More women are waiting to have children, which can only be a good thing

The average age of first-time mothers has increased, signalling a welcome shift in priorities

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The Independent Online

Some play golf, some spot trains and some, one imagines, extremely bored and quite odd people, watch wombs. Or, to be accurate, one womb in particular.

The Royal Womb which belongs to the Duchess of Cambridge and which might be lined in imperial purple silk and trimmed with ermine for all the attention that has suddenly, distastefully, been focused on it.

It’s not the first time this has happened, of course. The initial bout of royal womb-watching began shortly after Kate Middleton married Prince William. Naturally. The duchess does not have a job in the sense that most would understand the term, but she does have one important (or irrelevant, depending on your view) duty to carry out – to produce an heir to the throne.

She did that with efficiency, but it was not enough. To be in one’s early thirties and married is to endure endless inquiries as to one’s reproductive plans. Having one child only gives the queries greater scope. A baby brother? Perhaps another? When one is married to the future king, the quizzical nods to one’s tummy must be unrelenting.

Now as Prince George prepares to turn one next week, the binoculars have come out again, scanning the duchess’s cheeks and belly for signs of swelling, her hair for strands of grey and, probably, her two massive kitchens for odd combinations of gherkins and peanut butter.

This week, the two bookmakers Coral and Ladbrokes suspended betting on whether a second royal pregnancy will be announced this month thanks to what they describe as a “betting frenzy”. Who puts money on what the sperm and eggs of strangers might do? Moreover, a source who was friends with the duchess at school 20 years ago says that she is probably pregnant. So that must be that.

If and when the Duchess of Cambridge, who is 32, announces a second pregnancy, it will in one small but significant way be rather average. This week, the Office for National Statistics reported that the average age of first-time mothers in the UK is 30. To put that in perspective, in 1975 it was 26.4 and it has been going up steadily ever since.

In fact, the overall birth rate fell last year by 4.3 per cent, but the most significant decline was among young women under 20 and those aged 20 to 24. The smallest decreases were for women aged 35 to 39 and 40 and over.

There are two things to take from this. One, that the message about teenage pregnancy is getting through. And two, that Britain’s mothers are getting older. This should not come as a surprise.

As women have been emancipated by fair chances and contraception from the traditional, circumscribed path of daughter to wife and mother; as they have stayed on in education, developed their careers and financial independence and stayed single or unmarried for longer, having a baby has dropped down the list.

Other less edifying reasons for raising a family later in life might be the near impossibility of buying a family home, the crippling cost of childcare, unstable relationships and the damage having a child still does to a woman’s career and earnings.

Some may interpret the rise in age and fall in birth rate as a sign that women still cannot have it all. Better surely to take it as confirmation that there is no rush.

Jean Twenge’s recent definitive article for The Atlantic, “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?”, points out that the much-cited statistic – that one in three women aged 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying – is based on a 2004 article which in turns takes it data from French birth records dating from 1670 to 1830. Times and medical technology have changed; so too must attitudes.

That 30 might no longer be considered old to be a mother, that women have the option to take their time to live rounded lives, having children only when they are ready to care for them, financially and emotionally, is a good thing.

Even better will be the moment when society pays not the slightest heed to when someone chooses to have a child. Queen-in-waiting or not, a woman’s womb is her own.