The Tyranny of the Ticking Clock

20th October 2017

Women are delaying the decision to have children increasingly longer due to a myriad of economic, professional and emotional reasons. Jennifer Lipman reflects on this and asks if there is ever a ‘right time’ to have a baby?

I turned 30 recently. Soon afterwards, a relative enquired cheerfully: ‘So, have you just decided not to have children?”

Married for several years, established in my career and healthy, the baby questions aren’t new, but the pace has ramped up since I entered my fourth decade. Once, this might have been understandable. But the average age of first-time mothers has been creeping up for decades: 28.6 years in 2015, with more than half of births to women over 30. I’m hardly an anomaly. 

The tabloids are full of stories about biological clocks ticking: bemoaning a generation who selfishly delay reproduction. “You get judged if you’re considered too young, you get judged if you’re considered too old,” agrees Rosalind Edwards, Professor of Sociology at Southampton University.  “Mothers are one of the most judged groups.” 

But, stepping away from the media hubbub, is there a right time to have a baby? From a biological perspective, the consensus is: yes. This is largely a concern for women, although as Fertility UK director Jane Knight points out, men are also affected by reproductive ageing – but, as she explains, a woman aged 19-26 has twice the chance of pregnancy compared with a woman aged 35-39 years. Generally, she says, it takes longer for older women to conceive; when they do they are more prone to miscarriages and pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, and caesarean deliveries are also more common.

Equally, says Susan Seenan, chief executive of Fertility Network UK, interventions such as IVF become less effective. “We’ve done an awful lot in reproductive science but the one thing we can’t change is the basic biological fact that the older you get it’s harder.” And while fertility problems can occur at any age, younger women simply have more time to address them and still have a family of the size they want. 

But, as Clare Murphy, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s director of external affairs, observes, “those risks need to be kept in perspective”. Given that last year abortions for women over 35 hit a record high of 29,471, it’s clear that natural conception is more than possible in one’s thirties and forties.

“It simply isn’t the case that your fertility falls off a cliff when you hit 35,” stresses Murphy, arguing that the evidence puts chances of conceiving within a year when you are in your late 30s at not far off what they were in your late 20s.
Others emphasise that younger women are more physically equipped to have children. “As someone with a one-year-old, I do wonder if I might have had more energy for the night-feeds ten years ago,” says Charlotte Faircloth of the University of Kent’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. Crucially, though, she wasn’t ready then. “It would have put a lot of pressure on my relationship and career prospects.”

When it comes to an emotional right time, everyone is different. “We all know some mature and capable teenagers and some immature and inadequate 30-somethings,” points out Edwards. But for most, the decision is contingent on personality, relationships and career. 

Certainly, gone are the days when we left school, married quickly and had a honeymoon baby. Modern women settle down later – marrying on average at 34 – and are better educated and more likely to be pursuing careers than their mothers, perhaps even being the breadwinner. Many want to travel or nurture personal passions, or have children alongside their peers.

Career, certainly, is a key factor for me. Research has found that a woman’s lifetime earning potential is significantly boosted by delaying the having of children. It’s not only about maternity leave; it’s the impact of working part-time on promotion chances, or the prospect of balancing a demanding job with childcare. While men increasingly share the load, not least thanks to shared parental leave, women’s careers are more commonly affected.

Jessica, whose first child was born last October, shortly after she turned 30, had moved jobs a year before she started trying. “I wouldn’t have wanted to get pregnant earlier as I wanted to be well established in the role/company and recognised as a good worker and not just a woman who went off and got pregnant,” she says. “That’s not fair but it is something we have to think about as women.”

“Society doesn’t make it easy,” agrees Seenan, pointing to the cost of childcare and the lack of business positivity towards career breaks. “It’s difficult for women to take a step out without feeling – rightly – that if could damage their career, and when you do have babies, it’s expensive to have childcare.”

Crucially, it’s not about having it all, but often about being sure you can make ends meet. Parenting is an expensive business – the Centre of Economic and Business Research estimates that it costs £229,251 to raise a child. Yet millennials started their careers during an economic crisis; even now wages are lower in real terms and many are priced out of the property market. For many couples, delaying having a baby is about waiting until they can rent more than a one bedroom flat.

Even if career and finances are sorted, and your friends are having kids and your body’s telling you it’s time, it takes two to tango. “It is also about finding the right person to embark on that journey with,” emphasises Murphy. If you’re in a relationship, both partners have to be on board. “Probably the most important consideration is to ensure that both are at the same stage of wanting to have a family,” says parenting expert Dr Claire Halsey. “It’s vital to talk about the sort of parents you want to be.”

Still, we can overthink it. For example, we can worry about money too much; people have been having babies without financial stability for centuries. “It can become distorted, in that some couples worry about not being able to afford all of the latest kit, when actually babies don’t really seem too bothered,” observes Faircloth. “There’s an idea you really need to be able to be ‘ready’ and to commit yourself to parenting 100%, and subsequently that ‘you-time’ gets eaten up.”
In any case, says Halsey, it’s a decision more about heart than mind; other factors are not the be-all and end-all. “Waiting until each area of life lines up perfectly may mean a very long wait.”

For Jessica, it was like someone flipped a switch. “My biological clock went off with a bang! I’m not someone who goes gooey-eyed over other people’s babies but I’d see mums and kids and think, I want that. I’d daydream about being a mum.” But, as she acknowledges, everyone feels differently.

And that’s the crux of the issue; we need to stop worrying about a right time. “These constant messages about ticking biological clocks are just another way to chastise women for trying to lead their lives as they see fit”, emphasises Murphy, pointing out that they cause needless anxiety among younger women who are not yet able to start their families. “Rather than berating women for waiting, we should appreciate why they wait – and, where possible, do what we can to make it easier for women to start their families earlier, if they wish to.”

Yes, we should be wise to the risks of delaying; as Seenan says, we need better fertility education. But ultimately it’s about balance – and a bit of sensitivity to the very real considerations involved wouldn’t go amiss. People need to stop asking women about their reproductive plans. “It not only puts a lot of pressure on people who aren’t trying, but also on people who are and are not successful,” sighs Seenan. “It’s upsetting to constantly be told to get a move on. It’s a private issue.” Hear, hear!

Find Your Local