This week’s cheery news for career‑minded females is that women who give birth for the first time between the ages of 30 and 34 are precisely as likely to see their baby die as those aged between 35 and 39. Previously, the worrying “older mum” category began at 35. Oh, those troublesome older mums! That pesky group who cause so much consternation to health workers, mothers-in-law, and anyone else with an opinion on the fizzling-out firework that is your womb.
“Older” is not younger. A study of almost a million first-time mothers in Sweden and Norway showed that the risk of a negative outcome increases over the age of 30. For today’s empowered, educated woman the small window of opportunity between leaving university, establishing a career, and safely pushing out a baby and – of course, silly – a sibling for the baby dwindles ever smaller. Blink and you’ll miss it. Incidentally, I know that many working women reading this might be telling themselves that pushing out one baby by 35 would be an achievement, but NO. There’s a whole heap of other helpful research which indicates that your child will become a rocking oddity unless he/she has a brother/sister to smear with jam in the play room. Body clock versus the progress of female empowerment is not just a double bind. It’s a triple, quadruple, tangled (wo)man trap.
Sweeping aside whether one has actually found a partner one loves and who wants babies with you – we’ve no time for this romantic frippery – it seems the optimum time to start on the mummy path is aged 27. Many twentysomething men, quite rightly, become agitated by similiarly aged women’s obsession with the marriage and baby agenda. Yet, as a woman, the grim reality of one’s ticking body clock versus “everything else in the world that needs doing” is akin to being slowly strangled. The grasping, the manipulating, the bargaining – the acts of dissemblance that some young women are prepared to go through in return for a wedding ring isn’t just down to a mere love of marzipan and dress fittings. It has a lot to do with the tiny space of time we are allotted to be mothers, which this week was hacked away by another five years.
We want women to be empowered, to be educated, to earn, to sit at boardroom tables, to debate in Parliament, but then we fetishise motherhood – the fine art of managing to have a baby in the small time-space available – as the grand prize. There is no greater love, we’re told. No higher level of understanding. Being a mother transcends – society says – all other womanly achievements. Little wonder women send themselves insane trying to produce a little miracle. How odd that IVF units groan with women who have tried everything but will try anything else again.
“As a parent,” parents will begin random anecdotes, before beginning a story involving empathy, tolerance or affairs of the heart. For example, “As a mother I am very upset about the traffic lights on the high street”, a mum might say. Everyone will nod, leaving the child-free woman feeling sad she didn’t have a baby. Because not only does she not understand that traffic lights being faulty are dangerous and a pain in the arse, but she has to spend another long, hollow, child-free afternoon drop-kicking guinea pigs into next door’s leaf-shredder. Or whatever women past 35 who don’t have children do with their time.
Believe me, I don’t have children, and my life is just one, long, turgid round of wearing white trouser-suits that never have smudges, clomping around in a Dalmatian‑skin coat chortling at lost toy-rabbits that have been propped up on walls, and booking long-haul flights to holidays within the Axis of Evil. And, obviously, fretting endlessly about who will care for me when I’m old, because, as we all know, having a baby is an insurance policy that one won’t die alone, but will instead experience a much more deluxe death without pain or regret, bathing in a sea of love.
Or perhaps all of the above ideas on female childlessness are rubbish, and instead with the empowerment of women will come thousands then millions of women who just don’t have babies at all. Feminism is about choice and this is one matter where we need to begin exploring our options.