Tick Tock

28th March 2014

As families up and down the country prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Claire Moulds explores the emotional turmoil in which women of a certain generation find themselves as their fertility ticks away to the rhythm of someone else’s biological clock …

From the moment I stepped out of the church as a 29-year-old bride until now, seven years later, all anyone has ever really wanted to talk to me about – regardless of anything else going on in my life – is when am I going to have a baby and why haven’t I had one already.

Whatever progress women think we’ve made, we still live in a culture of assumed motherhood, where from birth little girls are expected to go on to have children of their own, and the resulting weight of expectation can be suffocating. I feel under siege from a constant barrage of questions – am I pregnant? Are we trying? Have we tried?

When did such an intensely private, intimate and personal choice become an acceptable topic for public debate? I’m nowthe recipient of exhortations on the wonders of procreation or doom-laden lectures on infertility, often from people I barely know, all of whom clearly feel they have an absolute right to some sort of input into the matter.

The situation is made worse by the fact that I’m not sure I actually want children and the relentless pressure from all sides just makes it even harder to clarify my own feelings.

Maybe I’m right to be wary. The world paints a rosy picture of parenthood with a contented mother holding a smiling, gurgling baby on her lap – see! how cute! – and facing life with equanimity. Having offered a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on to many of my friends, though, I know that’s only a very small part of their new life.

From the hours of endless, inconsolable screaming to frustration at how hard it suddenly is to get the simplest things done – have a shower, eat a meal, get out of the house – to the monotony of the ‘eat, sleep, change nappy’ routine, the change is monumental. And that’s before we get to the overwhelming grief that some new parents feel at the loss of their old life, the insecurities brought on by a post-pregnancy body and the huge divide in a relationship that the roles of ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ create as she, generally, is left holding the baby while he heads off back to work after a couple of weeks of basic paternity leave.

Perhaps that’s why a recent study by the Open University revealed that couples without children have happier marriages and that they are more satisfied with their relationship and feel more valued by their partner. In particular, saying thank you and giving compliments emerged as the most important ways for both partners to show their appreciation for one another – and friends who are mothers complain they hear all too little of either.

It’s not just the physical and emotional impact of having a child that needs to be taken into account – and account is the word. Research unveiled at the start of this year by Liverpool Victoria showed that it now costs £227,266 to bring up a child to the age of 21 – a £5,000 increase year on year. No wonder that one in ten parents have now chosen to have a smaller family and one in five are delaying having another child because they can’t afford it.

Plus, there’s more than the ‘cost’ of the child itself to be considered. A family needs to fund a home (be it owned or rented), pay the bills, save for retirement and put a little something aside for a rainy day. Consequently, one in four mothers say they have returned to work earlier than they wanted to while one in five are working more hours than they intended. Meanwhile, the rising cost of childcare means that mums calculate that they now need to earn on average over £26,000 a year to make it worth returning to work.

While those who are desperate to see us with a child or children say ‘just do it, you’ll manage’, only a fool would sign up to such significant financial commitment without doing the sums first, especially as I’m a freelance writer without the security of a maternity package or a guaranteed job on my return.

In fact, it always amazes me how you have to prove you can afford to service a hefty mortgage and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s before being given a twenty year loan, but nobody ever asks you to prove you are able to provide for a child for the same time period before that little blue line appears in the pregnancy test window.

In one sense I’m lucky, though, in that I am in a long-term relationship. Many of my friends remain steadfastly single at 35 and 36 and are still on the quest for Mr Right. While most do at least have a foot on the property ladder – and the requisite good job to fund a single salary mortgage – the absence of a significant other means they can’t even begin to do the baby maths.

That’s one of the many reasons why the recent comments by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, on the ‘worrying’ trend for women to have their babies later in life, were so unhelpful. Twenty per cent of women now reach the age of 45 without having children, according to the Office for National Statistics, and Dame Sally highlighted that trying to start a family in one’s late 30s or early 40s could both reduce the likelihood of conception and increase medical risks. “We all assume we can have children later but actually we may not be able to,” she observed at an event organised by the Wellbeing of Women charity earlier this year.

Contrary to what people seem to think, though, women aren’t deliberately trying to extend their fertility window through an unhealthy reliance on IVF nor do we all assume we can have children at a time of our choosing. The fact of the matter is that if you haven’t found a special someone or don’t have a permanent job or are desperately saving to buy a home and have no spare income, you’re simply not in an ideal position to have a child, no matter how many candles will be on your next birthday cake.

I know from the experience of my own social circle that fertility is a vastly unknown quantity. I have friends in their late thirties who conceived easily – twice – within a few months of starting to try; equally, I have friends in their twenties who are relying on IVF to deliver them the baby that they long for. It’s the exact opposite of what experts tell us to expect, and just goes to prove that every body is different.

Interestingly, a new book offers a fresh perspective on having children as an older mother and casts doubt on 35 being the fertility cliff that it has been portrayed as for so long. The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant by Professor Jean M Twenge not only offers helpful advice on how to maximise the chances of natural conception – inspired by her own experience – but also showcases some of the most common fertility myths in a new light.

For example, one ‘fact’ that comes up time and again is that one third of women over the age of 35 won’t have become pregnant after a year of trying. However, on closer inspection, Professor Twenge found that the data used to produce this figure comes from French birth records dating from 1670 to 1830.

Based on evidence that is at best nearly two hundred years out of date, statistics like this strike fear into women across the globe and are being used to inform major relationship and career decisions.

There’s no denying that fertility does decline with age but, as Professor Twenge goes on to point out, more recent studies based on modern women paint a far more optimistic picture, with only a slight difference in pregnancy rates between women in their 20s and women in their 30s.

So what does it all mean?

People say that there’s never an ‘ideal’ time to have a baby, but that’s simply not true. As responsible adults we all know that there are certain elements of the puzzle that need to be in place first and that by having established those we can offer a child a more secure start in life. If that means we’re a little further down life’s road before that happens, so be it. Certainly it’s a far more mature approach than having a child at the ‘right time’ in terms of our fertility when the rest of our life may be in complete disarray.

And, even when you do have all the puzzle pieces in place, you still might not feel ready to become a mother. It’s at that point that it’s even more important to shut out all the external ‘advice’ because the one thing I do know for certain is that nobody is going to be happy in the family you go on to create if you’re not confident in your decision from the very start – at whatever age you might make it.

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