In my capacity as editor, I occasionally take part in ‘Women in Business’ events designed to inspire schoolgirls to explore their full potential. Four of us might explain the diverse routes to our current positions, and what difference being a woman has made.
Without wishing to sound preachy, I’ve taken it upon myself to remind the girls that part of being a woman in business is juggling work with family life, or even deciding whether to have children at all.
A few years ago, I pointed out that at 34, I was aware of the clock ticking but felt no certainty that I wanted children. By January 2010, 12 weeks pregnant, I had become an evangelist for motherhood. “Don’t leave it too late, girls,” I implored them, emotionally (while at the same time reminding them not to tackle the issue straight away at 15).
Recent figures released by the Office of National Statistics revealed that record numbers of women were becoming first-time mums in their 40s. At 37, I’m not far off that mark. While I don’t feel old, my age has undoubtedly had an impact on the way the health service views my pregnancy.
To quote my GP at my first appointment: “You are an elderly mother, you know.” The midwife ticked the “at risk” box entitled “Primagravida over 35”, which made me sound like an ageing ballerina; then put me down for consultant led care, despite a clean bill of health – purely down to my, ahem, advancing years.
Truth be told, I wish I’d felt ready to have children earlier. I realise that if I want more than one child, I’ll have to get in there pretty darn quick. Yet I feel calmer and less selfish than I ever have before, and with pregnancy has come a sense of maturity and responsibility that I wasn’t previously sure I possessed.
Why are women leaving it later to have babies? There are many reasons. We no longer aspire purely to marry and raise families in the way our grandmothers were expected to. We are encouraged, like those 15-year-olds, to fulfil our potential through challenging careers. Thanks to the efforts of our ancestors, from the Suffragettes to the Women’s Libbers, we have more choices in life than ever before. At times, that choice can be a bewildering torment.
Unlike some women, who just don’t meet the right man until later in life (if at all), I have been with my partner for well over a decade. Our tardiness in producing progeny led to friends and family assuming that we either didn’t want or couldn’t have children. Some saw fit to remark upon this openly, which was quite hurtful. I lost track of how many people responded to our news with: “Was it planned?” At first, this seemed intrusive; by the end, I’d chilled out about it and simply enjoyed watching people’s jaws thud to the floor.
My partner’s broody instinct kicked in well before mine. Some time around his 40th birthday, he decided that he wanted to have children while he was still young enough to play football with them. A few years behind him, I remained ambivalent. It wasn’t that I didn’t like children; I just liked giving them back after a couple of hours.
I treasured the freedom of taking off whenever we pleased, to the cinema or for a weekend away, without the hassle of babysitters. A cat seemed like a suitable substitute – extremely independent and sufficiently affectionate, happy to be fed by the neighbours or even by a machine.
Most of all, I enjoyed my work immensely, and didn’t relish the prospect of having to compromise. The idea that women can “have it all” seems somewhat mythical when you consider that maternity leave, benefits and wages in general all favour mum staying at home over dad.
But last year, I had an epiphany. It suddenly felt like the right time. Rather than seeing a baby as an onerous obstacle, I saw it as an exciting adventure. And I realised that “later” was in danger of becoming “late”, possibly even “too late”.
No sooner had I reached this decision, than all the headlines conspired to remind me of the risks. I woke at 7am to hear the Today Programme presenters intoning gravely how cases of Down’s Syndrome had risen sharply due to women like me leaving it late to have babies. A double page spread in The Observer rammed home how fertility took a nosedive in women over 35. I was being force-fed guilt by the tablespoon, and later read with wry amusement how birth rates in women over 40 were soaring as they dispensed with birth control, convinced by the headlines that their child-bearing days were over anyway.
Nor had I imagined how long it might take to get pregnant. One newspaper GP suggested having sex every other day for a year might do the trick, which is fine if you have the time and the energy. Later, I met women who had finally fallen pregnant after 10 years of trying. That’s stressful enough if you start early, never mind when time is running out. Perhaps it was my initial ambivalence, and my naïve assumption that I would have at least a year to get used to the idea, that ensured I fell pregnant within months (and not many at that).
I will never forget the day I found out I was carrying a child. First came disbelief, that the super-duper digital tester I was convinced would say “Not Pregnant” actually told me I was several weeks gone (as did the next two I bought just to make sure). Then came mental turmoil, trying to focus on an interview but with my mind fixated firmly on this life-changing revelation. I broke the news to my partner from the privacy of a red phone box on Truro’s Lemon Quay; he simply chuckled.
But it was the following week that I truly realised how much the news had affected me. Still losing trickles of blood, I called the doctor, who booked me in for an early scan at six weeks. Over an agonising weekend, I shed tears of fear that the life I’d only known for a week might be over before it had truly begun. The sight of a shapeless white blob on a hospital screen, pulsating with a silent heartbeat, was one of the most wonderful, life-affirming sights we had ever seen together.
“If it has a strong heartbeat at this stage, the chances are very good that it will hang on in there,” the doctor had said. We knew now that our baby, while only the size of a grain of rice, was a fighter, and I felt deeply privileged (and just a little daunted) to be the one who would help to build, nurture and protect it through nine months of growth.
As I write, my daughter is asleep in her Moses basket, and I’m overwhelmed with love and contentedness. After all the soul-searching, it seemed that I only had to get pregnant to stop being afraid of getting pregnant.
Some might ask: why would I want to spill something so intensely personal to the world via a blog? Perhaps it’s because when I was trying to make sense of the dilemma in my own mind, I Googled something like “whether to have children” and found very little response to give me solace. Maybe someone like me might read this blog and feel less alone – and be reassured that, should she and her partner decide to take the plunge, there is great happiness to be had.
* One of the few useful websites I came across on my Google search was www.ticktockcoaching.co.uk. Life coach Beth Follini looks at many topics, but especially whether or not to have children. While Beth charges for telephone sessions (I didn’t do this), she also posts links to relevant articles on her website for free, and has a blog of her own at http://www.childrenornot.blogspot.com/