When you walk around town, or go about your life, do you ever stop to consider the fact that you have feet, or a nose, or perhaps some hair on your head? I ask because I am a woman over the age of 30, which means that I am used to living out my days while constantly aware of the fact that I have a womb. It’s just not something that happens with any other organ, is it?
I am over 30 and a woman and the world refuses to let me forget about the fact that under my rib cage and above my hips, there is a place in which another human being could be made then grown. The proverbial clock is ticking, though; soon, that place will become redundant, a mere pouch of flesh among others.
My rapidly withering womb and I were, as a result, amused to read a piece by MP Miriam Cates on why she believes that women aren’t having enough children. The Tory right’s rising star is hosting a discussion in Parliament to “raise awareness amongst MPs, journalists and policy makers about the need to take declining birth rates seriously”, as well as the “need to start proposing solutions”.
In fairness to her, it all started off pretty well. “The most common factor cited for delaying starting a family is the impact on household finances,” Cates wrote. In order to solve this, the government ought to create some “generous tax breaks for families”, and adopt “a radical approach to housing”.
Furthermore, a study commissioned for the event found that half of young women “cited career impact as a reason for delaying children”. As a result, both legislators and employers need to “create guarantees for mothers to return to their career at the same level following a break”.
These are, for the avoidance of doubt, all good points and suggestions – perhaps even… too good. Could this really be a wholly sensible and reasonable piece? Oh, of course not, don’t worry – you only have to wait for a few more paragraphs for things to fall apart.
“A surprising result of the poll was that most young women believe waiting until age 35 is not too late to start a family,” Cates wrote, perhaps misunderstanding the meaning of “surprising”, as those women aren’t wrong. Old beliefs on fertility falling off a cliff in one’s mid-thirties come from outdated and incomplete data.
In reality, around 7 out of 10 women will get pregnant within a year at 30; by 35, that number only drops down to 6 out of 10. It’s hardly a dramatic shift. Asking women to get pregnant earlier is, for the most part, an ideological choice, not a biological one.
It is also worth wondering if Cates has ever spotted the elephant in the room, namely that essentially every woman of even vaguely child-bearing age is no longer voting Conservative. Over the past 14 years, this government has made life needlessly complicated for essentially everyone under 40, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that women are putting off having children.
She was right to mention housing, of course, but it is only one part of the equation. Childcare is the one thing every parent I know talks about, usually with such despair that their faces look like Edvard Munch’s scream. Cates says she wants women to return to work, but even nominally well-paid acquaintances have found that their salary would only just about cover the cost of putting their children in nursery. Can you really blame them for putting off having kids, or having fewer than they’d wish?
Similarly, many jobs are now considerably more precarious than they once were, meaning that many people need to be at least, say, a decade into a career before feeling secure enough to take some proper time off.
In her piece, Cates wrote that “the most significant finding of our poll was that nearly three quarters of young women feel society doesn’t value motherhood enough”. Her conclusion is that we need to “start talking about children as a blessing”, which misses the point quite spectacularly.
Women know that they will not be able to have children at 45. Many of them are putting off a decision they wish to make because they are underpaid, in insecure jobs and not in a position to afford proper childcare. That is what it means to live in a society that doesn’t value parenthood; it isn’t about needing better PR for the very concept of “kids”.