Motherhood comes first

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EVERY NOW and again the demographic pattern undergoes a seismic shift and births and deaths start to behave oddly. Usually the reason is that one of the Four Horsemen has recently cantered by, and war or plague or famine or - as in 1919 - an epidemic of Spanish 'flu has cut a swathe through the population. But in the early Seventies a small earthquake occurred which could not be blamed on any of these. Its cause was the Pill and its effect was that women - or at least women who had decided to pursue a career - chose to have their babies later.

When I came down from university at the beginning of the Sixties, two-thirds of the women who graduated with me were engaged, and within the next few months most of them married. (The reason for this was not, I suspect, a contagious outbreak of True Love but, rather, the fear that there weren't any eligible men in the cold, hard world outside, so they'd better make hay while the ratio of men to women was 9:1 - as it was in those days.)

All of us produced our first children with alacrity and by the time we were in our mid-twenties, our children were already past the toddler years and on their way to school.

Sheila Kitzinger's message of sharing birth and young parenthood was only just filtering down, Dr Spock still ruled in the nursery and Betty Friedan's first impassioned denunciation of housewifery had not yet crossed the Atlantic. The burden of parenthood fell overwhelmingly upon mothers, but at least our young husbands could change a nappy and slide a teaspoon into a smeary rosebud mouth - something our own fathers had regarded dismissively as 'women's work'. Nursery schools were as elusive then as now; nannies as expensive. Most young mothers stayed at home until their children started school.

Then - ah then - newly liberated from the shackles of having toddlers, we embarked belatedly upon careers. We were by now several years behind the men alongside whom we had studied, but not so far that catching up was impossible.

Then came the women's movement, and the advent of the Pill, which gave women for the first time almost fool-proof control over their own fertility. What followed was an extraordinary change in women's ambitions. From wanting to marry and procreate early, they came to believe that they could arrange life better by starting their families late.

Almost as one, women who had just completed their education and training gave priority to their careers, reasoning that they could get on with nesting in their mid- to late-thirties, by which time they would be well established, highly paid and could afford nannies and the whole costly paraphernalia of child-rearing.

Reality hit hard. Women a decade younger than me breezed blithe and often bra-less into their working lives, ardent with equality, and ignored the biological promptings to have their babies early, while their energy and their bodies were best able to cope.

Marriage in the early thirties was their unspoken plan; first baby in mid-thirties, another one or two by the time they were 40, and thus, barely missing a beat, the career would glide smoothly upwards. That way they could have it all.

The theory was excellent. The practice turned out, in many cases, to be flawed.

There are always exceptions to any generalisation, and plenty of women did manage to synchronise the calendars of their career, their heart and their womb. But there are very many others who, come their mid-thirties, found that for one reason or another marriage was not on the cards. They had grown more discriminating about men, while men had turned to a whole new generation of women, fresher and more malleable, and picked a wife 10 or 15 years younger than themselves.

Many of these career women, rather than fall victim to the biological clock (that ominous phrase first entered the language somewhere around 1975) opted for single parenthood, in some cases choosing as fathers men whom their children would never meet.

Now, after 20 years of the brave new experiment, there are signs that the pendulum is swinging back. My daughter had three children by the time she was 25. My sort of step-daughter-in-law (yes, I know: their parents' complicated lives have played a part as well) has put her degree on ice for a year while she has a baby, at 21. Her husband is 20. Is the earth trembling again and young parenthood back in fashion?