Andrea Mara: Are We Done With Biological Clock Scaremongering?
Have you heard the one about the tax incentive to encourage women to have babies by the age of 30?
No, it’s not a joke. It’s a real suggestion. The idea was put forward by a medical professional who is concerned about the relatively high average age at which Irish women first give birth.
Meanwhile, in the UK, NHS fertility expert Professor Neeta Nargund feels that fertility lessons should be added to the school curriculum.
“Educated women are not necessarily educated about their fertility,” said Professor Nargund.
It seems women can’t be trusted to make informed decisions on reproduction in either country and clearly this is a women-only issue, with barely a reference to men in any of the coverage.
Suggesting arbitrarily that women should be trying for children by the time they’re 30 doesn’t at all take into account the many, many reasons why that might not be desirable.
Financial security is one factor considered by couples who are thinking about starting a family – and I don’t mean a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of weekly earnings, nor something that can be easily fixed with a handy tax incentive. Lots of couples want the security of a home or a stable career before starting a family - it's about more than a temporary bump in take-home pay.
Being ready is obviously important – starting a family is a huge decision, and not something any of us rushes into without some reasonable element of certainty. Having a baby by 30 in case it becomes more difficult at 31 doesn’t seem like a great reason in its own right.
Oh, and then there's meeting a partner; pretty important for most of us who want children. For any single woman in her early forties, reading that she should have been trying for a family ten years ago is pretty frustrating, as indeed it is for the woman who met her partner in her thirties.
The world is full of people who weren’t ready to start a family at 30 for all kinds of reasons, and scaremongering about a fertility time-bomb is extraordinarily unhelpful.
So too is the assumption that women don’t understand that fertility does eventually start to drop. It’s patronising to presume that we’re all sitting around, clueless and feckless, waiting to be told what to do. I’m sure it was unintentional, but the suggestion of a tax incentive smacks of condescension. As though women in their late twenties just need a nudge from the taxman to get churning out babies - because they’re too silly to make such life-altering decisions unprompted.
And what about this fertility time-bomb? A very interesting and widely-quoted piece in The Atlantic two years ago blew the notion that fertility falls off a cliff at 35 right open. Author Jean Twenge discovered that the oft-quoted statistic (that one in three women between 35 and 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying), is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. In other words, as Twenge says, “Millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.”
There are relatively few studies based on more recent data, but those that have been carried out yield much more optimistic results. One study showed that with sex at least twice a week, 82 per cent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceived within a year, compared with 86per cent of 27-to-34-year-olds – a relatively small difference. Another similar study showed 78 per cent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 per cent of 20-to-34-year-olds.
So perhaps a tax incentive for the 30-year-olds isn’t so critical after all.
Though if there’s State support on offer, we’ll take it where we really need it, thank you very much. It's not incentivising us to have kids – we can figure that bit out on our own. But perhaps a modicum of support for after we have kids - that would be nice.
Like properly paid maternity leave, or paid parental leave? Something that enables parents to have that first crucial year at home with their babies? An obligation on employers to consider requests for flexible work, so that mothers (it’s almost always mothers) aren’t faced with the 'all or nothing' choice of full-time work or resignation? Or State support for childcare costs, in the form of high-quality subsidised places for children?
Actually, anything at all would be great. But for afterwards please – for when we’re holding the baby - not while we’re still just thinking about it.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after the kids, Elissa, 8, Nia, 6 and Matthew, 4, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.
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