I assumed that the photograph of Kate Garraway looking gaunt and wrinkly was part of a campaign to get more older women on television (the broadcaster is 46, but in the photo she has had prosthetic make-up to look 70). Good on her, I thought: older women need more cheerleaders.
In fact, the ITV presenter and mother-of-two was not applauding older women at all: she was scolding them for having put off childbirth.
As frontwoman of a new campaign to get women to have children earlier – created, doubtless disinterestedly, by a manufacturer of pregnancy-testing equipment – Garraway is urging young people not to make the same mistake as her generation. Which, as it happens, is also mine.
Like her, many of those my age ended up having children in our forties (she had her first child at 38 and her second at 42). Certainly, the older mother has to be prepared for a bumpy ride. She will face medical complications such as greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia for the mother, and Down’s syndrome for the child.
But, as I’ve grown tired of arguing, her age gives the elderly primigravida plenty of advantages, too. She has done the soul-searching – and knows she wants a baby. She has got her bank account in order and chosen the right partner to lay the foundations for a solid family.
There’s another feature of child-rearing that the older mother is better equipped for: she knows not to take too seriously the gurus and self-help merchants who weigh in with unsought advice. I was 40 when Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Baby Hunger came out. This American bestseller helpfully trotted out stats about women over 40 having a greater chance of getting hijacked than married. If I’d been of a more impressionable and vulnerable age, I would have felt suicidal upon reading that my fertility had dipped with every year over 35, and was now at a tragic low.
I know Kate Garraway is trying to be helpful by raising the alarm, once again, over older mothers. But she should know that there are bigger problems. New mothers today have inherited the same scenario Garraway and I faced when we finally conceived – and it’s no pastel-hued nursery.
Ten years after I had my daughter, NHS maternity wards are still as risky and midwives still as scarce. Good childcare is just as expensive, and as rare. Job security is, if anything, more tenuous than when I took my maternity leave in 2003. As for an affordable home (one in five childless 31- to 44-year-olds say they have delayed having kids because they can’t afford to buy or rent), property prices have rocketed in precisely those areas where jobs are most plentiful.
The only progress, in the decade since Garraway and I had our children, is in the technology that allows women to postpone having babies: the latest advance in IVF triples the chances of conception. No wonder that the number of women who choose to give birth in their forties has also tripled.
Having a child comes naturally for many women. For others, though, it is something over which we agonise, often for years. The women I know (admittedly, all professionals) didn’t put off having children as part of a carefully calculated programme. We felt unable (because there was no man, no money, or too much pressure) to take on the momentous task of raising a child at that moment in time.
Yet we were also terrified that by delaying pregnancy, we had jeopardised it. It was a painful time. I remember avoiding certain friends and certain places. At Sunday lunches, or in Peter Jones, children or women with bumps were always achingly visible. No one – except the fertility experts, who had a vested interest – helped us through that torment.
So if Kate Garraway wants young women to have babies earlier, she’ll have to change more than her make-up.