WITH 30 the average age at giving birth – four years older than in the Seventies – the chairman of the British Fertility Society, Dr Jane Stewart, has urged those hoping for children to start planning at a younger age, when their fertility is more secure.
Dr Stewart is quite right to warn that eye-catching policies such as subsidised egg-freezing, offered by some employers including Facebook and Apple, could put pressure on women to defer having a family until it is too late. Egg-freezing is certainly no guarantee of a baby. The fertility industry, as we’ve discussed here before, offers a false sense of security to women thinking that delaying a family for a couple of decades might not matter, arguably becoming part of the problem of delay, not the solution with its uncertain outcomes, to say nothing of its costs.
Dr Stewart’s solution to the problem of socially-driven delayed childbearing is for employers to do more to assist family-friendly working, including providing crèches, instead of encouraging women to freeze their eggs. She explains that she spent most of her own salary on a nanny while her own children were growing up.
But what makes her think that most women want to continue with their jobs or careers seamlessly straight after childbirth? Does it not occur to her that some women would rather have the subsidy to decide for themselves how to use it, to choose to be their baby’s prime carer rather than offloading it in those critical early years to strangers? In Dr Stewart’s blinkered approach she assumes that careers by definition come before the choice to spend more time with your children and family.
Many would rather not drag their babies through rush-hour traffic to dump them in a crèche; for many the thought of that alone is enough to defer childbirth in the hope that later they will be able to afford to take time out. Our economy is now so focused on ensuring that women have the briefest of breaks from their ‘proper’ work that the option of financial support for full-time motherhood in the early years is never even considered – only huge expenditure on questionable nursery provision, many of whose staff, as Professor Cathy Nutbrown famously found, have lower qualifications than people who look after animals.
Women’s paid work, it seems, is compulsory, while childbearing is a ‘choice’, and school sex education reinforces the message that children are an inconvenient and ‘accidental’ by-product of intercourse. Like so many other aspects of modern life, the ‘dilemma’ of having children is a manufactured one, with a pre-packaged solution. Children used to be seen as a normal part of marriage, and a mortgage could be managed by one breadwinner. Now artificially managed childbearing is the last item on an ever-lengthening to-do list, after career, mortgage and sometimes marriage.
Dr Stewart is right to warn of the dangers of delayed childbearing, but she is looking in the wrong place for a solution. As we have argued here before, it’s time to halt this grievous war on maternal care and motherhood.
We need a society that puts children first, rather than seeing them variously as a restriction on personal liberty, a drag on industry, an expensive nuisance, a private hobby, an equality hex, a ‘right’ to be claimed or discarded at will – or a belated afterthought that never arrives.