Here I am. A 33-year-old woman with two degrees and something resembling “a career”, sitting at my laptop and trying to write this article for you. With each stroke of the keyboard, my mind wanders. I just can’t shake this feeling that I’ve forgotten something. What could it be? Did I leave the oven on? Did I forget to pay my water bill? Is it my best friend’s birthday this week or next?
It could be absolutely any of the above but I’ll tell you what it’s definitely not: I did not forget to have a baby. I was just too busy running myself emotionally ragged with fraught internal debates about when or if I will ever be able to have one.
So when it was reported this week that students at the single-sex Cambridge University college Murray Edwards will be given so-called “fertility seminars” because they run the risk of being “childless” if they “forget” to have a baby and leave motherhood “too late”, I was perplexed.
The “fertility seminars” are being introduced by the new president of Murray Edwards, Dorothy Byrne, who is a former head of Channel 4 News. According to reports, she herself became a mother via IVF at 45 which, of course, in spite of the stigma that persists about becoming a mother later in life, is a totally valid thing to do. So what gives?
According to a recent YouGov poll, one of the most common reasons for people choosing not to have children is that it is too expensive. Women aren’t “forgetting” to think about fertility. Oh, if only we could. At every turn we are reminded that our life choices will impact whether or not we can have children. Does your job pay enough to fund kids? Have you chosen the right partner, do they earn enough? Do you have time to get to where you want to be in your career before taking a break? Are you leaving it “too late”? Every day I wake up and promise myself that I will not think about this because it’s so disruptive and I am afraid that the panic will cause me to make bad decisions based on fear.
Until the age of 28, it was all about not getting pregnant. Afterwards, the women around me started to become consumed (not always to their benefit) with the question of getting pregnant: when, with whom and how. It has become so oppressive that I have started trying to get them interested in cryptocurrency just so that we have something else to talk about.
No matter how far feminism advances, the tyrannical reign of the notion that women have “biological clocks” continues; its metaphorical ticking has become shorthand for women’s fertility. This is a relatively recent concept. It first appeared in the media in 1978 when The Washington Post declared on the front page of its Metro section: “The Clock Is Ticking For the Career Woman.” That headline was trailing an article written by the male author Richard Cohen. We can’t pretend that fertility doesn’t decline with age. This is broadly true for men and women. But equally, we don’t need scaremongering and misinformation about that decline. That’s why the idea of “fertility seminars” is so pernicious.
Katherine O’Brien is associate director at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). “The difficulties that women may face conceiving in their 30s should never be overstated, nor the risks of pregnancy and birth. Fertility does not fall off a cliff at 35, despite what media headlines may suggest,” she tells me in no uncertain terms. “Couples have a good chance of conceiving throughout their 30s yet warnings about ‘leaving it too late’ can lead to women underestimating their fertility later in life, taking risks with contraception and, as a result, experiencing an unplanned pregnancy.”
British society’s determination to hector women continually about their “ticking clocks” has a profound impact, Katherine says. “There is no universal ‘right time’ to have a child, and we categorically reject the idea that older motherhood is a problem that needs to be solved,” she continues. “The factors that have driven the increase in the age of motherhood are overwhelmingly positive – including women’s increasing presence in higher education and the opportunity to progress in a chosen career, facilitated by the ability to control when and if they have children by access to contraception and abortion.”
“It is patronising and absurd to suggest women ‘forget’ to have babies,” she adds, because however you slice it, “we live in a society that makes it really tough to have babies and raise children.”
There have clearly been cultural factors such as women entering higher education in greater numbers but economics are fundamental.
Professor Bobby Duffy
There’s no way around it. Britain’s birth rate is falling. Pre-pandemic, it was lower than it was during the 1930s depression at 1.6 babies per woman in England and Wales and it’s predicted to collapse to 1.45 by 2023. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age at which both women and men have their first child has increased in recent decades. This is not necessarily good. Earlier this year, the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Centre for Population Change predicted that a continued decline over the next few years would lead to “significantly fewer births annually compared to pre-pandemic”. With young women in particular facing financial pressures due to benefits cuts and rising energy costs in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it’s likely this prediction will come true. We know that when times are tough financially, birth rates fall.
None of this is women’s fault and worrying more about fertility won’t change the economic climate in which we find ourselves. In any case, Britain’s economy has been hostile to women and anyone wanting to start a family for quite a while. Shall we recap? There is a housing crisis. Not a single place in the UK is affordable for the average woman to buy or rent a home. Growing numbers of young people rent privately (which is unaffordable and unstable) because they can’t afford to get on the property ladder. Record numbers of young people live with their parents for longer because the cost of living, specifically housing, has risen dramatically beyond wages over the last decade or so.
As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, childcare is unaffordable in Britain. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UK has the third most expensive childcare system in the world, behind only Slovakia and Switzerland; a full-time place costs £12,376 a year on average. It’s been getting worse for some time, too. Research conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that between 2008 and 2016 the cost of a 1-year-old child’s nursery provision grew four times faster than wages in England. In London, it grew more than seven times faster. Put simply, the problem is less that women are “forgetting” to have children and more that they likely cannot afford to. Where are the seminars about that?
“Many women will enter their 30s still paying off their student debt, and will be in rented accommodation and therefore lacking long-term housing security. Maternity discrimination and the motherhood pay penalty mean that having a child can negatively impact on careers that women not only financially depend on but are a source of pride after spending their 20s working incredibly hard to get ahead,” Katherine confirms.
Academics and economists have been warning that young people’s life chances are being stunted by circumstance for years. Bobby Duffy is a professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London whose work has lasered in on the differences between generations. His new book, Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?, explores years of research in greater depth.
It is vital to distinguish between the social and economic factors which mean people have children later, he tells me. “There have clearly been cultural factors such as women entering higher education in greater numbers, people choosing to delay marriage and the fact that we are living longer, which means people view their life course differently,” he explains. However, he says, there can be no doubt that the “economics are fundamental”.
It is patronising and absurd to suggest women ‘forget’ to have babies. We live in a society that makes it really tough to have babies and raise children.
KathErine O’Brien, BPAS
Duffy explains that huge economic changes – such as rising housing costs – have “been concentrated at the younger end of the age range, with significant leaps in the proportion of 25 to 27-year-olds living with their parents over the last 20 years, now up to a third. In contrast, only 6% of British 33 to 34-year-olds were still at home in 2018, a figure that had barely changed since 1996.” This is, he adds, “a short-term coping strategy” because housing is unaffordable, not “a permanent lifestyle choice”.
These changes are so profound that some academics even consider it to be a new life stage. “The term ’emerging adulthood’ was coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University,” Duffy continues. “Arnett sees this as a distinct phase between adolescence and full adulthood, a time of identity exploration ‘in love, work and worldviews’ between the ages of 18 and 29. His theory has attracted some criticism from developmental psychologists, however. This is partly because it suggests it is an active choice rather than the result of a person’s financial circumstances. As one US study has shown, children in households that had low incomes were less likely to move out before the age of 27 than those with high incomes, and those who had home-owning parents were more likely to move out than those who didn’t.”
An incredible combination of circumstances has diminished young people’s freedom to make life choices such as having children. Duffy cites them one by one: “Decades of wage stagnation, increased debt and declining government support, plummeting home ownership levels resulting in so many more [people living] in more expensive and less secure private rental housing, the concentration of wealth among older age groups.” He concludes: “‘Delayed adulthood’ is a better description than ’emerging’ because people are being held back by their circumstances.”
Trying to build a life against this economic backdrop takes a toll on those who would like to have children one day. Thirty-five-year-old Jennifer is a marketing manager living in London. She and her boyfriend just bought a small flat. Her boyfriend lost his job due to COVID and bringing children into the world now feels impossible.
“I find it all really unfair,” she laments. “Childcare is so expensive. All the women at my company who have young children went part-time when they had kids for that reason. Why am I expected to put my career on hold and lose out on earnings? Why does the media and government complain people aren’t having enough children and yet make it more expensive than ever to have them? I would have to earn at least 60k to be able to afford children without relying on my partner financially. And even if I did earn 60k, I would have to save enough money to cover everything maternity leave doesn’t cover. Sure, my partner could take care of the kids since I’m the main earner but unfortunately he physically can’t give birth to a child, so I’d still have to take leave to recover.”
“It makes me angry but I’ve made my peace with it,” Jennifer concludes. “I don’t think I want to have children in a world like this, where only the wealthy can afford children and everyone else has to struggle. It’s already a struggle financially in London, without kids, so I don’t think it’s fair to bring a child into this.”
Similarly, Erika, who is in her late 30s, feels like circumstances have conspired against her. “I worked as cabin crew for a major airline for 10 years, commuting from Nottinghamshire to London because it was cheaper to live there. I couldn’t take house sharing anymore so leaving the capital and travelling to Heathrow for work made sense.”
Time, Erika feels, has “just crept up” on her. “It’s incredibly sad and lonely, I feel like I’ve missed the boat. I’m single so I suppose I could do IVF or adopt but I wouldn’t be able to afford childcare even if I did that. I have always wanted to have kids but I’m not sure how I would make it work.”
As with the housing crisis, it seems that generational wealth is also a factor in whether or not a person can have children. We know that you are more likely to get on the housing ladder if your parents have wealth. Thirty-five-year-old university research assistant Sophie is originally from Preston. She would like to have children but can’t afford to. “I increasingly see people with less job security than me having children because their parents can help out financially,” she says.
When she was 27, Sophie had an abortion. It weighs heavy. “I was pregnant and working for the civil service on a rolling fixed-term contract which meant that I was ineligible for maternity pay,” she explains. An abortion was the right decision at the time as she had no savings and was living in a shared rented house. Now, years later, she’s not sure it would be any easier.
“I earn £38,000 and still live in shared rented accommodation,” she continues. “The ultimate obstacle is that my family can’t support me and I can’t imagine ever being able to afford a rented studio flat on my own, let alone anything bigger than that.”
Women are absorbing the anxiety of a dysfunctional society and an economy that makes it difficult to get a stable foothold in the world. That surely explains why egg freezing – which young women are paying for themselves in the hope that it will buy them time – is on the rise despite the fact that it does not guarantee you a child. Recent data from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) shows that the number of egg storage cycles has increased rapidly, rising from 1,500 cycles in 2013 to just under 9,000 in 2018. This is a staggering increase of 523%, which means that the number of women freezing their eggs has increased fivefold.
Women don’t need “fertility seminars”. We need truly affordable housing and universal free childcare.
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