Mariella Frostrup’s Bringing Up Britain: Best Age to Start a Family programme

A recent UK BBC Radio 4 programme covered the sensitive topic of the best age to start a family. Mariella Frostrup’s show highlighted how we have seen an increase in older mums, predominantly due to lifespans lengthening and women going to work.

The programme looked at the effects of these choices on society, generically. Things have changed dramatically as the radio show pointed out.

It was reported that today, more UK women have children over the age of 35 than under the age of 25. Birth rates over the age of 40 have tripled too since the 1980s.

It has long been documented that there are risks involved the older a woman gets – such as heightened chances of pre-eclampsia and diabetes – and experts have not changed their views on this.

Frostrup’s programme also highlighted that in 2011, over 31,000 babies were born to men over the age of 45

It was highlighted that a recent study has discovered an astonishing decrease in male fertility from 35 years onwards – it was once thought that age didn’t affect men in the same way it does women.

The programme looked at the negative perceptions associated with teenage parents, taking into consideration things such as relationship breakdowns, school drop-outs and drains on benefits.

It also considered financial factors, such as careers and the more recent affordable housing shortage that the UK, as a society, are facing.

Before introducing a panel of authorities in their own field, Frostrup posed the question: “So, is it biology letting us down or is it society?”

There to discuss this topic were: “Melinda Mills, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford; Vishal Wilde, columnist on political, economic and financial topics for The Market Mogul; Professor Heather Joshi from University of London, an expert in economic and developmental demography; Sophie Walker, leader of Women’s Equality Party,” alongside Sara Matthews, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital.

Naturally, each of us have different opinions on what is the ‘right’ time.

This was reflected when a group of parents were asked when they thought it should be. Responses were varied, with one woman saying that she’d probably have started a family when she was younger, so she could have more children. Another noted being more tolerant and patient as an older parent than she was when she was younger. And another suggested late twenties or early thirties as it would mean you could establish your career without any responsibilities.

One father said he didn’t think younger parents would find things any easier, in relation to sleep deprivation, for example, though he did point out that playing football in your fifties may be not be as easy as when you’re in your twenties.

The last woman to be heard said that she felt there wasn’t a right age and that it simply needs to be the right time to suit each individual.

The panel put forward their views on the right time.

With the biological age being between 25 and 29.9 years of age, opinions took matters such as increased earnings into consideration meaning a little later might be better – around age 30. Sophie felt that there is no particular age that is best. Naturally, it was noted that the longer you leave it to conceive the harder it becomes.

Professor Adam Balen, Chair of the British Fertility Society, reported on the findings of an interesting study in Holland that was carried out in the last year or so.

It discovered that if a woman wants a 90% chance of having a family of three, she should make a start from the age of 23; if she wants two children, she should start from the age of 27; and if she wants just one child, she should start from 32 years of age.

Young adults were discussed and how they don’t necessarily talk about fertility in their twenties as it may spell difficulty for the relationship if their partner doesn’t feel the same way as them.

A lot of what is spoken about is how not to get pregnant. It is thought that young people would love to know more about their options.

And it was noted that although IVF may heighten the chances of a woman going through the menopause, it cannot reverse the clock.

The show touched on how the UK has the most expensive childcare in the west and how there is a pay gap issue between men and women, which is greater after children are born. The fact that we find it difficult to talk about shared leave was also mentioned. It was suggested that our economy will only flourish when everyone has the opportunity to care equally.

The frank debate went on to highlight the way society and indeed medical professionals treat men and women differently when it comes to fertility and how there is a lack of sex education in the UK.

It also reflected on companies’ attitudes to fertility and crèches and revisited the issue of affordable childcare.

Egg and embryo freezing was discussed – the good techniques being used (for egg freezing) and whether they would become the norm. There was even talk of egg freezing parties!

Our own expert, Valerie Landis, was also interviewed on the programme about her personal decision on freezing her eggs at 33 years of age.

A couple of thought-provoking cases were discussed

One where a young Asian couple wanted to start a family – they wanted an older boy and a younger girl and used IVF with gender selection to get their family.

The other case was when a Chinese business woman got a surrogate to have the baby for her as she didn’t have time to have sex with her husband due to being far too busy.

There is no doubt that the subject needs very careful consideration on an individual basis and that there is much to be discussed as a society regarding the changes that are occurring.

The conclusion is that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to what the right time is – no generic age to start a family.

It is felt that society should make it easier and more achievable, regardless of age. And that we should all find the right balance between work life, financial stability and leisure time, even if that may not be as easy as it sounds.

We can only think about starting a family when it feels like the right time for us, as individuals.

To listen to the full programme, click here

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