By Archeeta Pujari:
My mother was 22 when she had me. She came from an age where it was a privilege to have been given the opportunity to go to university. But by the time of graduation at age 21, she had long outstayed her welcome in her parent’s house. She was married off to a man 10 years her senior, and told that her sole duty in life from this point forth was to have and raise a child.
With no knowledge of biology or anatomy, and her young body unable to cope, she had a number of failed pregnancies before I was born. I was welcomed with open arms, as the blessing that finally made her life complete as a woman.
What was it like being raised by a mother so young that she still suffered from the remnants of her teenage acne?
Her own mother was married at the age of 14 and begun having kids at 16. To my grandmother, children were a substitutable commodity; a vast and sizeable brood that ensured at least a few survived to adulthood in the days of high infant mortality, seen and not heard, interchangeable, nameless, anonymous.
My mother, better educated and indoctrinated by the population control slogans of the early 90’s, however, only intended to have one child, and having only one shot, that child had to be perfect. But barely out of childhood herself, and with my father working full-time, my mother was not best suited to raise a child. She had no knowledge of child psychology, she didn’t understand that children are fickle and irresponsible, that they sometimes lack logic, understanding and foresight. She viewed my childish curiosity as insolence or arrogance. She suffered from mood swings and fits of blinding rage. She took my thoughtless words and actions at a deeply personal level, and was unaware of methods to discipline me other than violence, lies and manipulation, let alone the long-term consequences of these.
I don’t blame her for this. As a 23 year old myself, I can’t see myself doing much of a better job. What I do blame is the society that forced a young girl into having a child when she was utterly unprepared to handle it. Proof of this came many years later in the form of my much younger brother. By this time, my mother was well into her 30’s, and he was raised with more patience, maturity and understanding.
That elusive biological clock
We are often bombarded with the conventional wisdom that a woman’s fertility peaks in her 20’s and drops off a cliff after the age of 30, and therefore the window to have kids is limited. Women are pressured into believing that their life remains incomplete without children, and the window in which to fulfil this requirement is a limited one, often leading them to have kids before they are fully ready.
So what’s the best age to have a baby ? Well, it depends on what you mean by best.
The late teens or early twenties are best biologically. Women in their twenties have fewer birth complications and the lowest rates of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, and infertility.
But early pregnancy doesn’t work well in today’s society, which is organized around smaller families and more full-time employment for women. If pregnancy occurs too early, social difficulties often follow, with pregnancy more likely to interfere with educational achievement, earning power and family life. The biological best age for a baby is, therefore, out of sync with the sociological best age.
Various studies have shown that the overall “best age” for having a first baby, in terms of long-term health and mortality for both the mother and child is 26-34.
Although younger mothers may have healthier eggs and more energy to raise kids, older parents are more mature, better settled in their relationships and can thus provide a better, more stable family environment to raise a child. They are more established in their careers and can thus afford to take more time off to spend with their children without worrying about lost career opportunities. And they are financially more secure, leading to better opportunities for children and less stress in family life. The impact of these sociological factors, rather than just the pure biological ones, on the well-being of both child and mother are often under appreciated.
What’s more, while motherhood can now feasibly be put off thanks to IVF and fertility treatment, corporate careers are often not so forgiving. With most people remaining in full time education well into their late twenties, a maternity break during early years of a job often means career suicide. In an ideal world, the onus of raising a child would fall equally on both parents. However, this is often not the case. It is almost always the woman who will miss out on promotions, experience and networking opportunities, a blow that is difficult to recover from. It is not surprising that firms see women with young kids at early stages in their career as less appealing.
All in all, the advantages of delaying parenthood are greatly underappreciated. Women trying to balance career with families can reasonably expect optimal psychological and social outcomes for both the mother and the child by delaying motherhood into their thirties.
But surely egg-freezing is not the solution
The recent move of Microsoft and Facebook to offer free egg-freezing services to female employees has garnered flak from all quarters, feminist and traditionalist alike. However, the key facts are being overlooked. Women are not being told to sacrifice family life for their careers. Instead, this move provided women with more choice and flexibility to reach the best possible outcome.
It is a fact that early pregnancies have disadvantages in terms of overall health and well-being of mother and child, both emotionally and financially, and late pregnancies have benefits. However, before the advent of fertility-extending technology, there was a limit to how long childbearing could feasibly be delayed. It is also a fact that it remains difficult for women to resume high-flying careers after a maternity break in many cases. Not only due to overt discrimination by the firm, but due to shifting priorities and lost “on-the-job” time.
There are many women who deem motherhood more important than a career, and that is perfectly fine. However, there are also women out there who have the desire and ability to have successful careers like their male counterparts. Until recently, declining fertility gave women no choice but to risk their careers by having babies while they still could.
New technology such as IVF and cryogenic freezing of oocytes extends the fertility window to give women the ability and flexibility to have children at a time that is best for them: emotionally, socially and financially. It provides the best possible solution to the age-old conundrum of career vs. family.
Ultimately, whether to have kids, and when, is a personal choice, and should depend on one’s own priorities. And it is this choice that is important: Women should take into account their own situation and personal goals when deciding what age to start a family rather than any societal norms or constraints. Provision of egg-freezing technology to female employees enables them to avail this choice.
The bottom line
Women who find early motherhood more fulfilling than a high flying career should be respected for their decision rather than being labelled unambitious. However, they should not be pressured into early motherhood when they are not ready for out-dated reasons and should take into account the benefits of delayed birth when making their decision.
And women who choose to delay motherhood should not be looked down upon but applauded for their ambition and determination to have it all.