Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s “contraversial” question about motherhood is now on Comment is Free in the Guardian Online. She commented in the Sunday Telegraph that:
“I was perfectly capable of setting up a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, ‘Now is the time to have a couple of children, and when I am 30 I will go back and I’ll get my PhD.’”
CiF asks for comments on whether she is right.
Of course she is right. In part.
Not about setting up home at 14 - my idea of being grown up at 14 was so far from what I now know to be what being adult actually is actually about as to make my diaries from that time both embarrassing and naively charming.
And it’s time spent “growing up” – either in the world of work or learning to live away from home at university that makes it possible to deal with the complex and multiple demands that you have to handle both in raising a child and running a household.
Commentators have tried to turn her words into a row about teenage sex. Just to be clear, in my heart of hearts I don’t think that people should be having sex outside marriage (or civil partnership) and that a lot of heartache and pain could be avoided by people not doing so. But I also live in the real world and realise that they do, and will. As a former student of history, I also know that 200 years ago people were betrothed and married in their early teens. What they were not doing was using sex as a form of social communication. But I digress.
I think that Hilary Mantel’s point is not that people should be choosing to have babies on their own with no visible means of support aged 14, but that currently societal norms are structured against female biology.
Women are most likely to have problem-free births and pregnancies in their 20s. But if you have gone through school and university, in your early 20s you are only a couple of years into a career.
There is in any case a gender pay gap that appears between male and female graduates within three years of graduation, but we also know that significant time out of the labour market early on in your career and the need to work part-time seriously affect your ability to “get on” in your career.
The jobs market is still broadly structured around the (convenient for men) idea that you get educated, take up a career (whether via an apprenticeship or not), work at it, taking on more and more responsibility until either the Peter Principle kicks in (or indeed the Dilbert Principle) or you become the boss.
Needing to take time out in the middle of that to ensure that there is a next generation that can pay for your pension when you are old doesn’t really fit and leave millions of women these days in a daft situation: have kids and accept that either you’ll take a lot of time out and perhaps never attain a position matching your ability level, try to work part-time in an environment of fine words but ultimately scepticism about whether your are truly “committed” to your career and straddle the two worlds uncomfortably, take the male executive route i.e. have kids but never see them, or don’t have kids.
This is such rubbish.
At the moment many women are putting off having kids until their late 30s, or later. There are articles in the press about getting eggs frozen, about how it’s your “right” to have kids when you want, how many cycles of IVF you should be entitled to (or if you read the other sort of newspaper, how women should not be working but running the house and popping out babies and getting homecooked dinner on the table for their man).
But the truth is that having a baby is more difficult as you get older, that it is harder and more risky for both mother and child, and the risk of Down’s Syndrome and similar increase exponentially.
There was a story in the press a year or so ago about the rise in births of children with Down’s, saying that the “caring UK” was a more accepting place in which to raise disabled children than in the past. But the rise of the older mother is also a factor, and while you love the child you have you do wonder if all of the people that put off having a child until so late in their reproductive lives fully realised the potential impact of that decision.
Besides, getting woken up at all hours of the night is hard at any age, but even harder as you get older.
How much better to have your kids when you are physically at the optimal point to do so?
Of course there are arguments too. How would it be possible to afford to raise children without a decent salary behind you? How will you ever get women at the top of businesses if they don’t even get going on their careers until their 30s? What about more equal sharing of parenting responsibilities?
And doesn’t the structure of the modern relationship also argue against this alternative model?
If I’d been having kids in my very early 20s, I’d have been having them with one of my university boyfriends and we’ll never know if that relationship would have endured with children involved (it didn’t with none, obviously, and that’s something of a relief for both of us).
But while I’m a monogamist who believes in marriage for life, many people see it as until divorce does us part, a situation rendered even more painful and complex when children are involved.
Would that, too, be changed by following a different life pattern?
The rush to condemn Hilary Mantel as condoning teenage pregnancy (a curious target which the government surely cannot really be held responsible for bringing down directly unless there are taskforces standing by to invade teenage bedrooms, bathrooms, parks and wherever else couples-of-however-transient-a-nature are trying to get it together…) risks overlooking her fundamental point that society still does not operate to the benefit of men and women equally.
For me, this is so obviously true, I can’t believe that anyone would even try to deny it or defend it as self-evidently the way things need to be.
But it’s not just women alone that are being overlooked.
Until we value motherhood (and fatherhood too) as necessary for the rearing of well-rounded children best able to achieve their potential rather than as an inconvenience that takes people out of wholehearted pursuit of money, and children are not treated as an irritation, a “choice that other people have made that I should not have to pay for” or worse, as a threat, then we will keep having this ongoing issue of arguing whether women should be in the workplace or the home, or whether there is a gender pay gap and if so why and can and should anything be done about it. Can’t we just accept that raising the next generation is actually a very important job and value it as one?