Tuesday, 26 March 2013

20, 30, 40...when is it ever the "right time" to have a family?

Pregnancy test by Jon Large, available under Public Licence
As I was baking banana cake for the playschool Easter Fair this evening, I wondered what life would be like if we didn't have children. We would still be in the big smoke, no doubt. Well rested, well traveled. A stone lighter. I would be on the career ladder with more confidence and skills, putting in the extra hours guilt-free to try and nab a promotion. Probably planning a weekend with the girls. We would be going to more gigs, seeing more films, getting drunk. Question is, would I be happier?

Isn't the feminist ideal to add a child to your life when you are good and ready, not to be a slave to biology or social dictats? As opposed to the 1950s when it was all mapped out, marriage then children, nowadays you often hear talk about the magical "right time" to start a family. Some mystical moment when you're going to think "to hell with spontaneity, lie-ins and relaxing holidays, I have a well-paid job, a house, a car and a willing partner, NOW is the perfect moment to become a mother". This probably does happen to some very organised people who have always had a Life Master Plan in which the key components fall into place, through a mixture of determination and luck. I do know a few impressively focused women like this but not many.

A surprising number of my mum friends got pregnant "accidentally". Considering that most forms of contraception are usually 99.9% effective, I'm not entirely sure how this happens so frequently - are these genuine accidents where contraception has simply failed? Heat of the moment instances? Or oestrogen at work through the subconscious mind..? For many couples there is the scary decision to "try" in which you tell yourself it will probably take 6 months, a year, more... before anything actually happens.

Our decision to think about having kids in our 20s was the culmination of several factors. We happened to have met young, married young-ish and been financially stable. I was training as a paediatric nurse giving my oestrogen levels ample opportunity to soar to the point where I would probably have stolen the next cutie from the ward. A key influence was when I attended a university lecture given by a female obstetrician at one of the top London hospitals. She wasn't interested in what parents of different ages can bring to the table, be it energy levels, life experience or financial security.

Her main point was this: the "right time" is purely biological. If you want to maximise your chances of being able to have children, simultaneously reducing risks to yourself and your baby, you need to complete your family by the age of 30. Yes THIRTY. Not 40. Not 35. And yes, COMPLETE your family, that is, give birth to all the children you want to have by the age of 30. She had little sympathy for this whole getting your life in order idea. She argued that the media focuses too much on haranguing teenage mothers when they should be driving home the risks of infertility and pregnancy and birth complications in older women. She even stated that any 30-something woman visiting her GP for some totally unrelated issue should be sat down and asked when she is planning to start a family.

I may have taken this logic slightly too much to heart. Our second child was born 11 days before my 30th birthday. He is probably our last (see post on how many children to have!) but I knew we wanted a family and wanted to keep our options open as to how many kids we might want. I had also seen enough very sick children in hospitals to know that I wanted to reduce the risks as much as possible. So knowing that family is the most important thing to me, I prioritised children. Over my career, my social life, my hobbies and ambitions. Question is, was that the right thing to do? For me? For my husband?

In truth I can only answer for myself. I suspect my husband would happily have waited longer. He misses the spontaneity and relaxed approach to life more than I do. I miss the freedom of breaks and holidays, the knowledge that we can't go somewhere edgy, hell anywhere without a highchair, for a few years seems to have narrowed our horizons. I miss exercise and challenges - I want to climb the 3 peaks and trek Macchu Pichu. There is always the danger of feeling trapped. Or out of sync with your peers. If you are stuck at home with the baby while everyone else is partying or at fancy restaurants without you it can be tough. You can switch jobs, houses, partners, pets but yes, kids really are for life. And just as your partner's mental state affects yours, be it depressed, calm or elated, so do your children's emotions. As Kevin Bacon put it in an interview recently, "you can only ever be as happy as your unhappiest kid".

From a positive angle of course, if your kids are happy, you are happy. Luckily young children are often the happiest people on the planet. If they feel loved and safe, they are fun, creative, enthusiastic beings who are a joy to be around. If you are younger parents, you hope you will get to watch your children grow up and maybe your grandchildren. If your own parents are fit and healthy, they will have longer to enjoy the kids too, playing a formative role in their lives. You also get to see a whole different side to your friends. Quite often it is the friend you least expected to be interested in lego, stories or endless games of hiding who suddenly steps up and you love them even more for being a great friend to your children as well as yourself. You get to enter a kid-friendly world of kids' festivals, cafes, shows, adventure playgrounds, swimming pools with slides and wave machines. It's less hedonistic but bringing out your inner child is probably the most carefree you can be without drugs.

And when I do get to do something without the kids, boy do I enjoy it! When we went to the Take That show at Wembley Stadium, I was on a total high. I was never even really into Take That but give me a night off, a pims, a buzzing crowd and a big show and I was on cloud 9, far more so that I would have been before the kids came along. A night out is a major luxury to be savoured. Worth having another drink, a dessert, going for better seats because we can justify the expense by the rarity of the opportunity. I joined a book club recently and we talked about every topic under the sun as the wine flowed, it was fantastic. I suppose it's like everything in life, without sacrifices and lows there can never be the same joys and highs. Before children I was on a steady 5 or 6. Now I am on either a 3 (both kids clawing at me, wailing at full volume, while I am covered in food/sick/wee etc) or on a 9 or 10 as I bop about the kitchen with my 2 year old to pop songs at 7am or tickle my baby while he laughs and laughs...So we could have waited, but why risk not having these amazing times as a family?

But then, we were lucky in that we had each other. It's up to you if you decide to put career or adventures first, or pay off your debts and get a mortgage, but if you want kids and aren't sure you're with the right person, that is a tricky one. Our lady obstetrician didn't seem to have much truck with waiting for the right relationship. I know of friends of friends who have decided to go it alone as they realise they are running out of time to meet that perfect someone and have a baby. But to be honest, parenting is so intense in my experience, doing it on your own or with a less than willing partner out of choice, seems hugely masochistic and possibly dangerous. Babies and young children are exhausting, demanding beings who can try your patience to the nth degree. You need someone to hand them over to, to reduce the risk to them and yourself from weeks, months and years of sleep deprivation, frustration and irritation. You might not be able to admit to struggling if you feel like you made your bed and now you have to lie in it. Whatever age you are, you need people around you to help. Any carer needs someone to share with and vent at.

Of course, the truth is there is never a "right time" because no one knows what it is like to be a parent until you are one. You are jumping blindfolded. Even if you have seen at firsthand your siblings or friends dealing with their broods, the tiredness, the guilt, the love, the pride, you still don't get it. I know this, it happened to me.

Occasionally, we have friends to stay for the weekend who lie-in until 10 or 11 in the morning. By which time, we have got everyone up and dressed, had breakfast, had a play, gone for a walk, picked up the paper and pastries, come home and are finally twiddling our thumbs. "What are they doing?" my husband asks incredulously. I guess that says it all..!


  1. I think the impact of the housing crisis will have a massive impact on how many people have any children at all. After all, when you're sharing a house with 5 other folks and you don't have space to hang your clothes up, where are you going to put a baby? I spent the majority of my 20's doing this and now I've hit my 30's I'm lucky enough not to be in that situation anymore. But loads of people will do that for much longer.

    Perhaps you can't change biology. So what are the choices for the masses? Have a kid on benefits or no kids at all unless you're earning pots of cash by the time you're 25? Most people have only just left uni then, if they went. Stacks of people are still living with their own parents into their 30's. Perhaps that's the answer. Community living. Grandma gives free childcare too.

    Perhaps it's like jumping off a cliff. It never feels like there's a right time to do it. And that's why so many "accidents" happen. Perhaps we just think too much. After all, my Mum was 36 when she had me and I only have one head and five fingers on each hand. My great great grandma had 16 kids and they all lived in one tiny house. That's the other extreme. Maybe we expect too much of ourselves and for our families these days.

    - Kay

  2. I think you're absolutely right. In the current economic climate, it's tough to think about bringing up a family with a potentially lower standard of living than you had yourself growing up. It undermines the whole social trajectory of onwards and upwards, thwarting social mobility as communities stagnate in unemployment and deprivation.

    But as you say, it depends what your minimum standards are. Is it for each child to have their own room? Or is love all kids need? Luckily getting hold of secondhand clothes, toys, books etc is easier than ever before; there are thriving sales of clothing bundles on ebay and charity shops are now seen as cool places to grab a bargain, losing the social stigma of neediness. If you refuse to buy into the commercialisation of childhood, fun stuff comes cheap.

    Families come in all shapes and sizes and I guess there are few guarantees these days. I suppose my argument is about prioritising what is really important to you but with your eyes wide open as to the realities and risks of your choices.

  3. The bedroom tax is an interesting case in point as the government are deciding exactly what counts as basic standards for families on housing benefit. Always worrying when the standards you set for other people's families are lower than those you enjoy yourself.

  4. The bedroom tax is crazy. People don't choose the council houses they live in, they are just assigned to them. If the council are doing a poor job of distributing them then it's their fault, not that of the occupants. Part of the problem is that council houses and flats are, by today's standards, quite a luxury. The one I grew up in is bigger than anything I managed to rent since AND it has a big garden. The middle classes - or the "emergent service classes" as we've recently been labeled - look at people on lower salaries than them, living in bigger flats, with green eyes. I kind of understand this. But there's no point in trying to extort money from people who don't have much anyway. Everything's just become a bit upside-down.

    I think you make very good points. Everything is always a trade off. People always strive for the idealism of - get married, have a good job, buy a nice house, have 2.4 children who go to a good school but in reality that exists in about 2% of cases, (I just made that statistic up - as all good statistics are). The problem is that the having kids bit comes last and it's really the only thing that can't be put off. Also I think the point about lecturing girls about not having babies too young is an important one. Not because I want to encourage teenage pregnancies before people are ready, but because it has an impact on the psyche. People feel like they can't have children until they're grown up. And it's tough to feel grown up when you have an idea of what a grown-up lifestyle is and you can't achieve that.

    I'm not sure the media want us to breed anyway... what with all these programs about child birth and "bed time live". What a nightmare!