Today I am hosting a party to celebrate the pregnancy of a friend I’ve known since I was four. (Yes, it’s a “baby shower” and, yes, that’s an Americanism we stole from television. As they say on The Kardashians, get over it). My friend is 30, which means, according to current medical thinking, she got pregnant just in the nick of time. She’s in the minority, however. Among this party of 13 women, all aged around 30, and all friends since school, only one of us already has a child.
I’m glad I didn’t invite Professor Dame Sally Davies to the baby shower, because she’d probably have ruined the mood. The Chief Medical Officer for England obviously thinks women like us are all morons. This week she expressed concern that “many more women” are “choosing not to have children”. She added: “The steady shift to have children later, there are issues with that. We all assume we can have children later, but actually we may not be able to.”
Imagine the woman who would make that assumption. What a blissful life of media-free ignorance she must lead, because most women are reminded of their dwindling fertility with alarming regularity. This time last year, there was fretting over the 49 per cent of women in England who are 30 or over when their baby arrives. In May, a Kate Garraway-fronted campaign was launched to encourage women to think about having children younger. A Newcastle University professor warned us in September to “have your babies before this clock strikes 12”, and in December a team of Swedish scientists revised previous advice that increased health risks begin when a women is aged 35. The pregnancy cut-off is now 30. The panic is so palpable I can feel it in my ovaries. Or at least I would, if only they weren’t shrivelled to useless husks already.
So, Professor Dame Sally Davies, I get it. Everyone at the baby shower gets it. My mum gets it, my boyfriend gets it – even Khloe from The Kardashians gets it. Here, for your information, are some people who don’t get it: landlords, employers and the Government who between them still haven’t sorted out affordable housing, affordable childcare, maternity leave or paternity leave – all things that “baby” needs just as much as “mummy” does.
It’s true that women still choose not to have children for all sorts of reasons. Contrary to the tone of some of these fertility scare stories, we are not a state‑funded incubation service, but individuals with aspirations that don’t necessarily revolve around family. Increasingly, however, delaying childbirth is not so much a “choice” as a rational response to an economic reality.
Rents are at an all-time high, and being in hock to an unscrupulous landlord is bad enough when you have no dependants. I imagine it’s ten times scarier with an infant in tow. Meanwhile, job security for this generation is but a distant memory. If more young women who want to be mothers are delaying childbirth, it’s not because we “forgot”.
National-level fertility trends are caused by national-level economic issues, and have national-level solutions. It’s ridiculous to ask individual women to solve it all with the power of their wondrous wombs, yet that’s the insult that every one of these reports repeats when they emphasise choice. It would be almost as ridiculous to blame individual men. Almost, but not quite. That approach at least has novelty value to recommend it.
Think about it: unless all the 40-year-old mums were knocked up by their 24-year-old toy boys (an intriguing, but unlikely, explanation), men are just as “guilty” of delay as women. Older men may assume they’ll do a Picasso and have a child in their sixties, but just because late fatherhood is biologically possible doesn’t make it desirable. Male fertility also decreases with age, and whatever sad spermatozoa are still swimming around those wrinkled testes are more likely to result in birth disorders. Moreover, not only will a younger father’s career escape unscathed, but he’ll likely earn a “fatherhood bonus” to boot. The clock is ticking for men who want to be fathers. So why oh why is no one warning them?