In a society starved of certainty, there is no 'baby hunger'.
This season, girls, procrastination is the new black.
You don’t go to the gym – you pay your membership, and sit in the pub talking about how you might go tomorrow. You don’t move jobs – you resign yourself to the fact that your colleagues are quite nice, really. And you don’t have kids. You spend half the time scaring yourself silly about what might happen if you fell pregnant tomorrow, and the other half in a panic about the dangers of leaving it too late.
The indecision and insecurity of modern life provides fertile ground for a book like Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Baby Hunger, just published in the UK to great controversy (1). The book’s central thesis is that women spend too long pursuing their careers and whoomph! by the time it comes to have children, they’ve left it too late. The biological clock stops, short, never to go again…and the old women die, cheated, miserable and alone.
As if by publicity magic, a few days after Hewlett’s book was serialised in The Times (London), a survey was published in the journal Human Reproduction, which claims – apparently for the first time – that declining fertility in women starts under the age of 30. According to the study, of 782 women aged 19 to 39 and their partners, women aged 19 to 26 had a 50 percent chance of pregnancy in any menstrual cycle. This fell to 40 percent among the 27 to 34 age group, and to 29 percent among women aged 35 to 39 (2).
What are we to make of this new panic, this older-women-in-potential-childless-trauma-shock? Insofar as it has any practical implication for women’s child-bearing timelines, it is entirely unhelpful. But as a broader discussion, it reveals a lot about how our anxious society views pregnancy, parenthood, adulthood and work.
The Human Reproduction study did not show that older women could not get pregnant – just that it might take them longer. ‘[What] we found was a decrease in the probability of becoming pregnant per menstrual cycle, not in the probability of eventually achieving a pregnancy’, said Dr David Dunson, who led the study’s research team (3). Or to put it another way – the older you are, the more sex you’ve got to have. What a scary thought.
In dispensing her advice to ‘do it now!’, Sylvia Ann Hewlett seems to have drawn heavily on her own experience. She had the last of her four children after fertility treatment at the age of 51 – and therefore advocates employing a calculation of ‘backward mapping’, where women think about how many kids they want at a particular age, and start young enough to make that happen (4). There might indeed be a case for this if you want four children – but given that most women seem quite happy with their 1.7, there seems little need for such complicated mathematics.
One big flaw in Hewlett’s thesis, as many UK commentators have pointed out, is that it implies that women who have children later in life have done so because of a Grand Plan, which has meant that they avoid finding a partner and dedicate themselves to their careers. If Bridget Jones et al taught us nothing else, they showed that thirtysomething singletons do not exactly set out to be single in their thirties – and while it is all very well for Hewlett to urge women to be ‘seriously proactive’ in their twenties, that assumes they have a partner to be proactive with, and the kind of life they are prepared to organise around children right now. Even couples deciding to start a family do not, in real life, expect their reproductive abilities to work according to a calendar and a chart – ‘planned parenthood’ continues to be incredibly hit and miss.
And yet, and yet…. All these commonsense criticisms aside, Hewlett’s arguments have touched a nerve. As Jackie Ashley argues in the Guardian, ‘There is an industry in scary books’, but ‘the only ones to take notice of are the ones that chime with life, the ones that report on something you’d noticed but not articulated already’. (5) In her own way, Hewlett has picked up on a real confusion surrounding womanhood, motherhood, life and work in the twenty-first century. And that’s what we’re all reacting to.
We all know people who have struggled to have kids in their early thirties, and people who have easily conceived in their forties. We all know stories of IVF miracles, and heart-rending tales of people trying, and failing, to get pregnant on fertility treatment. We know that whatever reasons people have for having however many kids they have, at whatever age they have them, the reasons are deeply personal. There is no right or wrong way to do it: there is no script.
But beneath this personal decision-making is a broader culture of anxiety surrounding everything to do with pregnancy and childbirth. Nobody just ‘has kids’ anymore – we think very carefully about why we want them, and what impact they will have on our lives. And the framework we are given to make these decisions is ambivalent.
Contraception and abortion are facts of modern life. Only the most die-hard Catholic sees a problem with contraception; abortion is something that most people view as distasteful, but necessary. Pregnancy and childbirth, however, are increasingly presented as a problem. The most sanguine of pregnant women is scrutinised for signs of post-natal depression; horror stories abound about the pressure that young children put upon women’s health, their sleep, their marriage, their career; pregnant women are subject to endless scares and ‘helpful advice’ about what food they should eat, what supplements they should take, and how they need radical lifestyle alterations to avoid doing anything that might harm their child.
The days when pregnancy and childbirth were seen as somehow natural are long gone. Now, having a baby is presented as just about the most difficult thing you can do.
We are used to pregnancy being seen as problematic when it comes to teenage girls. The idea that girls ‘throw their lives away’ by having children too young has become deeply ingrained. But pregnancy is now presented as risky and difficult for all age groups – and twentysomethings increasingly have an adolescent take on the world (See An anti-independence culture, by Jennie Bristow). In this nervous, infantile climate, when a 19-year-old is repeatedly told that children limit her life chances, why would she necessarily think differently 10 years on, when she feels that her ‘life chances’ are only just getting off the ground?
The notion that babies limit your life relates, of course, to the broader issue about women and work. Women are no longer expected to stay stuck in the home, and are actively encouraged to have careers. Good, good, good. But as the UK government virtually press-gangs working-class women out of the home into dull, poorly-paid jobs, many middle-class women (the ones with actual careers) seem to be choosing to stay at home and raise their children. What was once considered to be the trap of domesticity is now often seen as a privilege, as a positive lifestyle choice. Why else would there be a movement of ‘house husbands’ in the USA, who actively choose to stay home and play mom?
In their eagerness to reject Hewlett’s conclusions, most of her UK critics have argued that the real difficulty facing women in their child-bearing decisions lies with the social structures that support working parents. There is no doubt that better, cheaper child-care is badly needed, and that this might ease some of our worries about the when and how to have children. But let’s not pretend that this discussion hinges only on the question of how society treats women and children. It’s also about how we see society, and how we see ourselves.
Hewlett’s critics have accepted her view that women can’t ‘have it all’ – all they disagree about is why. She blames the biological clock, her critics blame the lack of family-friendly policies. But the prior question in all this is – do women want it all? Whether you are twentysomething or fortysomething, it is possible to juggle career and kids – you just have to want both of them badly enough. It seems to me – based on no pseudo-scientific evidence whatsoever – that many women are not sure how much they want either. Hence the tortuous character of this debate.
There is a big difference, after all, between women who have careers because that is just what you do now, and women who are absolutely committed to getting to the top. There is also a big difference between women who want kids and have them, and women who want kids someday but are too scared of the implications to wean themselves off their favoured method of contraception. If women end up waiting for the biological clock to kick in because they were not ready to be ‘proactive’ in their twenties, this presumably means that they did not want kids before. This is a choice, not a destiny. And the only thing that’s ‘wrong’ with it is that it indicates a general level of unease within society about some fairly basic questions.
Women have been let out of the home and into the workplace – at the very time that the workplace has been found wanting. Nobody now argues that their career is everything – even employers are desperately trying to find ways to accommodate other aspects of their employees’ lives. Yet at the same time, home-life has become pathologised. Parenting is presented as frightening and difficult; staying at home is treated as a symbol of social exclusion. The upshot is a generation of women and men who hover uncertainly between the private and public spheres of life, wary of committing to either one.
So far as this relates to people’s childbearing choices, there is no baby hunger, and there is no baby terror. There is only baby maybe.
Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: marriage and commitment in singleton society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. Respondents to her essay include Fay Weldon (novelist), Yvonne Roberts (author), Ed Straw (Relate), Barb Jungr (chansonnier), Eddie Gibb (Demos), Mary Kenny (author), Helen Wilkinson (Genderquake), Piers Benn (philosopher), Bel Mooney (author) and Dolan Cummings (Institute of Ideas).
To order a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone 020 7269 9220 or see the Institute of Ideas website
Scared of being Mother, by Jennie Bristow
An anti-independence culture, by Jennie Bristow
(1) Baby Hunger, Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Atlantic Books, 3 May, 2002). Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
(2) ‘Baby hunger: the body clock starts ticking at 27’, The Times, 30 April 2002
(3) ‘Baby hunger: the body clock starts ticking at 27’, The Times, 30 April 2002
(4) Why men shouldn’t get trapped by baby-hungry women, Guardian, 25 April 2002
(5) Women really can have it all – with a little bit of help, Guardian, 24 April 2002
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