For men, it's always the right time to have kids in the eyes of society. For women, it's the opposite

Marks & Spencer executive Laura Wade-Gery is becoming a mother, and it's affecting stock prices. But all anyone's concerned about is her age

Dawn Foster
Wednesday 19 August 2015 18:55

A hitherto unconsidered life goal to add to your mental list: having your pregnancy announced on the London Stock Exchange. Take that, Hallmark!

Congratulations are in order for Marks & Spencer executive Laura Wade-Gery – both on the happy news, and the fact that she is deemed so integral to the company’s continued success that the time she’ll take off work to welcome her child is considered a potential risk for stock prices.

Marks & Spencer isn’t going to collapse into a luxury pyre of pricey ready-meals and sensible shoes in the paltry four months the executive director is taking off. But then the interest isn’t in Wade-Gery’s job; it’s all about her age.

Seasoned watchers of successful women have wasted no time in pointing out that Wade-Gery has been alive for five decades now. It’s mentioned in every story about the announcement. The subtext is clear: there are Right Times and Wrong Times to start a family, and hitting 50 is the Wrong Time.

Presumably – like all material things in the universe – Wade-Gery’s husband, farmer Simon Roberts, has an age too. But we don’t know what that is because, unlike his wife and the co-parent of this child, the number of birthdays Roberts has celebrated doesn’t merit a mention.

It’s rare for news of even the most geriatric male celebrity becoming a father to warrant several paragraphs of panicked speculation about a “growing trend” of older parents.

For men, the Right Time to become a parent seems to be any time after reaching the age of consent. For women, to arrive at a satisfactory judgement on your parenting skills involves a tortuous, multi-layered calculation based on age (too young or too old, and barely a whisker between the two states), income (don’t be too poor, but make sure you’re not too valuable to take maternity leave either), and occupation (are you a deadbeat mum leeching off the state, or a heartless power-hungry matriarch leaving your mewling bairns in the care of a low-paid 18-year-old au pair?).

The whole process makes filling in a tax return look like a doddle. So I’ll save you the trouble: any time a woman has a child it will be the wrong time in somebody’s eyes.

That “woman becomes a mother” still makes a headline in 2015 reminds women that, for all their personal and collective achievements, society is still more interested in the limitations of biology, and rapt at the fact that women can – and do – make a wealth of choices about if and how they become a parent. Women’s lives are still picked over in public detail, as if each aspect offers a cautionary tale for some ambitious young professional or other who will follow in the wake.

Wade-Gery has worked in top positions in Tesco and M&S at a relatively young age, and, according to William Dalrymple, fought off a street gang in Delhi singlehandedly. No matter: her home life is up for public debate. She’s fair game for a national discussion on the ethics and health risks of motherhood in older women.

Can women have it all? It seems Wade-Gery is a poster girl for fitting it all in: she’s got the career, but she didn’t miss out on motherhood either. If others hope to follow suit they should be prepared for a thousand and one unsolicited questions asked or opinions proffered over their choices.

After emerging from a life in the bedroom and kitchen, and having the temerity to demand access to the workplace and polling station, we’re reminded that the battle isn’t won. Women, when they do break into power or succeed, can expect to have their lives scrutinised for clues to how they managed it exactly because these women are, alas, still exceptions to the rule.

Articles about the problem of “having it all” emerge like immortal creatures from the swamp for one reason: women read them. They read them because their lives are publicly described as a constant struggle to balance the roles of mother, wife and employee. At any point, you’ll be failing at least one.

We can’t win: women are “irresponsible” when they become parents too early or too late, or “selfish” if they eschew family life altogether.

Men, of course, don’t face the “Can you have it all?” question. That’s because they can – and by “all”, that means a complete freedom to make life choices without a rubbernecking audience casting moral aspersions about very personal decisions.

So when is the right time to become a parent? Whenever the hell you want. The judgement is inevitable: stuff it; do what makes you, and your burgeoning offspring, happy. Stuffing wax in your ears shields you from the snarking comments – and it handily gives you a break from the incessant crying.

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