Sunday 19 November 2017

So what's the right age to have a baby?

As Jade Jagger announces that her 21-year-old daughter Assisi is pregnant, Gabrielle Monaghan asks if youth tops experience for mothers

Fiona Maree with her husband Seamus and children Emily, Ellen and Tim
Fiona Maree with her husband Seamus and children Emily, Ellen and Tim
Deirdre Clohessy with her daughter Kaylah
Jade Jagger with her daughter Assisi Jackson, who is pregnant

Gabrielle Monaghan

At 22, April Bracken was leading a carefree life in Dublin. She had just graduated with a degree in performance and was relishing her burgeoning career as a theatre actress. But her life took a different turn when she discovered she was pregnant.

Noah, now three, was born when April was just 23. While she had dated Simon Colter, Noah's father, on and off since they were 14, the couple had only been living together a month before their boy arrived.

They moved back to their hometown of Drogheda to be closer to their families and cut living costs, and April began looking after Noah full-time.

"All of a sudden, I found myself in a different world," she says. "I lost a lot of my friends. It wasn't through any fault of theirs. Most of my friends are no longer in the country because they are travelling or they are studying for a masters.

"I still miss my social life but I know Noah was worth it."

A day after April and Simon got married in July 2012, the couple found out she was pregnant again. Baby Elijah arrived eight months ago.

"We decided that while we had one baby, we might as well have a second while we have the energy for them and that we would do all the hard work in our 20s and enjoy our 30s and 40s," says April, who is now 26.

The actress writes about her experiences as a young mother on her blog, Mama Courage, inspired by a Bertolt Brecht play and a salute to her passion for theatre. April doesn't regret having a child so young but sometimes feels isolated because of her age.

She describes having children in her early twenties as a "lonely road", not least because when she goes to mother-and-baby groups, she is typically the youngest mum by far. Yet there are unexpected benefits to bucking Ireland's trend for delaying motherhood.

"My mum is not even 50 yet so the kids have young grandparents. Older parents might have had time to enjoy money and a career, but my husband and I didn't have much of a lifestyle when we were child-free, so we don't have a mortgage or much to sacrifice. Plus, a lot of people say I don't look like a mum, because your body goes back to normal quicker."

April is a rarity in Ireland, home to the oldest first-time mothers in Europe, with an average age of 31.8 years in 2011. The proportion of births to women under the age of 30 has plunged to 34pc from 44.2pc a decade earlier, the Central Statistics Office reported last month. Births to the under 20s have dropped to 2.3pc, the lowest proportion since 1963.

Young mothers were society's norm for generations. But, as women began entering third-level education and the workforce in greater numbers, twenty-something mothers became a modern anomaly.

Thanks to science, the "ideal age" to procreate has proved an illusion. Contraception enables women to delay motherhood until they have become established in their careers and have met a suitable partner. If they struggle to conceive in their late 30s and early 40s, they can tap into infertility drugs and IVF.

Having children between the ages of 20 and 25 makes more sense for a number of reasons, a growing number of advocates argue. Women are biologically wired to have babies in their twenties because that is when they and their eggs are at their healthiest, because their pregnancies carry fewer risks than those of older mothers, and because they often have more energy for combining child-rearing with work. They can resume their careers in their 30s without worrying about disappearing from the workplace just when they are progressing in their roles.

Twenty-something mothers are also growing in prominence in the celebrity world, from 24-year-old Peaches Geldof, a mother of two, to Assisi Jackson, Mick Jagger's granddaughter. Jade Jagger, Jackson's mother, revealed in an interview last weekend that her daughter was pregnant with her first child at the age of 21, just a few months older than her mother was when she was born.

Assisi's baby, due early next year, will also make Rolling Stones frontman Jagger a great-grandfather at the age of 70.

However, most women are loath to begin motherhood at an age when their friends are travelling the world, sowing their wild oats and starting their careers. Even those who want to have children at that stage may find they are not financially stable enough to afford childcare or that their twenty-something boyfriends are ready to become fathers in a committed relationship.

Deirdre Clohessy, a 25-year-old working mum who lives in Limerick, felt judged after she became pregnant at 18 and became a single mother.

"We still live in a Catholic country and I felt people looked upon me differently," she says. "I would hesitate to bring up my child in an interview."

Rather than derailing her career, becoming pregnant at a was the catalyst for Deirdre to strive to better herself.

She had just "practically failed" her Leaving Certificate and had decided against going to college. When she found she was carrying Kaylah, now six, she did an access course, then studied English and media at Mary Immaculate, and has just finished a master's degree in English literature.

"I feel Kaylah made me the person I am today," she says. "When I found out I was pregnant, I was quite wild. I was like most 18-year-olds in that all I wanted to do was go partying. But I didn't want that life for her. And I didn't want to be the stereotypical young girl pushing a buggy in a tracksuit and living in a council estate."

Deirdre lives on her own and works in customer service. She wants to become a broadcast journalist eventually and has already appeared on Midday, the TV3 panel show.

More women should take their cues from Deirdre and April, judging from comments by John Higgins, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at University College Cork and a senior adviser to Health Minister James Reilly.

Like many medics, he believes it is a "mistake" that women are delaying motherhood. Fiona Maree, a 45-year-old mother of three, however, feels this concern is unjustified.

"I think a lot of that 'all your eggs will be dried up at 35 stuff' is scaremongering," she says. "We were trying for no length of time when I became pregnant."

Fiona had her first child, Emily, when she was just 22. Although the pregnancy was unplanned, Fiona married Emily's father and they went to England to work.

She met her second husband, Seamus, in her thirties and went on to have her son Tim at age 38 and another daughter, Ellen, when she was 41. The couple married in the summer and live in Aghalee in Co Armagh.

"There did seem to be a lot of financial pressure when I had Emily, because you had to make sure you had a home, keep the bills paid and we had no family support because we were away from home," Fiona says.

"This time round, I had the luxury of being able to give up work."

There can be, however, some awkward moments when parents are middle-aged.

"Seamus and I walked into a shop with the kids about three weeks ago and the lady behind the counter, who didn't see me, asked if he was looking after the kids for the day," Fiona says.

"She assumed he was the granddad because he has grey hair. When she saw me, she backtracked a little and said sorry. But people do look at you sometimes and wonder if you're a granny or a mummy."

Irish Independent

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