Instead of telling women to have children younger, we should make it easier for them to do so

Twenty years ago, if I’d pictured myself with children, I’d have seen them as school-aged, possibily teenage. I would not have expected to be pregnant at 40, but here I am. The past few days have seen a spate of fertility panic articles, prompted by gyeacologist Professor Geeta Nargund’s letter to Nicky Morgan, asking that asking that young people be “warned” of the risks of leaving it too late (that is, until you are in your 30s) before trying for a baby. While I wouldn’t argue that my own late pregnancy means that Nargund is highlighting a made-up problem – fertility is unpredictable, and it does drop off with age – the nature and focus of the panic alarms me. Is the problem really female ignorance, or the fact that women are being asked to conform to a series of impossible, contradictory ideals? And if it is the latter, how would additional pressure – as opposed to support – ever help?

It’s easy to say “have children young” but any woman who does so is likely to be going against a huge number of powerful cultural directives. Many young women are not yet in fixed relationships and may not wish to be, yet we live in a country in which the nuclear, two-parent family is still fetishised; even if politicians and religious leaders have become slightly more tolerant of same-sex and unmarried couples, single parenthood is rarely presented as a positive choice. The “hardworking family” –  one in which two parents are in paid employment, or one earns enough for another to stay at home to care for children full-time – is held up as an ideal, as though the practical obstacles in the way of such “hard work” (low pay, zero hours contracts, workfare, prohibitively expensive childcare) simply do not exist.

Government recognition of unpaid care work extends no further than proposals to offer tax breaks for married couples, marginally increasing the take-home pay of (usually) husbands who have stay-at-home wives rather than helping carers as a whole. Individualism and ambition are celebrated in the workplace while selflessness is expected in the home. Technological progress has meant that in practical terms, domestic labour ought to be less arduous, but increasing demands regarding what constitutes “good mothering” have taken the place of physical work. The only person who has the time and space be a “good mother” is someone with a wealthy partner and/or vast independent means, but even she will end up being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, wealth has become increasingly concentrated amongst the older generation, people who are long past childbearing age. Young people are being asked to behave like their parents and grandparents without the same access to property and stable work. Continue reading

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A feminist’s fear of forty

I can remember my mum turning 40. I was 11 at the time. She looked sad and told me “I feel so old” so I said “no, you’re not,” obviously thinking “yes, you are” plus “I’ll make sure I never get like that.” Deep down, some part of me felt that if my mother didn’t like being 40 so much, she shouldn’t have let it happen to her. As far as I was concerned, ageing was a failing on her part.

Now, of course, it has happened to me – today, in fact. I might be 29 years older, but I haven’t lost that sense that getting old is a woman’s own stupid fault. After all, we live in a culture in which women are constantly told that they can “turn back time” and find “eternal youth” with the latest creams and serums. Rationally, we know this is nonsense – that it means, at best, “be margially less obviously wrinkled than you would have been had you not used this product which you can’t even afford” – but still it feels as though it is literally our responsibility not to pass the age of 35 (and that should we do so, we deserve everything we get). We know what’s coming – we all get a shot at youth and plenty of time to think about how to hold on to it – therefore once the inevitable happens, we’re left feeling it wasn’t inevitable at all (obviously, I’m aware that reaching 40 is far better than not reaching 40, yet I can’t shake the feeling that it was down to me to find a middle way between getting older and dying young. Isn’t that what all women are meant to do?). Continue reading