Even if you know you want children and have found the right person to have them with, the decision of when to have them can feel extremely complex.
Between the financial implications of raising a family, the very real impact having a baby can have on women’s careers, the pressure to ‘achieve everything you want to achieve’ or have all the fun you can before a baby knocks your life sideways – and balancing all of that against the eye-roll inducing reminder of our ‘body clocks’, it’s no wonder it’s overwhelming.
And then there’s the small issue of feeling emotionally ready to be wholly responsible for a tiny person – their safety, their health and happiness, and who they’ll turn out to be. On top of that, it’s the one decision in life you can never go back on.
Of course, it’s become more common, and accepted, to have children later – the average age for first-time mothers in England and Wales in 2019 was 28.9. There’s less cultural expectation that people should even have children at all, there have been medical advances in IVF and egg-freezing, and (although there’s a long way to go) there’s much more awareness of women’s rights in the workplace and gender roles at home too.
Things have changed and Holly Roberts, a counsellor at Relate (relate.org.uk), says that has “created opportunities and obstacles in equal measures”.
We’re still “bombarded with messages about what a ‘normal’ family looks like, when to have a family, how many children we ‘should’ have. It can be overwhelming if you don’t feel like you fit into that category”, says Roberts.
The traditional nuclear family size has been 2.4 children for some time, but now, “what may surprise people is the most common family size is one child,” says Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, a former midwife, agony aunt and parenting expert at The Baby Show. “So it’s more common to have an only child than to have two, three or four.”
Influence by wider family members is still a common issue too. “The wider family expectations for couples to start a family can be even more difficult as you are laden with guilt for disappointing someone if you don’t fulfil their dreams of becoming a grandparent,” says Roberts.
It’s not uncommon for married couples in particular to feel this strange weight of expectation of when they might announce a pregnancy or why they haven’t after a couple or years. But why have we been conditioned to think that wedding bells should almost immediately be followed by babies?
It’s important to try and disconnect any family expectation from your own desires and needs. “Couples need to dig deep and find their strength to follow their own path in life and not be persuaded by external pressures,” Roberts says. “You will be the ones raising this child and will have this huge responsibility for the rest of your life, so it’s worth asking yourself why you want to start a family – is it because you really want to or to please someone else?”
Fitz-Desorgher suggests approaching the issue with compassion. Most family pressure probably comes from a well-meaning place. “It’s not necessarily coming from a place of antagonism but a place of love and enthusiasm,” she says. “Say to that person, ‘You’d make a wonderful grandma/aunt or uncle and I understand how much you’d love to be one’. Always start from a place of love, acknowledging that this isn’t the place that you are in at the moment [if that’s the case] but when you are, you will let them know.”
In fact, knowing you have the practical and emotional support of family will be huge if or when you do decide to have a child.
Obviously, a child needs to be brought into stable home, so one of the main warning signs neither of you is ready is if there is conflict in your relationship. “If things are fraught between you and your partner, then a baby is only likely to intensify this,” says Roberts. “If there is underlying resentment or negativity between you and your partner, then this may show you that it’s not the right time to start a family.
“Having a child significantly changes your life and your relationship,” she adds, so it’s important to ensure you’re both on the same page. “It’s worth talking about what you want from life. Do you want to travel a lot, to socialise all the time, climb the corporate ladder? Or are you hoping for a more settled home life? What are you willing to compromise on? Do you have a biological urge that can’t be explained and you always saw yourself as a parent? Do you want to be a stay-at-home mum or dad or would you rather be the working parent?
“Talk about your fears, as this is as important as talking about your dreams. The more you are curious and wonder about your future together, the more you’ll start to see whether you are on the same path.”
While there’s no getting away from the all-consuming time and energy children take to raise, and fact that a certain amount of freedom and autonomy over your own time will shift (or vanish entirely), no one can accurately predict the impact becoming a parent will have on them, their relationship or their lifestyle – even if you’ve been around children a lot or have close friends with kids.
“I think all people go into parenthood blind to the impact a baby will have on their lives,” says Fitz-Desorgher. “It isn’t possible to imagine for ourselves the sheer enormity of emotions – good and bad, that will envelop us. [For women] that’s because we have to have the baby to trigger the hormonal releases and the neurological changes that take place in our brain. Until that happens, we simply can’t fathom what it is like to have a baby.
“So, of course everybody goes into parenthood a little bit short-sighted. Or we have expectations that are too high, or too low, and that’s OK and normal.”
Age is less of a factor than we might think too, Fitz-Desorgher says. “If you’re immature, you’re going to grow up very fast, [while] mature people can find themselves feeling very rattled by the chaos that is a baby.”
So does anyone feel 100% ready to start a family? “Most people swing from thinking having a baby would be the best time ever and within 24 hours they may suddenly think it would be the worst decision of their life!” says Fitz-Desorgher. “In fact, most women that I speak to say they go from seeing that positive test result feeling, ‘Wow this is amazing!’ to ‘What have I done? There is no turning back now!’
“As human beings, we do vacillate, we are equivocal and that is normal and natural. In all honestly, if you thought you were 100% ready to have a baby you’d probably be kidding yourself.
“In all my years as a midwife, I have supported families who felt very, very ready for a baby and then found the whole experience overwhelming, very difficult and needed a lot of support to get to grips with the reality. I’ve also supported many families who really weren’t prepared and then they stepped up to that mark and found it was a profound, deep, unexpectedly enriching part of their life and they were, in fact, very ready for it.”
Although it should be down to entirely what feels right for you (and it’s probably wise to garner as much information as possible on the highs and lows of parenthood), it’s always going to be a bit of a leap of faith. Fitz-Desorgher says, more often than not, when couples do make the decision to have a baby it’s because they’ve ticked off some goals – buying a house, becoming settled in a new job, travelling, for example – and believe “there’s never going to be a perfect time so together you just jump in with both feet and get on with it.”
The Baby Show returns to Olympia London 22 – 24 October. For tickets visit thebabyshow.co.uk.