Idiocracy is a terrible movie, but the opening scene of it is really funny. There’s a montage showing a pair of rednecks who lose count of how many kids they have, alongside a couple with high IQs who keep finding reasons not to start a family: “There’s no way we could have a child now. Not with the market the way it is.” In the end, the clever couple wait until they are infertile, while the rednecks take over the world.
This isn’t actually happening, of course – at least not in the UK. New data shows that, for the first time, more babies are being born to women over 35 than to women under 25. A newborn is now four times as likely to have a mother over the age of 40 as it is one under 18.
As someone who became a mum in her early 30s, which is about average, I’ve often felt confused as to whether I did it “at the right time”. I’d spent my twenties working hard, seeing the world and pretty much on an IV of sauvignon blanc in the evenings. Now I was in a stable relationship (tick), owned a house (tick) and had a career (not an actual job with paid maternity leave, massive cross and Family Fortunes noise, but what the heck).
Making friends who’d made it into their early 40s before having kids, though, I felt a pang of envy. These people were so much MORE financially and professionally secure. They’d had so much MORE fun before they had to face the daily reality of nappy changing and reading That’s Not My Pineapple. I loved my daughter but as I struggled to adjust to my new life I sometimes wished I’d had the balls to wait a little longer.
By 31, though, I was convinced it would take me years to get pregnant (it took two weeks, which is how long it always takes people who think it will take years; if you think it’ll take two weeks it takes years). I’d spent my entire twenties worrying that I was infertile, because I was bombarded by messages that you couldn’t have a career, or drink wine, or use tampons if you wanted to have a baby.
Times haven’t changed: what are we supposed to take away from all the stories about Facebook and Google paying for employees to have their eggs frozen, except that if you want to have a high-flying career with one of the world’s top employers, you’ll need to wait to become a mother? Every single one of those stories, by the way, should have a massive tobacco-style disclaimer at the top of it pointing out that EGG FREEZING DOESN’T WORK*.
As a feminist, I often wonder whether all this noise around women and fertility is just the latest way of keeping us down. Don’t try to keep up with the men at work or you’ll risk the thing you really want – a baby! Make sure you find a husband, girls, because your ovaries are going to wither overnight on your 35th birthday!
It is tricky though because while some people get pregnant no problem in their 40s, others struggle in their 20s. We can’t know who’s who until we actually try, and as I found out, it’s a bit late by then to change your mind. Though the idea of having your eggs counted sounds like a scam to wring money out of anxious women, I can totally see why people do it.
So did I go too early or too late? Or is 30 now average because that’s the “right” time? In the hope of a sensible conclusion to this article, I consulted The Source of All Wisdom (aka Facebook). It turns out that… everybody has a slightly different opinion.
“I'm sort of envious of a friend who was a teenage mum,” says Rachel, who is in her mid-30s and hasn’t had kids yet. “She's now 37 and her kids are off at uni, while she's just finishing a PhD and about to start a fabulous career. She's young enough and free enough to go wherever she wants and do whatever she wants. If I have kids now I'll be way too old to do that stuff by the time they leave home.”
“It's such a lottery,” says Michelle, who’s in her late 30s and has a stepdaughter. “I was in a relationship throughout my 20s and very early 30s but didn't feel ready until about 33, then bam, husband gone. Now I'm very ready but well over that fertility cliff. Not sure I'd do it differently given the chance - I wasn't really a responsible grown-up until about 33!” For Michelle, there’s too much pressure on women about when to have kids. “You need to be in a healthy relationship and in the right place to start a family. Be aware of your body clock but don't make bad decisions because of that pressure.”
“When you have gotten lots out of your system so you don't feel resentful that you can't because of family,” says Honor, a mum and counsellor. “That being said if you have too much of a life beforehand it can be hard to give up... but a supportive partner makes a world of difference. These things are not age-related.”
Overall, whether my focus group had children early or late, or not at all, most of them agreed that there is no right time. As Clare points out, everyone makes it work. As Lauren points out, the grass is always greener. Probably, we all know that really. So maybe it’s time to stop talking about it and freaking out all the women who haven’t done it yet?
*Data from the national fertility regulator shows that only 1.7% of women’s own eggs thawed between 2008 and 2013 resulted in live births. Only 98 babies were born from patient or donor eggs during that five-year period.