Recently Janet Jackson announced that she is pregnant with her first child, just a couple of weeks before her 50th birthday. Now, a new study suggests that most British women think that 44 is "too old" to have a baby. Stylist contributer Moya Crockett wonders why we think it's any of our business when other women decide to have children.
Another week, another story about British women leaving it too late to have kids. But this time around, that classic dish comes with an exciting twist: just a pinch of woman-on-woman judgement.
According to a new study, most British women believe that women should not have a baby beyond their mid-forties. In the survey of 2,019 women, conducted by the Private Pregnancy UK Show, 21 per cent thought that 45 was “too old” to have a baby – with 44 being the average “cut-off point”.
The most-cited reason for why older women should not try for a baby was that it is “unfair” on a child to have older parents, followed by the increased likelihood of health complications for the child. Many of the women polled even said that they thought it was “unnatural” for women to have a baby post-44.
Despite the predictable manner in which it was reported by some tabloids (“The TRUTH is out: Experts confirm women should NOT be mums over the age of 44”), these results did not come from a panel of experts. It was just some women, saying what they thought. But an expert was roped in in the form of one Dr Amin Gorgy, a fertility consultant at London’s Fertility & Gynaecology Academy. He reminded us – in case we’d forgotten – that the “ideal age” for women to become pregnant is in their twenties and early thirties.
“In fact, I recommend that couples should aim to complete their families by the age of 35,” he said. “There isn’t enough education available to women, many of whom still believe they can go on forever.”
Oh, come on. Do they? Do they still?
It’s true that women in the UK are having children later. In 2014, for the first time, more children were born in England and Wales to mothers over the age of 35 than to women under 25. But the suggestion that women are simply blundering into their forties, blissfully oblivious to their dwindling fertility or the downsides of having a child as an older mother, seems laughable.
Don’t leave it “too late” to procreate: it’s one of the most insistent, inescapable messages our culture has to offer women. We know the facts, the cold, clinical phrases associated with older pregnancies. Declining ovarian reserve after the age of 35; chromosomal abnormalities; increased chances of miscarriage. We know this stuff, because we’re told it constantly. We can’t forget.
But what makes this survey particularly wearying is its invitation to women to cast aspersions on other women’s choices. Because that’s what this story is really about. That women are having children later – and that that can be a risky path – is hardly news. But women condemning other women for their choices? That, my friends, is a story.
When, or whether, to have a child is one of the most personal decisions a woman will make in her life – if it’s a decision at all. She might unexpectedly fall pregnant at 23; she might meet the person with whom she wants to start a family on her 40th birthday. With the exception of those closest to her (and not always, even then), it’s nothing to do with anyone else. So why do we feel like it is?
Like the women polled in this survey, we’re constantly invited to pass judgement on other women’s routes to motherhood, whatever they may be. Women who are past the so-called “cut-off point” of 44 are told they are being risky, selfish, “unnatural”, despite the fact that studies have shown that children raised by older parents tend to be healthier and more stable, and that older mothers are usually better-placed to financially support a family.
At the other end of the spectrum, teen mothers are dismissed as irresponsible – and in today’s precarious post-crash economy, a woman who decides to hop off the career ladder to have a baby in her early or mid-twenties can be seen as almost as reckless. “For most women who want a career, or just want to make enough money to be solidly middle class, skipping university and having children very young is not a smart strategy,” Jean Twenge, author of The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant, told Stylist.
Then, of course, there are the women who are vilified for not wanting children at all. When 29-year-old Holly Brockwell wrote an article last autumn explaining why she wanted to be sterilised, she received a torrent of online abuse from people telling her that she was sick, that she needed psychological help, that she was a “media whore”.
The "right time" for one woman to have a baby will not be the same for another. Of course it’s important that women are educated and informed about fertility - but it’s just as important that women follow a path, and work to a timeframe, that suits them. Ultimately, it's time that we realised that their decision is really none of our business.