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Should Women Be Having Children At A Younger Age?

11/01/2011 10:56 | Updated 22 May 2015

It came down from the highest maternity authority in the land: last week, Dr Tony Falconer, the president of the Royal Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, declared that girls should be taught at school that they should start their families before they hit 35, to avoid the complications and risks of pregnancy in the late thirties and early forties.

"When you're educating children about contraception and teenage pregnancy," he said, "...you might tag on to that what the best age is to have children. As a 15-year-old girl, when you're doing your GCSE preparation, it might just sow a seed for them if you give them information at that stage that the best time to have children was 20-35." I didn't take that particular course, but like many of my contemporaries, I didn't need that particular bit of education – we're well, if not painfully, aware of the facts of life. With my thirtieth birthday six months away, officially too old to have a baby while I'm in my twenties (even if I got pregnant tomorrow), there's been a definite shift in the stakes.

When I think about the future of my career, I wonder if I will have to schedule in a break in the next five years for a hypothetical maternity leave. A new relationship can't be new for too long before the possibility of the man in question as a potential father is considered: not because I want to have kids immediately, but because it would be unwise at this stage in my life to spend years in a relationship with a man who definitely didn't want them. It's not what I had in mind when I was fifteen and the beginning of my third decade was literally a lifetime away. As usual, the rhetoric surrounding this issue is missing a trick by placing the entire burden of the safe propagation of the population on women alone. Yes, ultimately babies are up to our bodies and our decisions, but they're decisions that are most difficult to make when women lack partners who are equally invested in parenting – and not just because they are necessary providers of fertilisation.

The fact of the matter is that parenting babies is hard. Combined with the challenges of getting one's career kick-started and paying off student loans (which are, of course, set to only become more burdensome) one can just about understand why so many women are waiting for the men in their lives to be fully invested in the project before they get knocked up.

I would have loved to have had a baby already; to be able to blithely tell other women to just "take a leap of faith" as Lauren Laverne is quoted saying in the new issue of Red Magazine, advising women to hurry up and have kids in their twenties as she did because they provide "a sense of completion about my family and the future". But neither Laverne nor Falconer sufficiently acknowledges that for most women, achieving that so-called sense of completion would come at significant cost to their career and independence – and is not something to be embarked upon without personal and financial stability. I didn't, because much as I was aware that I might have been missing my prime reproductive years, my income and singledom made focusing on my career rather than on starting a family the obvious choice.

Let's quit pretending that women who find themselves struggling with fertility problems because they have delayed motherhood have only themselves to blame because they were too busy having fun to have kids when they were younger. We need to have a wider discourse about how little our society values parenthood – for men as well as for women. As long as we all regard making as much money as possible as our primary motivation as adults – and a necessary goal, when it comes to climbing back from the debt that most of us carry when we join the workforce post-university – we're all going to continue to lack the confidence to start families before it's verging on too late.

On top of her role at Glamour.com, Jean Hannah Edelstein is also the author of Himglish and Femalese: Why Women Don't Get Why Men Don't Get Them. Check out her blog at www.jeanhannahedelstein.com

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