Why are women delaying having children after lockdown?

Katie Russell
Young couple look unhappy in bed - Digital Vision/PeopleImages

My mum likes to remind me that at my age, 24, she was already married, owned a house, and was thinking of children. Meanwhile, I am spending half of my salary on rent, nowhere near ready for marriage, and forever grateful to my period as proof that I am not pregnant. 

It’s no secret that women are having babies later than the generation before them. Over half of the babies in 2017 (55 per cent) were born to women in their 30s – up from 43 per cent in 1997, according to the Office for National Statistics. 

With women conceiving later, the number of women freezing their eggs is rising fast. Data from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show the number of embryo and egg storage cycles increased by 523 per cent between 2013 and 2018. 

There are longstanding reasons for this delay. As Counselling Directory member Fiona Mallin, who specialises in fertility issues, puts it, couples want to get things just right before they try for a baby: “It’s taking people a bit longer to get on their feet and do the things that their parents’ generation did earlier. Rent is high, making it harder to save a first deposit; and lengthy internships are often required at the start of the career ladder.

But now there's a new factor at play. It seems the coronavirus pandemic has made young couples even more wary of starting a family. A recent survey from the University of Florence found that more than a third of people (37 per cent) who had been planning to try for a child have now put these plans on hold due to the pandemic. A US study from the Guttmacher Institute found 34 per cent of women were in the same position. 

Modern families

Clients have come to Mallin expressing their predicament. One women, who is in her 30s and works in the City with her partner, had started trying to have a baby but they are now “changing their minds or just worried about going forward” due to the pandemic.

“It’s made them both very nervous at a time when they were feeling confident,” Mallin says. “They’d ticked the boxes – they’d got married, they’d worked hard, they’d saved, they’d bought property. They were ready to take the next step and suddenly it was like a giant brake went on of actually ‘do we really want this and can we manage it?’”

The pandemic has “pulled the rug out” from under people, Mallin adds, and she “wouldn’t be surprised to see people hold off until spring of next year.”

The following are, according to the experts, some of the reasons why...

 

The luxury of time

Younger couples who are trying to conceive for the first time might “feel they have all the time in the world, says Dr Jane Stewart, chair of the British Fertility Society and NHS Consultant in Reproductive Medicine in NE England. Biologically, they can afford to delay having a child until “the time is right”, she says.

Conversely, Dr Stewart says couples who are older and perhaps engaging with fertility treatment are probably less likely to put things off. "If you’re 38, been trying for three years, and you’re just about to try your next round of IVF and it’s all gone haywire because of Covid, then you may want to just get on with it once you can – because you don’t want to run out of time”.

Mallin agrees. “Usually, by the time a woman has come around to having IVF, she really wants a baby and is prepared to take all kinds of risks to get one.”

 

Health concerns

Mmore than one in four women (27 per cent) say they are avoiding pregnancy because they are worried about getting Covid-19 themselves, according to a US survey.

There is an “anxiety around being in a place, having the infection while you’re pregnant”, says Dr Stewart, as we still don’t fully understand how it affects women at different stages of their pregnancy.

The act of giving birth during a pandemic is also frightening to Mallin’s City couple and another client – a teacher who is also putting her baby plans on hold. “One thing they’ve both mentioned is the fear of being pregnant during coronavirus times and what that would mean in terms of going to hospital or going to antenatal appointments by themselves,” Mallin says, “and the small fear – but still a legitimate one – of having to give birth in a way that they don’t want to.”

 

Potential separation from parents

Couples aren't just worried about their own health. One of Mallin’s couples had planned for their parents to help with part-time childcare. Now, they are worried because their parents are in a “higher risk group”, so if they catch Covid then they will be unable to care for the baby, and will need looking after themselves. 

They are also anxious about being separated from their parents again, especially in the event of a second wave.

Mallin adds that the pandemic is making couples think more generally about mortality. “One of the things that has been said is ‘I had expected my parents to live for a lot longer and what this virus has done is scare me because it’s shown me that even young people are dying from this – and it’s made me worry about my parents in a way I hadn’t previously.”

 

Job and financial insecurity

Almost 60 per cent of participants in the University of Florence study cited worries over economic instability as a reason to postpone having a baby. “If you were thinking about having a family this year but you’ve just lost your job, you might wait until you’ve got another job again," says Dr Stewart. "And if you’re in a recession, that might be some time.” 

More than nine million workers have been furloughed as of July 2

Finally, financial considerations are likely to have an effect on couples who are considering fertility treatment. “If you haven’t got an income and you’re having to pay for treatment because it’s not provided to you by the NHS then that might curtail your plans,” says Dr Stewart. She adds that she saw people delaying fertility treatment in the wake of the 2008 recession and is “sure it will” happen again.