There is no right time to have a baby

Let us challenge the ‘procreational ageism’ that labels teen mums as feckless Vicky Pollards and older mums as selfish career-obsessives.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month she challenges the procreational ageism that says it is bad to be a teen mum and also bad to be an ‘old mum’.

‘Conception rate for women aged 40 and over reaches record high’, announced the UK Office for National Statistics on 28 February (1). Cue much media and medical teeth-gnashing about everything from the greater risk of problem pregnancies faced by older mothers to the sage advice that babies are really quite exhausting when you’re getting on a bit. As if pregnancy is a walk in the park when you’re in your twenties, or babies somehow sleep better if their mothers are under 35! Really, whose business is it, the age at which women start their families?

A rhetorical question, perhaps, in a time when the political is personal and Promoting Responsible Parenthood has become a key policy goal. Thrust into the media spotlight by a handful of stories about women using fertility treatment to have children in their sixties (headlined, Guinness-Book-of-Records style, as the battle to be the World’s Oldest Mum, as if personal decision-making were just too mundane a point to make), the apparent growth industry in middle-aged motherhood is always guaranteed a few column inches.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the steadfast refusal of schoolgirls to stop procreating altogether has led to some disturbing policy initiatives, such as injecting the school curriculum with sermons on how pre-teens should conduct their sex and relationships and injecting teenage girls with contraceptives on the assumption that they won’t listen to the sermons anyway. If being an Older Mum is frowned upon, being a Young Mum gets you lifelong detention in the school of Making the Right Choices.

What’s behind all this procreational ageism? The news hook is usually statistical – Britain has more teenagers up the duff than the rest of Europe put together; women spawning in their forties are the fastest-growing demographic group since Polish immigration, and so on. But while the statistical changes in conception rates are interesting, they are hardly remarkable. The conception rate for women aged 40 and over has indeed reached a ‘record high’, increasing by over six per cent from 11.5 per 1,000 women aged 40-44 in 2005 to 12.2 in 2006. But the conception rate among all age groups has also increased, by nearly three per cent between 2005 and 2006 from 76.0 to 78.0 conceptions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. Meanwhile, on the teenage front, the under-18 conception rate has fallen, from 41.4 to 40.7 conceptions per 1,000 girls aged 15-17.

The older mums statistic gets shock value by being a relatively large increase on a very small base. It remains the case that the most common age for women to have children is 25-29, for whom the rate is 129.0 per 1,000 women. The average age at which women have children is 29. The age of motherhood is gradually creeping up – but there is a long way to go before the fortysomething mother is the norm.

In any case, would it be a problem if fortysomething mothers were the norm? The news reports of these latest statistics were generally accompanied by a quote from some doctor warning that older mothers face a greater risk of problem pregnancies and fetal abnormalities. That’s true. What is not pointed out (but can easily be inferred, both from lived experience and the rise in babies born to women over 40) is that most ‘late’ mothers, and their babies, are fine. Where problems do arise, the national screening programme for conditions such as Downs Syndrome, a disease which affects the babies of older mothers more than younger ones, gives couples the ability to detect some of these problems and either terminate the pregnancy or actively decide to continue with it. The ongoing improvements in medicine mean that birth is safer than it has ever been.

It is not the job of the medical profession to dictate when women should have their babies, but to make the process of having them as safe, painless and possible as it can be. One of the most positive developments of the past 30 years has been the availability of fertility treatment, giving women the chance to have children when previously there would have been none. Yet in the problematisation of the older mum, this gets negative publicity, too, as we read about women waiting ‘too long’ to have children because they know they can resort to IVF, when they really should have listened to their ‘biological clocks’ and got on with it while in their twenties.

The actual facts of life – that women may not have met their partners in their twenties, that they may have had many other things going on in their lives, that nobody ‘chooses’ the expense, indignity and no-guarantees of fertility treatment above free, effective and enjoyable sex unless they have to… all these things get brushed aside in the presentation of a stereotypical career-obsessed, technology-trusting Older Mum.

Ultimately, we know that the medical arguments against older motherhood are a smokescreen, because nobody uses them in relation to teenage mothers. If society were genuinely worried about women’s natural fertility falling off and older mothers lacking the requisite energy to have babies, surely it would laud those 16-year-olds starting their families at the peak of their fertility, which is also the age at which people can go clubbing all night without falling asleep in the corner. But no: what teenagers have in physical advantages, they lack in emotional maturity, so apparently that’s worse. No matter that a number of studies have found that teenage mothers, like older mothers, make perfectly fine parents: they don’t fit into the prescribed pattern of perfect parenting, so they are counselled, patronised and shunned.

There is no ‘right age’ to have a baby. Pregnancy is always a health risk, babies are always exhausting, and parenthood is infinitely rewarding. So why the fuss? The ongoing complaint about mothers who are either too old or too young is not based on the real experiences of mothers and babies, but on a cultural prejudice about what makes a responsible parent. A responsible parent, it is assumed, is one who waits until she has gone beyond the trappings of her teenage years (education, partying, casual sex), but who has not enjoyed these things for so long that they have distracted her from the real goal in life (to settle down with a family at the first echo of her biological clock).

This prejudice is based on the assumption that responsible parents are those who conform to the norm, planning their pregnancies according to the preferences of doctors and policymakers, and limiting their own life choices to fall in with what is presumed to be best for children they have not yet conceived. That’s no way to live – whatever age you are.

Jennie Bristow is the former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review, and a member of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum. Email Jennie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

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Topics Politics


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