Don’t lecture older mums for problems made by men

Kate Garraway: a successful older mum. PA/Cathal McNaughton

The Get Britain Fertile “campaign”, funded by a pregnancy testing company and fronted by television presenter Kate Garraway, aims to get women to think about having children when they’re younger. But later motherhood is a plus for many women, their families, and society.

Now Zoë Ball, who gave birth to her second child just before she turned 40, has also been reported as saying: “I know a lot of people of my generation who have struggled to get pregnant … whether it’s because we left it too late or we’ve not taken enough care of our bodies. But I wonder if the next generation will find a better balance and not leave it quite so long.”

But there are many advantages to waiting, as I found in my research: later mums have had time to establish in their jobs and feel secure in themselves. These educated women focus on their children’s development rather than their own. They have increased earning power, more clout, more skills to contribute to the national pool, and more self-confidence in their mothering. Their divorce rate is low and they live longer.

In the US, births to older mums have been up for years. There were 10 times as many first births to women aged 35 to 39 in 2011 than in 1975 and 14 times as many births to 40 to 44-year-olds, while births to younger mums have plummeted.

In the UK, the total fertility rate (the number of births the average woman would have in her life at the current rate) reached 1.98 in 2010 — up from 1.64 in 2000. Analysts attribute this rise to four factors: more young women having children, more older women who’d delayed also having kids, rising numbers of foreign-born women, who tend to have higher numbers of children than UK-born women, as well as “government policy and the economic climate”.

Clearly, fertility is not Britain’s biggest problem.

A positive choice for many

Most women know fertility declines over time, that after 35 it may take longer to conceive, that miscarriage rates rise, and that after 42 or 43 most efforts will fail without egg donors or egg freezing. There are no guarantees, however, so each woman has to figure her own odds.

Most women who delay having kids into their 30s and beyond do so to finish their education, establish themselves at work, find the right partner, and see something of the world before settling down.

Earnings rise substantially (12% in the US) for every year women delay their first child - so waiting means being better able to support kids. Many careers also require initial immersion. Women who forego their careers to rear kids on their husband’s salary risk more financial difficulty if divorce happens.

Studies indicate that about 90% of women aged 35 to 39 (who aren’t infertile for non-age-based reasons) will become pregnant within two years using natural family-planning methods. Historical data also indicates greater fertility than is generally featured in the press.

Still, delaying may mean smaller families than desired for some women, as was the case with Garraway, who, having given birth at 38 and 42, was unable to have a third child at 45.

The bigger picture

There are larger dynamics at play. Before birth control, children kept women busy, uneducated and out of decision-making circles for millennia. This has led to a society structured by men and largely for men.

But delaying has allowed women around the globe to begin to climb into policy-making roles in business and government. And for the first time, issues such as sexual assault and pay inequity are beginning to be acknowledged and addressed. Delaying motherhood is the motor of gender equity.

National economics and the size and demographics of the future workforce are also directly affected by fertility shifts.

In the US, race is often a covert concern in public discussion of later motherhood (reflecting a majority fear of less educationally privileged ethnic groups and immigrants having kids younger and more often). Since immigrants account for much of the rise in births in the UK, it may be an issue for some. Among the more overt reflections of this concern, was the British National Party which, following its failure to win a single council seat in recent UK local elections, called on white women to “do their bit” and have more children.

Why browbeat women?

There are conflicting agendas at work in the continuing preoccupation with women having more children. Information to help women with fertility problems is not necessarily a bad idea but in the case of the Get Britain Fertile campaign campaign, why such a negative, authoritarian approach? Asking women to reverse their pattern of delay without fixing the problems it was adopted to work around is both insulting and ineffective.

Along with the odd timing, the fertility campaign has had some very odd imagery: Kate Garraway a 46-year-old celebrity mum known to be beautiful, smeared with brown makeup on her face and belly, demonstrates that older mums are … dirty?

Instead of convincing us that older mums are miserable, Garraway just reminds us that older mums like her are often lovely and successful.

The whole effect is very different from the 2011 New York Magazine cover of a 63-year-old woman with a photo-shopped pregnancy, which it imitates. Putting together pregnancy and a markedly older woman (albeit one who looks very fit and well) did shock viewers us a little into thinking about age and fertility. But the image that features Garraway is a puzzle.

The way to address the complex intersections of fertility, economy, culture, workforce, romance, commitment and equity isn’t to browbeat women. Give us the full fertility facts and keep moving society towards gender equity. Then leave it to women and their partners to decide for themselves what makes most sense for them and their families.

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