In our monthly series, The Personal is Statistical, we'll be talking about where statistics have interacted with our personal lives. They are a bit different from the blogs we usually post, but we hope you'll enjoy reading them. In this blog, Nancy Kelley reflects on her generation's relationship with motherhood.
I’m from the generation of women that grew up in the shadow of a moral panic about teen mothers. Our job was to take advantage of women’s hard won access to higher education and the labour market. We were supposed get out there and build a career - having babies young was just letting the side down.*
We grew up and hit our 30s (with or without the career) only to find ourselves facing a tidal wave of media coverage about about fertility ‘cliff-edges’ and a massive rise in older mothers along with their ‘high risk pregnancies’ and expensive fertility treatments.
To be honest, it’s not really clear where we were supposed to squeeze the children in, particularly when you think about the career limiting impact of taking maternity leave in your 20s.
I’ve always assumed that a) the teen pregnancy thing was mostly exaggeration, and b) the ‘rise of the older mother’ thing was mostly accurate. Then I saw this:
Just look at young mothers! The total number of children born to younger mothers starts climbing sharply in the mid-1950s, reaching a peak of 378,021 in 1968. That’s a 68% increase over the space of just 13 years. After the late 60s’ high water mark, the rate of births to young mothers falls back and remains pretty stable between 1975 and the late 80s, before it starts to fall steadily. So when I was a teenager in the 1980s, the UK had just come out of a young mums baby boom. Not what I thought the sexual revolution was about at all. No wonder my dad was freaking out.
But the older mothers are just as interesting. Far from being an unprecedented era for older mothers, today’s rate of birth looks just like that most wholesome of cultural touchpoints: the post-war baby boom. We may be having fewer children, we may be having our first children later, but the number babies of being born to older mothers really isn’t so very high. When I adopted my oldest son at the grand old age of 39 I was expecting shocked looks at the stay and play. I thought everyone I would assume I was his nana. They didn’t.
Because my dad was right and I was wrong. Go figure.
Click here to read the other blogs in this series.
* This was the story for white middle class women of my generation. There is (of course) a much more complex and very important story about changes in family formation and its relationship to class, ethnicity and migration.