Thursday, May 23, 2013

In praise of midlife mamas and the "considered approach" to parenting

A recent campaign sponsored by the pregnancy testing kit-makers First Response aims to "alert" women to the fertility issues of midlife mamas (35+) who might fancy themselves as mothers one day. Campaign frontwoman Kate Garraway has been on every TV and radio show that will have her declaring that she wishes she had her children at a younger age and that having a baby later in life (as she herself did) is a very bad idea indeed. The tone of the campaign was so patronising that I wanted to fight the corner for - shall we say - "considered parenting".
Using Garraway dressed as an elderly primigravida (who's clever idea was that then??), the campaign supposedly aims to raise awareness of women in their twenties and early thirties that fertility declines with age. Garraway (which rather brilliantly auto corrects to 'fadeaway' on an iPhone) uses her own experience as an older mother to point out the difficulties of conception after 35, stating that she was freakishly lucky to conceive at 38 and 42 but wants her younger sistas not to expect the same easy ride if they deign to start so late.

That's great Kate, but methinks you're preaching to the converted. As a 40 year old woman, most of my peers are in that critical 35-40 demographic, I would vouch that every single one of them has been fully versed in their fertility facts from a younger age and have been considering their options long before they turned 35. From my experience, I don't think that it is stereotypical blithe career women who put it off until it is too late, but rather the trend towards older motherhood has been prompted by women in their 20s and early 30s facing a series of issues that I argue SHOULD be considered before they dive in to parenting. Here are the top 3:

1. Financial position
It is easy to write off as mere frippery the issue of finances, but I would argue that while it may be too much to expect to own a terraced house or to have saved enough for violin lessons in advance of your baby's arrival, it is an important consideration to know that you can support your child financially. It is wise to think about how you and your partner will manage work or childcare once your baby comes along. Gone are the days when the simple solution was for one parent to act as the breadwinner and one to stay home. It's possible for some, but it needs some planning. Thinking through the home economics beforehand should not be written off as a wasted exercise.

2. Relationship status
This is one of the main bugbears I have with this campaign. Fertility is not simply a women's health issue and having a baby is not just a woman's choice. It takes two to produce that little bundle of joy and problems often arise when a woman's optimum fertility window is out of synch with her partner. It can take 35 years just to find the right partner, identify that he is keen on kids and agree your worldview on parenting. So why rush it? With 20-somethings being the highest rising percentage of divorcees, I am reminded of this priceless piece of advice my Step Grandfather, Uncle Fred (don't ask, it's complicated) gave to me when I was 31 and single:
"That 'life is short' business is b**lsh*t. Contrary to popular belief, life is long, so choose your partner wisely as you will have to spend a really long time hanging out with them".
Fred is right. Whether you stay together or not, your relationship with the father of your child will influence your children forever, so his part in this is therefore a very important consideration to make ahead of parenting. Perhaps a better focus of this campaign would have been to prompt people to have braver conversations about their future with their partners.
3. Ability to conceive
Garraway really drove home the fear factor in her interviews about the risk of miscarriage and the failure rates of interventions like IVF after 35. What she didn't point out was that these risks are present before 35 too. All I could see this doing was making those who feel sad about a loss even sadder. What is the point of that? What she failed to point out is that miscarriage affects women at all ages and is horrid at any time. There are things women can do before they try to conceive, such as finding out about their hormonal profile from their GP and eating healthily, but it is just not helpful to zero in on the potential horrors.

So, in conclusion, I can't point to a single woman I know who sleepwalked her way through her peak fertility without some kind of consideration as to whether or not she wanted kids, was in the financial position or relationship to do so, or was indeed physically able to conceive. Some of them breezed through multiple spontaneous pregnancies, some went through rounds of IVF, some have smaller families, some adopted, and others are child free. None of them need a smug TV AM presenter to preach to them the First Response facts of life.

Thanks all the same Ms Fadeaway.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Top (completely unsolicited) tips on having a baby

Sadie was very cross after
a tussle with a ventouse
This blog is prompted by a flurry of activity on the reproductive front among my friends and colleagues. It is totally unsolicited advice to brand new parents, so if you hate it, feel free to ignore at will!

I have now been a mum for five years. I love my kids enormously, but I found the whole experience a total mind-melt. Never one to read a manual, I largely avoided the baby books. And so without any input from Penelope Leach, Gina Ford, Supernanny or Annabel Karmel, here's my top tips for having a baby:

How not to freak out when preparing for birth...

1. Birth is not like an exam, you can read up on it all you like, but it will probably turn out completely differently. Don't expect to ace it. Everyone has a different experience so if you get a baby at the end of the process, then you can congratulate yourself that you did it right.

How to stay sane with a newborn...

2. Be kind to yourself. As an English person, I am culturally programmed to Keep Calm and Carry on, but this can leave you utterly depressed once you have a baby, so I advise that you set your standards super low for the first 12 weeks. Some new mums sweep around London with make up on with a two week old - I would celebrate getting myself dressed with a 5 week old in the room. Don't judge yourself whichever end of the spectrum you sit.

3. Make friends slowly. Upon the arrival of your newborn, you will be thrust into a world of coffee mornings with a control group of 6-7 women roughly your age and demographic profile. But remember, your antenatal group are not your friends, they may well become lifelong pals, but currently they are just random women with babies with whom you discuss poo. Never get upset by stuff they say.

4. Your relationship will take a hammering - but it will recover. A baby will have a similar effect on your relationship as any major crisis like a redundancy or horrible illness might. It is likely to implode through stress and sleeplessness, but you will probably emerge the other side stronger. This could take four years. Try and go to the pub now and then if you can.

5. Ahhhh Routine. In the first 12 weeks of your babies life, you will feel desperate for control and to regain a semblance of your former life. As you get used to the little monster you may even feel that you are indeed on a trajectory "back to normal". Then teething will happen and you will slide back down the slippery slope to "abnormal". It is perhaps more helpful to think of your post baby life as "the new normal". Of course they will sleep through the night one day. But don't bank on getting back in full control of your life any time soon.

6. Ignore advice, take up offers of help. You are hormonal. You will get upset by things people say to you, and - as demonstrated by this blog - EVERYONE will offer you advice. Ignore anything that stings. Take up any offer of babysitting so you can shower, or cooking so you can eat.

So on that note - use or ignore my advice as you see fit. Enjoy your baby. They are great and they don't smell gorgeous like that forever!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

We've come a long way, Baby - A moment of thanks to the Women's Movement

When you think about what life was like a generation ago, it is easy to imagine that people lived in simpler, happier times. And of course in many ways that is true. But while the media revel in nostalgia for old times and often curse today's celebrity-obsessed, consumer driven modern lifestyles. It is rare that we ever stop to take stock of how many good things have also happened since those "good old days".

So that is why I was delighted that BBC Women's Hour highlighted some outrageously sexist advertising that used to grace our newspapers without question back in the day. This festive advert illustrates the kind of thing I mean, but you can see the full display of 48 ads that wouldn't make it passed the advertising standards board these days at

Now, I'm not saying the battle for equality is won, but I am saying, maybe it is worth taking a moment to be grateful for some of the good things that we have achieved in the last fifty years. We've come a long way, Baby!

Not that I would ever say "I told you so"...

But... Vince Cable's indiscretion with two lovely young mums in his surgery (who just happened to be from the Daily Telegraph) illustrates my point about cognitive dissonance perfectly.

Vince is suffering so greatly with the psychological torture that is the coalition, that he just had to blurt it out to a friendly face. He is reported to have stated that ministers should be “putting a brake on proposals that are in danger of getting out of control" and he confessed that behind the scenes, the Tories and Liberal Democrats are fighting a “constant battle." Unfortunately for him he said this to journalists and now his reputation is in tatters.

The moral of this story: Compromising your true values will cost you dearly! 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quote of the day

"Modern man fits his ethics around his profession, not his profession around his ethics"

Nassim Taleb

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why toeing the line can cost you your soul - an introduction to cognitive dissonance

Poor old Vince Cable. Gone are the days when he could boast a Facebook following that proudly stated "In Vince We Trust". Today's Vince looks decidely uncomfortable in his new governing position. 

Never was this more obvious than this week when he had to publicly state his voting intentions on the Coalition's plans for university tuition fees. As one of the authors of the Lib Dem manifesto, the government's new proposals will directly contradict his own personal beliefs, yet he is bound by convention to vote against his values in the interests of the Coalition. He is clearly facing a crisis of conscience over how to proceed.

I see this as a classic case of "cognitive dissonance", Leon Festinger's 1957 theory that human beings crave consistency in their beliefs. The theory goes that when something that you do jars with what you believe, this dissonance either forces you to alter how you behave or change what you believe. Cognitive dissonance is very painful and for Vince it means that very soon he will have to either rationalise his values to suit his new position or he will have to quit. Something's gotta give.

But it is not just politicians who face this challenge. Many working people at some point in their career have to park their beliefs in order to get a job done. And it is the repetitive suspension of core values that ultimately leads people to fundamentally change their beliefs over time. As Churchill once said: "If you are young and not liberal, then you have no heart; but if you are old and not conservative, then you have no brain." If this weren't a truism then there wouldn't be so many former hippies who now read the Daily Mail in Surbiton and vote Tory.

To fit into the mainstream and cover a mortgage and the weekly shop, liberal ideals often have to be left at the door. And if you're not careful, eventually they get abandoned altogether in favour of an easy life. Think about it for a second. How long could you do a job that goes against your very core belief system? I don't know... maybe being an arms dealer? You might think you would never do such a thing, but what if it was called a "product manager" in the defence sector? You might just cope by rationalising it and looking at the "bigger picture": the status; the pay; the commute; the benefits - until you no longer remember what you didn't like about it in the first place. Dilbert explains this with clarity in this strip:

So why is this important? For me cognitive dissonace is a key reason why people lose their connection to the natural environment. For example: you may hold the core value that biodiversity is precious and should be protected, you may even be a member of the RSPB or WWF, but to do your job you may inadvertently harm the environment through the materials you source or the waste that your organisation creates. It's not your fault, it's the company's - you're only doing your job. But you have to live with it and to do so, you have to shift your values or leave the company, or the cognitive dissonance will get too much. And this is how your work can sever the connections you hold as a human being to your values.

Just think of our Vinnie: to remain "loyal" to the governing body that he represents, he needs to toe the line and vote against his instincts. And in the process lose his soul.

There just might be another way. Perhaps there is. It's called tempered radicalism... But more on that another time.