Opinion: Shall I be mother?
A report from the Office of National Statistics identifying that the average age of women giving birth has reached 30 provoked a rash of speculation about why women are delaying motherhood. Previously, the highest average age of 29.3 had been recorded during the Second World War, when the reason for late motherhood was connected to the absence of men. Today it seems to be more connected to lifestyle choice.
There are lots of sound reasons why contemporary women might want to delay entering the 'mommy club'. Despite the prevalence of equal opportunities policies, the difficulties of combining motherhood with a profession remain. Many women, ambitious to make an impact in their job, feel compelled to put maternity on hold until their career is secure. Developments in modern contraceptive technologies, backed up by abortion services, make it increasingly possible for women to remain childfree until they are ready to shift their focus on to the family.
However, it is not only the privileged professionals who are exerting greater control over their fertility. The trend to delay childbirth has affected the poor, too. Although age at first birth still tends to be inversely related to socioeconomic status, the dependence of many working-class couples on women's jobs has closed down the option of twentysomething motherhood for many poorer women.
Commentators have focused on delayed birth as a sign of women's confidence and increased control. But it may also be a symptom of a counter trend - an indi-cation that today's twentysomethings feel increasingly underconfident about their ability to commit to each other and the future. Taking the decision to have a child is the domestic equivalent of deciding to pack in your job, sell your house, give all your savings to charity and embark on a trek to Outer Mongolia. It represents the simultaneous abandonment of what you know and trust and the embrace of a huge unknown.
Ask many thirtysomething prima-gravidas why they are delaying having their first child until their fourth decade and the most likely reply is that they didn't feel ready. Many others will confess to an underlying ambivalence about motherhood, claiming it was not so much a positive choice as something that they felt was now or never. In other words, they feared their ovaries were ageing faster than the rest of them.
Until recently it was assumed that motherhood was an inevitable by-product of being a woman. Children happened along later if not sooner. It is not so very long ago that couples who passed several post-marriage years without a child were assumed to have a problem. Now there are fewer pressures to produce - rather couples are counselled to consider carefully the consequences of having a child. Today, far from being seen as a 'natural instinct', parenting is seen as a complicated set of skills, with new parents requiring instruction and support before they can truly assume responsibility for their progeny. Given the stress on the responsibilities and difficulties of parenting it is hardly surprising that there is a tendency for couples to defer childbearing decisions. The very fact that couples feel they have a choice about whether or not to have a child introduces a relatively new tension: if you have a choice you have to make that choice. To decide to give up the pill or stop using condoms are Big Decisions.
There has been a predictable amount of speculation about what effect older motherhood has on the child and on the mother. The pros of 'greater experience', 'patience' and 'personal stability' have been weighed against the cons of 'exhaustion', 'lack of glamour at the school gate' and the increased generation gap. But there has been little discussion about how delaying parenthood may affect society more generally and whether it may accelerate trends towards the disaggregation of family life.
The transformation of a couple into a 'family' creates a whole new network of interdependencies that can be avoided until the child comes along. Responsibility for a child is not like responsibility for a kitten - you can't surrender a child to the animal sanctuary if you are forced to change the way you live your life. Settling repayment arrangements on a joint mortgage is complicated enough, but nothing compared to custody arrangements. In short: childfree couples have fewer practical commitments to each other; relationships can be more transient, less shaped by obligation.
This is not unequivocally positive or negative. It is hard to decide which is the saddest: a couple who struggle miserably on, resenting each other and their own lives 'for the sake of the children', or a couple who defer having children, not because they don't want kids, but because they never really feel confident about their ability to take on responsibilities that their grandparents would have assumed to be an integral part of adulthood.
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000