What's the best age to have your babies?
Whether you carefully weigh up the pros and cons, or simply act on broodiness, Clover Stroud has advice on what to expect whatever age you decide to give birth
A couple of decades ago, embarking on motherhood in your mid-twenties would have been seen as the norm, rather than the exception. And it says something about the changing (and challenging) economic climate we live in now that, if you’re young and in possession of a degree, then chances are having a baby won’t be high on your list of priorities. Peaches Geldof (pregnant for a second time at just 23) is unusual among a generation of women who are more likely to be focusing on their education and career than having kids.
Realistically, many 20-somethings today are struggling to find a job, let alone support a baby at the same time. But while your twenties might prove challenging financially, there’s no doubt that from a physical and genetic perspective at least, these are your most fertile years, with the risk of health and birth complications to both mother and baby, such as hypertension, miscarriage, Caesarean and birth defects at their lowest, and statistics suggesting that conception in your twenties can lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life. Bucket loads of energy are also a huge advantage of becoming a mum in your twenties, and this is the age at which your body will return quickest from the trials of pregnancy and labour.
That said, embarking on motherhood in your twenties brings its own challenges. ‘I’m definitely seen as a bit of an oddity among my friends, most of whom are still living a more student-style life than me. And most men of this age aren’t really ready to become a dad either,’ says Katya, 26, mum to Iris, three, and Danny, one. ‘But I knew I wanted kids early and was lucky enough to meet my husband (who wanted kids as much as I did) at university, and get pregnant straight after I graduated. The physical toll on my body wasn’t as intense as I’d been expecting, but coming to terms with the loss of my old life – when I could do what I wanted, whenever I wanted – was harder than I thought. And the fact that my friends are still living that sort of life means that I can feel quite isolated at times.’ But while Katya has had to put her plans to be a teacher on hold, she’s confident she’ll be able to embark on her career by the time her children are at school.
Pregnant at 31, after enjoying over a year of marriage and, it goes without saying, a committed and settled relationship, the Duchess of Cambridge has achieved what many women consider the textbook-perfect age for having a baby. Because if your twenties were about late nights and crawling up the career ladder, having a baby in your early thirties might be seen as the optimum moment for embarking on the responsibilities and challenges of raising children. The risk of miscarriage at this age is relatively low, at just 11 per cent, and your fertility will still be relatively high, although it’s likely that at this age, some women will first start to hear that persistent tick-tock of their internal biological clock.
So, you’re in a good place physically to start a family in your early thirties, and there’s a lot to suggest that this is a good moment in many women’s emotional lives to have kids, too. Because despite the fact that your twenties are often described as the best years of your life when you can enjoy absolute freedom, a straw poll among my friends confirms my own sneaking suspicion that it is, in fact, your thirties when you really hit your stride as a woman. Finding that defined sense of who you really are, combined with the increased self-esteem it brings, can really help when making the life-changing transition from carefree girl to new mum.
‘By the time I reached my early thirties, I felt a profound change come over me in terms of confidence and self-belief. I knew who I was, and losing some of the insecurity andself-absorption of my twenties meant I knew I was definitely ready to start a family,’ says Sarah, 34, a self-employed graphic artist and mother to one-year-old twins Zara and Zenna. ‘I’d have struggled with this degree of responsibility ten years ago. Juggling work and the girls is always going to be demanding, but I needed my twenties to really get established professionally. That start I had means I felt more confident about easing off the work when the girls were born. The contacts I made in my twenties also made stepping back into work much easier once the twins were a little older.’ Women who become mothers at this age report a high degree of maternal satisfaction, better equipped to enjoy the transience of pregnancy, and with a strong sense of not having missed out on opportunities for travel, socialising and building a career they enjoyed in their twenties.
As more and more of us choose to pursue exciting and (hopefully) financially rewarding careers, having a baby in your late thirties is now par for the course for many of us. This is despite the fact that, until recently, the term ‘elderly primigravida’ was used about any women embarking on their first pregnancy aged 35 or over – today that might be considered somewhat insulting!
Pregnancy in your late thirties isn’t without some real challenges, of course – your fertility starts declining from 35, and more rapidly from 38. Risk of physical complications also starts to rise, with miscarriage an 18 per cent risk aged 35, and hypertension affecting 20 per cent of pregnant women in their late thirties. At this age you’re twice as likely to have a Caesarean than you are in your twenties, and the physical demands of motherhood become more pronounced. But while your twenties might give you a certain physical advantage as a mother, delaying things until your late thirties can bring social and emotional advantages.
It’s fair to say that as we get older we tend to get better at life, and while a new baby can play havoc with the most stable relationship, by your late thirties you’re more likely to be in a more committed relationship than you might have been earlier. I speak from experience, having had my first two children in my mid twenties. It’s perhaps no coincidence that by the time they were one and four, I was a single mum. A decade later, I’m married for a second time, and have had a third baby. Bringing a child into the world with a greater sense of wisdom has made things much less stressful than it was first time around. Sure, the sleepless nights have hit me harder, and I imagine the extra stone I’ve gained will hang around like an unwanted guest, but I see these as a positive trade-off for the greater sense of wisdom and life-experience I can bring to my role as a mother.
The number of women choosing to postpone motherhood until their fifth decade has trebled in the last ten years. The fact so many of us chose to pursue careers or further our education has played a big role, but it also has to do with the fact that few of us find our perfect match in our twenties.
‘Older mums are often thought of as selfish for pursuing a career or enjoying excess “freedom” at the cost of their fertility, but this delay is usually down to not having met the right person,’ says Cari Rosen, author of The Secret Diary of a New Mum aged 43¼. ‘Over 90 per cent of the women I interviewed for the book would have started earlier, but just didn’t meet the right person.’
A growing number of websites dedicated to older mums, like mothersover40.com. and oldermum.com, suggest this is a trend that will continue. ‘There are many other factors, like infertility or recurrent miscarriages, that also account for later motherhood,’ says Jan Andersen, founder of mothersover40.com. But delaying things can take its toll – anyone who has run after a toddler for a day can testify to how knackering it is. ‘I didn’t have kids in my thirties as I was retraining as a barrister,’ admits Joanna, 45, mother to Anna, four, and Isaac, one. ‘The cost of waiting meant I was shattered for the first four years, as I went back to work once the children were four months old. But it’s been a price worth paying, and I certainly don’t feel I’m alone – all of my friends seem to be in the same boat! I think one of the biggest joys of motherhood at this age is our shared “no regrets” mentality. This is something we all really wanted, and I hope we pass this joy and pleasure on to our kids.’