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.
Professor Geeta Nargund had her first child at 29, when she was already a junior doctor. It is not clear whether, when she advises young women to try to have children before the age of 30, she is thinking only of women like her. Would she be equally supportive of a young, single woman in a low-paid, temporary job requesting donor sperm on the basis that she, too, did not want to leave it too late? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that neither the Daily Mail nor the Telegraph would be. Because when is really being asked of women isn’t just “have children younger.” It’s “live different lives, lives based around the fact that contemporary society – which privileges middle-class males with no caring responsibilities – isn’t going to adjust to make your life any fairer. You must marry young, settle with whoever you can, do whatever work you find, piece together childcare however you can, and accept the fact that no one will help. And when you fail – when you’ve played by all the rules and still find yourself struggling – you must accept all the blame.” That we could instead revolutionise society – viewing single motherhood and/or share community parenting as positive, nurturing choices, making universal free childcare as much of a reality now as it was during the Second World War, redistributing wealth so that reproductive choice is a meaningful phrase, not just an arbitrary buzzword – is seen as much too hard, despite the fact that surely, if the “hard facts” of female reproductive reality were that important, we’d create a world that took them into account rather than expecting individual women to bear all the weight.
I had my first child at 32, my second at 33. Even then there were people who thought I was being reckless – because my partner didn’t have a permanent job, because we worked at opposite ends of the country, because we were not viewed as sufficiently “settled.” I was ready for another child at 35 but knew that paying for a third child at nursery would be out of the question. So I waited until now. Every time I’ve decided to have a child part of my thinking has involved “fuck it, there’s never a good time, might as well do it now.” And I’m a middle-class women who’s been with the same partner for 15 years. The idea that women are self-indulgently hanging on for the “perfect” moment is just absurd. We know there isn’t one. We’d just, if at all possible, rather not be totally screwed (moreover, I am sure that there will be women who had their children before they were ready and regretted it, but there are obvious reasons why we don’t hear their stories).
Allowing women who want children to have children at the “right” time for their bodies would mean allowing women to have total control over their fertility, relationships and sexual decision-making. It would also involve a more formal recognition of care work and its broader social and economic benefits. In the meantime, telling women that their choices are bad ones is not the same as creating the conditions in which positive, free choices can be made.