also the very real possibility that pregnancy won’t come when you want it. On average, 84% of women will fall pregnant within the first year of trying and one in seven couples have fertility struggles, adding yet another dimension to the “when is the right time” question.
The best starting place is to work out which barriers are surmountable, practically and emotionally, in your current situation. First up for many women comes career. “Maternity packages differ but usually you need to be in your job for 18-24 months to reap the full benefits,” says Kirstie Burn from recruitment firm PSD Group. Burn believes the best time to have a baby is seven to eight years into your career. “You should be at a certain level of seniority so that when you come back you won’t have to start all over again. You’ll have a certain amount of experience and credibility, so you know how to juggle and delegate, and your firm trusts you to work flexibly.”
Then there is your relationship to consider. It sounds obvious, but you need to make sure your partner definitely wants a baby too – one US study showed 100% of couples who’d had a baby when the husband wasn’t initially keen had divorced within six years. “If you can’t talk about it and decide when a good time is, how on earth are you going to raise a child?” says psychology consultant Dr Sandra Wheatley. “It’s about coming to a joint decision that’ll make you both happy.” It helps if you’re married too – ONS statistics showed that 80% of married couples in 1991 were still together a decade on, compared to 60% of cohabiting couples.
Women can feel overwhelmed by everyone else’s opinion. Listen to your own voice and feel confident in it
The cost of having a baby is also on the rise – so can you afford to pay for childcare? If you’re working in London and need a full-time nanny, it could cost you £24,000 per year (which means you’d need to earn almost £30,000 gross to break even). According to Daycare Trust figures, a part-time nursery place (25 hours a week) in London costs on average £6,340 per year, but the most expensive ones go up to £15,000. It’s a bit cheaper in Manchester at £4,592 for 25 hours care but in Edinburgh it rises again to £5,178. Wherever you live, and whatever you earn, it will be a significant financial factor in your life. A house with your name on the title deeds and a spare room is also a prime concern for potential mums. But the average age of the UK first-time buyer was 29 years old in 2012, rising to 32 in London. Given the average age of a woman giving birth is 29.5, the figures don’t really add up. This may be a case of just having to change your mindset – in the current financial climate, renting a family home is perfectly normal – a new study from Shelter says by 2025, 27% of households will be renting UK-wide. But do the maths first – experts say you shouldn’t be spending more than 35% of the family income on rent to be on an even keel financially.
You might not think you have to worry about your friendships, but it can be lonely when you’re the first among your peers to have a baby. A CLIC Sargent survey showed that 40% of expectant mothers worried about being socially isolated after giving birth. So if at least two or three friends are already mums, you’ll have advice and support on tap. You’ll also make new friends – mothers in your NCT group or antenatal class – to help you through those first few years. All in order? Congratulations! You are ready to have a child. But not everything in life fits neatly on a spreadsheet. We are a generation used to being in full control of our destiny, but pregnancy and motherhood simply aren’t like that – they’re unpredictable, wonderful and frustrating in equal measure. “I don’t think there is a ‘right’ time,” says Nifa McLaughlin, editor of parenting website gurgle.com. “There will always be something else going on: an amazing career opportunity, your house isn’t big enough, you have that holiday planned. I don’t think you should be ruled too much by life itself, you should just go on your instincts.”
The right choice
It’s something Beth Follini from Ticktock Coaching sees a lot. She’s a life coach who helps women decide whether or not they want children. “If work is your passion and you don’t have a strong desire to have a child, do you have to give up your life’s work for motherhood? My job is to show people their choices – it might be difficult but they can make it work.” Follini asks clients to identify senior female role models in their industry and analyse how they manage career and children. She also cautions against caring too much about what everyone else says or does. Since becoming a mother I know I’ve been guilty of urging friends wavering on the issue of parenthood to go for it – I love it, so they will, right? But doing it before you are ready could cause resentment towards your new lifestyle, partner and baby. “I would never tell people to just do it,” says Follini. “Women can feel overwhelmed by everyone else’s opinion. Listen to your own voice and feel confident in it.”
I had no inkling as to how much becoming a mother would change my life. Four years ago, I had a glamorous senior job on a fashion magazine in London, I travelled extensively, I went to parties with the A-list, I wore Louboutins. Now I have two small children, I work freelance three days a week, and you’re more likely to find me on a bouncy castle in my Converse. My life in 2012 is not better or worse than my life in 2008, it’s just different. You find a way to make motherhood work for you; you get on with it. I didn’t ever get the corner office in New York, but I still visit on work trips. I’m toying with Glastonbury sans enfants next summer, just like the good old days (but I’ll have to go to bed earlier).
My advice? Ditch the pre-baby bucket list. Don’t do it unless you feel ready but don’t ever expect to feel completely ready. And if that thin blue line comes out of the blue? If you find out, unexpectedly, that you’re pregnant? Take a deep breath, take 100 deep breaths if you need to, and don’t panic. I promise that you’ll make it work, if you want to, like you always do. Your life will change, but you won’t.
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Image credit: Rex