I saw a video today on YouTube made by a teen mum; a girl of seventeen with a four month old baby. I watched it for a while, and what struck me was how incredibly immature the girl seemed and yet here she was disinfecting her kitchen, sterilising bottles, splitting up large packs of chicken breasts and mince to go in the freezer and playing at home with her boyfriend and young family. She was only a little bit older than my daughter and yet seemed a world away from my happy, carefree teenager, who is constantly talking to her friends and whose only worry is if she can have a birthday party this year with the current restrictions we are facing with Covid.
Yet this girl of seventeen was so naive that she did not seem to be mature enough to consider the enormity of the task she was undertaking; in short, she seemed to be taking the whole experience in her stride. I can recall when my children were small, I was in a permanent state of concern and doubt. Was I feeding my baby properly? Was my baby getting the right nutrients that they needed to grow? When was the right time to send them to nursery? Why had they slept eight hours solidly? Had they reached every single developmental stage at the correct time?
I had my children comparatively late in life. I was thirty before I had my first; a son, and I was approaching thirty-eight by the time I had my second; a daughter. My daughter will frequently tell me she has ‘older’ parents. To her fifty appears such a colossal age.
I recall finally plucking up the courage to tell my mother at the age of thirty that I was pregnant. It is no exaggeration to state that I was terrified of her reaction and I dreaded telling her more than anyone. Her response was typical of her view of having babies, “I expected more of you, Elisabeth.” It was not as if I had anything to be ashamed of. I was married. I had a nice home. I had a job. I could provide for my child. Yet my mother thought that I had ignored everything she had long preached to me. It was against her strong feminist views. Furthermore, my mother had to marry at nineteen when she became pregnant with my brother in 1966. It was a different time then and a different attitude. There was a stigma attached to having a baby outside of marriage. In fact, in those days there was nothing worse than it. “Unmarried mothers” were blamed for every failing in society from juvenile crime to graffiti and poor examination results. My mother believed that she had been forced into marriage and she was made to give up her career as a librarian, since it would not take a maths genius to realise that she had conceived out of wedlock.
As a result of my mother’s views, I spent much of my formative years believing that having a baby whilst young and unmarried was the worst thing that anyone could do. In fact, more wicked than anything at all, drugs, crime, you name it. None of it could compare with this heinous sin. In the village where I grew up, a girl of sixteen became pregnant and she was not married. One day I was walking to the local shop with my mother and the same girl was out, pushing her baby in its pram. My mother’s face revealed a look of disdain and disapproval and she deliberately crossed the road in order that she would not have to speak to her. “Don’t ever let it happen to you.” My mother warned. This continual cautioning throughout my childhood was reiterated so often that I actually believed that if I ever tried to have sex before I was eighteen, I would spontaneously combust.
To me, thirty seemed the right time to have a baby and yet within the area where I lived at the time, it was considered old. In the hospital, I was labelled a ‘geriatric mother.’ I was certainly the eldest on the ward considering that in the bed next to me was an eighteen year old, who was about to give birth to her fourth child. I had a lot of health problems with both of my pregnancies and yet my mother who had given birth at nineteen and twenty-two seemed to float through her pregnancies with no issues. I was born at home with my Dad cutting my umbilical cord – quite revolutionary for the time.
I felt an immense sense of shock with my first baby. I was used to living my life in the way that I wanted with no commitments at all. Now here was a baby, who was reliant on me. I could no longer sleep in. I had to get up and care for him. I had to put his needs before mine. Quite a change when you have been used to doing your own thing for so long. Later, when I had my daughter, I can recall the utter exhaustion of my nearly forty year old body getting up to feed her in the first few nights and thinking. “I’m far too old for this.”
There were so many positives with having young parents. In many ways my parents grew up with my brother and me. My dad always had boundless energy and he would take us out sitting on a little seat on the horizontal crossbar of his bicycle. We would go all over Nottinghamshire. He had an incredible sense of fun and would play games with us, chuck us around and tickle us, over and over again. He was also young enough to love pop music and we would spend many afternoons listening to his record collection. He became a grandfather relatively young and he was involved in the same way with his grandchildren that he was as a father, whereas I am not sure I shall know my grand-children that long. My Dad has had a huge impact on my life, and I would be absolutely lost without him; a further benefit of having young parents. It concerns me that since I am nearly forty years older than my daughter, I may not be around to help her through those more difficult times in her life such as the menopause.
However, in some ways having children older can be a good thing. I like to think that having a teenager in the house keeps me young because I am kept up to date with the latest trends and luckily there is always someone to ask about computer or phone issues, even if my questions are frequently met with a rolling of eyes. I have more financial freedom to pay for education and extra-curricular activities such as music and dance lessons and to provide my children with whatever they need materially. Furthermore, I think I am a much more tolerant person now than I was in my youth and there is no doubt that with increased age comes greater life experience and wisdom. For my mother, having a baby signalled the end of her career and thus it was no surprise that she resented her children for this and felt in many ways that life had been unfair, especially given the morals of the period in which she was born. I have always believed that my career has been enhanced by having my children and they have certainly never been a barrier to my professional progression.
Perhaps in many ways, we tend to look with rose-coloured spectacles at opposite situations to our own. We always wonder what life would be like had we gone down a different path. So, all things considered, when is the right time to have a baby? I shall tell you when. It is whenever it is right for you. That is when it is. No sooner or later.