David Richmond recognises why women are having babies later — they want to take control of their lives

Dr. David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, is both a good sociologist and a great feminist. He has pointed out that women who delay having their first child until at least the age of 35 tend to know what they’re doing. At last, contrary to statements made by his own college and other senior medical practitioners, someone has noticed that, in his words, “society has changed” and that women, though well aware of the statistical risks of miscarriage and chromosomal disorders, aren’t about to start having babies 10 years earlier.

It was about time someone in his position credited parents-to-be with a level of awareness that other public figures have failed to do. Of course, delayed parenthood is “an irreversible trend” – the reason I had my first child at 35, and am having my second at 38, is because I went to university in 1994, the year in which higher education started to become an area of mass participation.

Before 1994, going to university was a minority pursuit; from then on, the rapid expansion of universities and former polytechnics improved access for women and, to a lesser extent, those from working and lower middle-class backgrounds. I fell into both camps, and have come to see delayed motherhood as a consequence of social mobility.

For some, it’s a negative choice, something they feel they have been pushed into, whether because of housing costs, unreliable or uncommitted partners, work or simply a general feeling that the time hasn’t been right to get on with it. For others, it’s a positive one: you’ve had opportunities your parents never had and you’re damned if you’re not going to take them.

Educated women and motherhood

Educated women are armed to the ears with information; it’s the last thing they lack. Understanding the medical risks involved in leaving parenthood till later is weighed alongside having horizons widened, not purely in career and financial terms, but also in terms of travel, greater general mobility, relationships and cultural pursuits. Significantly, Richmond didn’t address the fact that the age at which you have your first child has a pronounced, and growing, class aspect. The geographer Danny Dorling points out that the last time the average age of motherhood was so high was when large numbers of young women were in domestic service, a trend altered only by the Second World War. My grandmother, in service until 1939, then working in factories throughout the war, had her only child when she was nearly 34. My mum, neither born into service nor educated beyond 16, had me at 23. Dorling’s research shows that women who haven’t been to university, living in areas where few people have higher qualifications, have children at pretty much the age their own mothers did. Where once women in, for instance, parts of south Wales and Surrey would have started families at broadly the same age, there is now a 10 or even 15-year gap between different areas so that now, he writes, “working-class grandmothers can be of a similar age to upper middle-class mothers.”

Moreover, says Dorling of the latter group, “the household incomes of those women’s families will rise faster than that of families in which women continue to have children at the ages of their mothers.” This is the crucial point: research published in the British Medical Journal shows that women living in poorer areas, in spite of having children younger, have babies that are more likely to die in their first year of life, are more likely to be born prematurely and more likely to be born underweight. Inequality, and its effects, is the real public health issue at play.

Rather than lamenting the choices of women who now have control over a fundamental aspect of their lives, Richmond has rightly acknowledged — and, in so doing, celebrated — the fact that they are not about to relinquish it on the basis of a degree of risk they feel we can handle. Now that’s out of the way, perhaps more energy can be devoted to getting all women to the same point.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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