Life is full of surprises. This morning I found myself tweeting: “I think Kirstie Allsopp has a point” which, had you asked me, I would have thought about as likely ever to happen as “I fancy Nigel Farage”. But I do (think she has a point, that is, not fancy him). She’s touched on something I’ve been thinking for a while, though. In an interview in today’s Telegraph, as well as talking movingly about the recent death of her mother (inexplicably, largely ignored in reactions), she says:
“Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward. At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”
So let’s get the obvious arguments out of the way. No, I don’t think that it’s a waste of time to educate women post-16. No, I don’t think that women should dash into having babies with their first partner. No, I don’t think that having babies should be all that women aim for in life. And no, answering points later in the interview, I don’t think that settling one’s daughter into a bricks-and-mortar venus fly trap and hoping for a handsome sperm donor to come along and fill her cradle by the time she’s thirty is necessarily my parenting model of choice (even assuming that I were ever to have the finances available to try it). All of this notwithstanding, and the cartoon politics of personalities aside, Kirstie has picked up on a real issue here that deserves consideration. It is a hell of a lot to ask someone. It’s only going to get worse now that graduates are leaving university with increasingly large debts due to tuition fees, property prices in the cities where the majority of new graduates will find their initial post-University jobs are climbing ever higher, and those jobs themselves are paying (if at all) barely above minimum wage.
What’s the point of University for anyone? That’s a different question. For the purposes of this post, though, in the absence of a parent to help bridge the gap, its hard not to think that starting a family in the 15 years after graduating will slide ever further out of reach. All of that, without considering the uncomfortable fact that female fertility does decline as we age (even if it doesn’t exactly “fall off a cliff”).
Meanwhile, also in the news today, but less decoratively and therefore less deserving of headlines, is the story that women are cutting short their maternity leave due to concerns over job security and financial constraints. Child Benefit has been restricted and is shrinking in real terms, while changes to employment tribunals mean that women who are illegally discriminated against in the workplace during pregnancy or maternity leave are left unable to take action or claim redress. Government ministers talk about the “burden” that working mothers place on their employers, while members of Ukip happily suggest scrapping maternity leave altogether, and pressure on wages and changes to the benefit system create a vicious trap for many at the lower end of the income bracket. “Family-friendly”, in the mouths of politicians, seems to equate more to an empty rhetoric on lowering the cost of childcare and an unquestioning drive to extend its availability, rather than considering children’s needs or listening to what parents say they actually want.
Against this backdrop, in the knowledge that we’ll be living and working for longer than any previous generation, perhaps there is an argument that we should get the inevitably awkward years of child-rearing out of the way young. Stay at home, under the care of a securely earning man, churn out the babies and inconvenience no-one with demands to leave the office for Nativity plays or chicken pox. We could see a cadre of sleek cougar undergraduates, achieving dual honours in our subject of choice while Mrs Robison-ing our younger male counterparts on the side. We could continue in the commodification of motherhood; treating it as just another kind of consumerism. We could keep talking about the whole thing in the language of personal fulfilment and personal choice, while determinedly ignoring the real factors at play. Or, and of course this is the realm of pure fantasy, we could normalise motherhood.
We could accept that many women will have babies during their twenties and thirties, not persist in considering it some wilfully obstructive anomaly. We could look at ways of absorbing the impact that this has on workplaces, we could address young families’ needs, we could try to spread the load of the early years, both financial and emotional, across our society with the aim of securing the long-term engagement of skilled, educated and committed women and a focus on improving children’s chances.
Imagine if having a child wasn’t considered potentially so toxic to a woman’s career that the timing of it had to dominate everything else she does in her life? Imagine if there was a will to make it all just work, rather than blaming women for their own predicament because they took a supposedly wrong route when no other was realistically open to them?
Or we could scoff at the words of a TV presenter who’s inadvertently highlighted the Catch-22 so many women, graduates or not, find themselves in and carry on as before.