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There's never a right time to start a family... so just get on with it

Published 15/02/2016

Not ideal: Barbara Tuchman became pregnant as war broke out
Not ideal: Barbara Tuchman became pregnant as war broke out

I hadn't seen Gemma for a few years - we had both grown up in the same part of Dublin - so it was nice to catch up with her again and chat. When it came to family matters, she said that her two offspring were now in their 30s and both had jobs which seemed to suit them quite well. "But I wish to God they'd settle down and start having babies. I mean, while we're still young enough and fit enough to be active grandparents." Gemma and her husband are heading for their mid-60s.

"I'm sure they'll start breeding soon enough," I said, doing agony aunt. "Once their peers begin popping sprogs, they'll follow. It's infectious."

Gemma wasn't so sure, though. She observed that this 30-something generation seem to set up in relationships, live together for a few years, and then break up. Then it's back to square one: looking for the right partner with whom to embark on nesting, and perhaps reproducing, if all parties are agreed.

And then there's the mortgage problem. The job, the mortgage, the relationship: all the ducks have to be in line, it seems. It takes time. Maybe Gemma and Peter would be hitting 70 by the time they could call themselves Grandma and Grandpa. Would they be able to run around after an active toddler once they had the hip replacements, the knee replacements, the hearing aids, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that goes with declining years?

"Now is the time for me to grandparent," she insisted.

But of course, she hadn't said any of this to her grown-up kids. There's a freemasonry rule among oldies who came to adulthood in the Sixties and Seventies: we don't interfere in our adult children's lives. We don't tell them to do this, that or the other "for their own good" - because we swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles, back then, that we would never be like our own mothers and aunts, fathers and uncles, trying to direct and "control" our destinies.

It's their life, it's their choice. That's the mantra. Our role is to maintain omerta. So the parents of adult offspring prefer to confide in one another. "When is she going to get a move on?" "Now he's broken up with that lovely, suitable, girl - when will he commit?" "Don't they read the statistics about older mothers?""Are they going to leave it so long, they'll be queuing up at the IVF clinic?"

The statistics about older mothers. We now have the oldest Irish mothers on record - Irish women are having their first babies at a later age than ever before.

The Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Rhona Mahony, noted recently that the proportion of women giving birth over 35 has "surged" in the last decade - up 20% since 2003. And while babies are surely always welcome at Holles Street - it's their business - Dr Mahony also added that the trend towards older mothers has caused a "huge amount of complications" in maternal care.

And then there is this knock-on problem with the next generation up. To become a grandparent in your 60s is, usually, great timing. The demographic of people in their 60s is described as healthy, fit, active, and often comfortably off - and thus in an ideal position to support parents in their 30s.

But push it a decade later and it ain't so simple. The oldies have often become less fit, and instead of being a support and a help to the young parents, may become more of a worry. Thus you get the "sandwich generation" of exhausted women in their 40s looking after their young children, and their old parents, simultaneously.

I sympathise with Gemma (and I know at least two other couples in their 60s with similar complaints) but it's not easy to see an immediate solution.

Jobs, houses, partners in life may need luck, opportunity and serendipity, as well as timing. Not to mention the stewardship of the economy.

Yet we could generally put it about a bit more emphatically that men, especially, should feel some obligation to commit to relationships, after a given length of time. And especially once they hit 30, which is still a turnstile age.

An experienced family planning counsellor once told me that many of the "unplanned pregnancies" she works with are more likely to be, in truth, "relationship testing" pregnancies. Consciously, "an accident", or "contraceptive failure" may be offered as the reason for the pregnancy being unexpected - and yes, genuine accidents do happen - but the couple's reaction, as a couple, was still very significant. The baby is the test of the relationship.

For many, that's not the way they want to start their settled-down life together - with an unplanned or crisis pregnancy. They want to be responsible. They want to plan. They want to be ready to become parents. And fair play to those who prefer to be organised about these things.

Yet: the admirable war historian, Barbara Tuchman, wrote that she found she was pregnant just as war broke out and her husband was drafted into the military. Not the best time to have a baby, was her first reaction.

But then, she reflected, there's probably never a perfect time, and sometimes you just have to go with nature's prompting.

To whom it concerns, perhaps an appropriate message for Valentine's Day in a Leap Year: get breedin'.

Belfast Telegraph

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