This past week, the Guardian ran an op-ed by Zoe Williams that warmed my cold Harpy heart.
Over-40 women, you’ve given birth to a healthy facet of modern life, reads the headline. Quite simply, there is no best age to be pregnant.
Hell. Yes. For once, a story about older mothers that isn’t full of won’t someone think of the children! hand-wringing or if you wait too long, you’ll be infertile! scaremongering.
The number of children born to women over 40 in England and Wales hit a record 27,000 last year, and has trebled in the last 20 years – a trend that has alarmed medical experts. Philip Steer, a professor of obstetrics, said: “There are two big problems with [postponing children]. First, you are less and less likely to get pregnant. Second, the physical risks of pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia, diabetes, kidney problems and tiredness, go up from the age of 30.” Nobody would argue with any of that; but nor does a simple deduction follow that women over 40 should avoid getting pregnant.
I’ve written before about the rush to judge women who use fertility treatments to conceive postmenopausally. The condemnation of women who have children later in life—by whatever means—is simply another visit from the uteri police, along with an implicit condemnation of women who have the nerve to de-prioritize reproduction, if only temporarily.
The judgmental tone is all rooted in a timeless anxiety that women are too feckless and/or stupid to be left in charge of growing children – an anxiety I have an ever growing awareness of, the more background misogyny I realise there still is. Propagation is the main work of any species, and if you seriously believe women to be inferior, it must be incredibly aggravating to see them in charge of it.
It’s always aggravating to the Patriarchy when women want something other than all babies all the time, even though men often make the exact same choice to delay having children.
You can easily discredit any of the usual arguments condemning older mothers by pointing out that they apply equally, if not more so, to older fathers. Most of the anti-older-mother arguments are irrelevant, or part of a double standard, as Williams points out:
Furthermore, it’s quite true – women are feckless and/or stupid, but only to the same degree as the rest of the population. Some women will have a baby at the last possible moment, just as some people will file a tax return the day before they get fined. Some women will get breast cancer as a result of late-age births, that’s just a fact. Some men will get bowel cancer because they don’t get enough exercise, and maybe 40 years ago they would have been working manually and got plenty.
But in a chauvinist world, older dads tend to get a slap on the back and a fond ribbing about how their guys can still swim, whereas older moms get the side-eye from their neighbors, the media and the medical establishment, (unless they’re Sarah Palin, who’s used her over-40 pregnancy to burnish her reputation as an anti-abortion crusader and Good Christian Wife).
But even if you play by the rules and have children young, there’s still no guarantee you won’t be smacked with a different double-standard:
The people who hector mothers in the 35-plus bracket would be (indeed, are) the same people who berate mothers living on benefits because they had children young and can’t afford to go back to work.
Mega-bestselling author J.K. Rowling experienced exactly that backlash as a young single mother and attacked it in a recent op-ed:
Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown.
If you have babies too young, you’re a disgrace, and a burden on society. Have them too old, you’re unnatural and a bad mother. It’s the classic double bind. It’s worth noting that J.K. Rowling got caught in both sides of the double bind, as she is also one of the “35 plus bracket” moms, having had two children after that age, with the younger born shortly before her 40th birthday.
The conclusion of Williams’s essay is the best part:
Mothers over the age of 40 may have swelled in numbers…but they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s savagely annoying to see them presented as a social problem. All these reports should start with a simple word: “congratulations”.
Hear, hear. If those over-40 moms represent “a social problem,” what about their mates? A small percentage of those women may have conceived via artificial insemination, but the vast majority got pregnant the old-fashioned way: with middle-aged men who are somehow magically exempt from being labelled a social problem, even as they do exactly the same thing as the women.
The take-home lesson here? Have children whenever you’re ready. You’ll get blowback regardless of your choice, so you might as well prioritize your own health, finances and well-being, because the one thing that’s certain is society won’t do it for you.