Gynaecologically speaking, I’m practically geriatric. By 35, women are told we’re dangerously old to be mothers and at greater risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or having babies with conditions like Down’s syndrome. That’s if we’re able to get pregnant at all, which, if you believe the scare stories about the precipitous decline in fertility women experience in their mid thirties, is almost impossible.
I don’t feel like I’m a dried-up husk, over the parenthood hill quite yet, and nor do the many women my age I know who are pregnant, trying or looking for a partner. And the evidence doesn’t entirely back this view up either, as nearly a quarter of babies born in 2019 were to mothers over 35, and some fertility statistics are still based on 18th century French peasants. But it all contributes to background thrum of anxiety that’s part of the rhythm of life for women my age.
Happily, the Government is here to help, and I’m not talking about Boris Johnson’s one-man baby boom. Ministers are extending the time limit for storing frozen eggs and sperm for up to 55 years, in order to give people more flexibility over when to start their families. That reflects both improvements in freezing technology and the upward trend in the average age of new mothers – now 30.7, compared to 26.9 in 1980.
A chance to pause the biological clock, build a career, get on the housing ladder and work out if we’re ready for kids sounds like great news for women. It reminds me of the US sitcom The Mindy Project, where a romantically challenged obstetrician starts a business called ‘Later, Baby!’. She pitches egg freezing to college girls as a feminist, empowering procedure, saying:
“Let’s be honest, guys, most men are complete garbage… [but] your body does not care if you are dating the wrong guy… your body and your eggs just keep getting older, which is why freezing them is actually a pretty smart idea, because it gives you a little more time so that you can try to find that one diamond in the crap heap of American men.”
The comic tension comes from the fact she’s talking to women too young, ambitious and busy dating to even think about babies – but it’s no joke. The chances of getting pregnant from a frozen egg are highest if they are harvested when a woman is in her 20s. This means by the time we start to worry about our fertility it may already be too late. Moreover, the chances of getting pregnant from a frozen egg are unclear. Just 1.8% of all eggs thawed for use in fertility treatment end up as a successful pregnancy, however the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority prefers to measure success based on how many embryos developed from frozen eggs result in a live birth, which is closer to one in five. But however you measure it, for many women egg freezing is a false hope, not an insurance policy.
Likewise, claims that helping women delay having children is a win for gender equality are overblown. Egg freezing may give some women more time to have children, but once they do they will still face the same penalties all mothers do.
Yes, women waiting longer to start families reflects the fact that baby making is no longer our only or best option. In the workplace, progress is such that the gender pay gap is now close to zero – at least until the age of about 40, when men and women’s earnings begin to diverge. One of the main reasons for that is women working fewer hours in less well-paid jobs after having children. For some that is a preference, for others it is an economic imperative.
The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £13,700 a year. For comparison a private primary school in my area rumoured locally to be attended by scions of celebrities charges £11,000. The Government funds 30 hours a week of care for children over three, but there is no help at all before that, so a family of two children could face six years of exorbitant fees. It’s no wonder many decide that it makes more financial sense for one partner to work less – and that partner is almost inevitably the mother.
Plenty of liberals will argue that is their choice, but there are deep-rooted stereotypes and prejudices that influence these decisions. These work both ways, curtailing mothers’ freedom to achieve their ambitions and fathers’ freedom to be as involved as they might like in raising their children.
The forced domesticity of the pandemic has been a magnifying glass for the inequalities within households. An IFS report found that mothers did more housework than fathers during lockdown, spent more hours trying to juggle work and childcare than fathers. Mothers who had stopped working did twice as much childcare and housework as their partners, while in families where the father had stopped working parents shared these tasks equally. Even in families where the mother was the higher earner, she still did more childcare than her partner. None of this can be explained by straightforward labour market conditions.
The upshot of all this is that, for ‘older’ mothers, wages and promotion prospects will likely stall, just at a slightly higher level than if they had got pregnant younger. That’s not to say that extending the time eggs can be stored isn’t a necessary move that could bring tremendous relief to a few would-be parents and help spread the joy (and the frustration) of starting a family a bit more widely, including to LGBT people. But let’s not pretend that science can resolve the difficult compromises every mother has to make.
Putting off having children won’t make balancing earning a living, looking after children, running a household and trying to have a life of your own any easier, nor will it help partners to share these burdens more evenly. The cold truth is that, when it comes to equal parenting, we’re barely out of the ice age.
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