Taking a fresh look at younger Irish mums in their 20s
Growing numbers of medics believe that women should think about starting families in their 20s. Is it time we started seeing younger mothers in a new light
At 17, Ellen O'Keeffe thought her life plan would fall gloriously into place. She would earn a degree in applied chemistry, find a job in the industry, and settle down and have children young. What she hadn't bargained on was becoming a mother at the age of 21.
Six weeks into her final year at college, the Waterford city resident and her boyfriend Clayton discovered she was pregnant. Ellen knew instantly what that meant - dropping out of college.
"From the start, you are told 'if you get pregnant on this course you have to leave straight away because you are exposed to so many harmful chemicals'," says Ellen, now 23.
Her career might have been put on hold, but she discovered there were advantages to bucking Ireland's trend for older motherhood: Ellen had an easy pregnancy and was only in labour for two hours before her son Aidan was born.
She meets other young mothers through her blog, Elandbabya.com, has lots of energy to look after her son, and plans to go back to university in September. Once her career is established and she's in her 30s, Ellen will likely be relishing the freedom from the ticking of the biological clock her fellow students may encounter at that age.
"Aidan wasn't planned, but no matter what age you are, you just make it work," Ellen says.
No doubt this would be music to the ears of Professor Geeta Nargund, a reproductive medicine consultant in London who has sparked a furore by saying women who want to have children should do so before they hit 30 so they can avoid the heartache of infertility later in life.
In a letter to Nicky Morgan, the UK's education secretary, the professor suggested schools teach teenagers about the body's optimum age for reproduction.
"I have witnessed all too often the shock and agony on the faces of women who realise they have left it too late to start a family. And so often the cry will be 'Why did no one warn me about this?'"
Professor Fionnuala McAuliffe, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital, agrees wholeheartedly with Nargund. "Our mothers are, on average, older than mothers in the UK, so everything that Professor Nargund says in relation to the UK is relevant to Ireland," she says.
"We don't want women having children when they are not ready for it, but we need to get the message out there that, biologically, women do much better when they have their children in their 20s instead of their 30s.
"We come across couples who have been together since their early 20s but are not planning to have a family till early 30s. Of course, fertility is starting to decline at that stage; the orange light goes on at 35 and the red light goes on at 40. The older the mother is, the more likely she is to have complications.
"I have so many couples saying to me 'if I had known this, we would have started earlier'. Infertility can affect up to 15pc of couples, and we are seeing increasing numbers seeking assistance."
McAuliffe, who is also head of obstetrics and gynaecology at University College Dublin's medical school, believes the department of education should introduce lessons to school curriculums that would drive home the importance of women giving birth in their 20s. It could form part of the curriculum's current lessons plans for social, personal and health education, she says.
"All schools have education programmes around family, nutrition, lifestyle and that would be an ideal place to raise awareness among schoolchildren that there are medical and biological issues around giving birth at an older age," she says.
David Walsh, the medical director at the Sims Fertility Clinic, would like the government to encourage more women to have children at a younger age by taking a leaf out of other European countries and offering financial incentives.
The fertility experts' comments have caused some consternation among their target demographic - the young women in their 20s who were taught as teens to avoid early pregnancy at all costs and have focused on building up their careers and enjoying their social lives.
Deirdre Clohessy, a 27-year-old marketing manager, blogger and part-time journalist who lives in Limerick, says she would not be able to afford to have a brother or sister for her seven-year-old daughter Kaylah.
However, the English and media graduate says becoming pregnant at 18 helped her set life goals.
"If you have children in your teens or your 20s, you're prepared to change your whole life and work a lot harder," she says.
Pleas to 20-something women to become mothers sooner rather than later are nothing new. Kirstie Allsopp, the British property expert and TV personality, landed herself in hot water last year when she said that if she had a daughter, she would tell her not to go to university straight away.
"Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit - I'll help you, let's get you into a flat," Allsopp said. "And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you're 27. If everyone started having children when they were 20, they'd be free as a bird by the time they were 45."
Allsopp's remarks wouldn't have sounded controversial just a generation or two ago, when 20-something middle-class mothers like Ellen and Deirdre were far from a novelty. In 1980, a whopping 60.1pc of births were to women under the age of 30, compared to a third in modern-day Ireland.
As women began attending university and entering the workforce in greater numbers, and as contraception became more widely available, the age of first-time mothers began to creep up. Women are now 30.3-years-old, on average, when they give birth for the first time, the Health Service Executive reported in March.
Because it is now the societal norm for new mothers to be in their 30s and 40s, 20-something mothers can be perceived as a curiosity. But women like Ellen, Deirdre, and Lisa Ryan, a 23-year-old mother, graduate and call-centre employee in Cork, are proof that .
For Lisa, who also works as a freelance writer and blogs under Fourwallsrainydays.com, becoming a mother to son Eliott at 22 with her boyfriend Dillon, has reaped some unexpected benefits.
"I have a degree in Celtic studies and I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life, but having a baby made me think about it," she says. "Anything I do has to be my career and bring in enough money to bring up my child the way I want to. When Eliott turns 18, I'll be 40 and I can get on with my life."