Gather round, little girls: let me tell you a bedtime story. It’s a horror story, one as old as the hills. Hear the sad tale of the Woman Who Waited Too Long. The Woman Who Waited Too Long thought she had the world at her feet. Motherhood could wait, she said, until she was ready, until her partner was ready, until she had got her education and advanced in her career, until, until, until… there was always a reason. Then one day she woke up, and she was ready. But her womb was as barren as a field in winter. There would be no baby for her: she had left it too late.
Woman are told this tale, in one form or another, all our lives.
How old is too old to have a baby? Naomi Campbell recently announced a pregnancy at 50. But according to a YouGov survey of the great British public, the ideal age for a woman to become a mother is at 28 (the 2019 average for first-time mothers was 28.9). More contentiously, 46 per cent of male respondents believed that the latter half of a woman’s thirties (from age 36 onwards) was “too old” (making the Duchess of Sussex, who has just had her second child at 39, over the hill), but 71 per cent of men thought that age, for a man, was an appropriate one at which to take on fatherhood. A double standard? Twas ever thus.
The survey has enraged women on social media, and I can see why. It feels like yet another way of passing judgment on women’s lives. Later pregnancies are common, but the notion that one’s fertility “falls off a cliff” at 35 remains a powerful cultural myth. It is supposedly backed up by statistics – the one frequently cited is that 1 in 3 women aged 35 to 39 will not get pregnant after a year of trying. No matter that this is based on a study that used French birth records from 1670 to 1830; its supposed wisdom has become pervasive. Also pervasive is the phrase “geriatric pregnancy”. That’s what your doctor will call it, one woman whispers to another, if you become pregnant after the age of 35, and we all know that later pregnancies carry more risk. This is all in addition to variations of the horror story told above.