A treasured meet up with my gang of first-child’s-first-school-mum friends (a group with quite a broad age range) and a slot on Radio 4’s World at One programme today about the dangers of late motherhood (aka another excuse for telling women off) caused me to reflect on this worrying trend.
I was something of a pioneer of “late” motherhood (or “on the shelf” as my grandmother saw it), being one of a then relatively small group of brazenly careless women who just didn’t get round to having children at the time considered “normal” by self-appointed arbiters of what women should do and when.
Of course “not getting round” to marriage/partnerships and motherhood is something of an umbrella term cum euphemism for a complicated web of reasons that are increasingly resulting in women producing their offspring ever later. In my case, these included having a fairly full-on career, although I don’t buy the common assertion that a busy working life prevents you meeting and holding on to Mr or Miss Right if that’s what you want. What is indisputable is that Mr Right tends (even if indirectly) to have a much more damaging impact on his female partner’s career than she does on his – in fact research shows that Miss Right will improve his career performance. But back to my point: in my view, many other factors are at play. I, and others of my peers, certainly struggled with reconciling the competing notions fed to us by our optimistic mothers that we could be both fiercely independent, building successful careers, whilst – in the manner of many a Jane Austen heroine – still bagging the most handsome and successful hero of our own story and delivering to them (our mothers) their desired grandchildren. Helen Fielding’s brilliant Bridget Jones novels - as much social commentary as they are light fiction – epitomise the competing pressures in the 1990s of work and the overwhelming societal edict that women must settle down and reproduce. Things do not seem to have improved very much.
But tearing up the pseudo-biological rule book does have its upsides. Women now have the chance to build a career for a lot longer on a relatively leveller playing field, if you leave aside all the non-motherhood related everyday sexism – which is a big if. So, as a result your older mother usually has a better job and a bigger salary as well as a lot more experience than her younger counterpart. Silver linings though tend to have huge great black clouds attached to them. All that upside means that the older mother’s job can be more difficult to hold on to: combining lots of responsibility at work with being a mother can be challenging particularly when you are surrounded by lots of people – normally men – who would very much like to do the job instead of you; and it is more painful to lose. I can personally attest to the considerable trauma of transitioning from successful career woman to zero status stay-at-home mum and the hard unglamorous slog of the subsequent road to professional reinvention. The few women I have known who attempted to hold on to top jobs as well as being mothers either outsourced childcare completely or had a husband willing and able to take on the more flexible role. Research shows that very successful career women often do not have more than one child. The stakes are high, as was illustrated in the case of Laura Wade-Gery who announced she was having her first child aged 50, whilst holding a very senior executive position with Marks & Spencer, one of the UK’s largest retailers. She never returned from maternity leave and now pursues a more flexible portfolio of part-time roles. For UK plc, it seems, no time is the right time to be a mother.
As if these decisions are not difficult enough, society now wishes to play the blame game. According to radio 4 today (and a host of other articles across the media over the last 5 years), selfish older mothers are not only endangering themselves with lots of potential complications, but are also compromising their children’s happiness by saddling them with responsibility for looking after their aged parents when they should be out partying or, worse, by dying whilst their children are still young. Which are accusations never levelled against the many famous older dads, such as George Clooney, Paul McCartney or Elton John: they’re just cool. Mothers, on the other hand, are supposed to be young and we feel that pressure: I bet I’m not the only mum who lied to her children about her age until they were old enough to know better – judge me for that too, if you dare. Given advances in modern medicine and life expectancy, I believe that the dangers are exaggerated and know from first hand experience that dying and disease are not the exclusive domains of the old. They are every parent’s worst fear. But in most cases, the life journey for children of older mums is likely to be just as lovely (or not) as that of every other child, maybe just a bit wrinklier and with a few more breaks to sit down for a rest with a cup of tea.
So, instead of rushing to judgement (again), perhaps we could simply furnish women with the realistic, non-scaremongering practical information they need about the physical risks of childbirth at various stages in their lives and let them make their own decisions. After all, Mother knows best.