Much of the current media coverage focuses on the perceived risks associated with late motherhood and makes the assumption that women are delaying childbirth for career reasons. I think that the other side of this story needs to be told.
According to Kirsty Budds, a PhD Research Student at the University of Huddersfield, it is wrong of society to assume that women who give birth to their first children later in life, do so through choice. In a paper presented in August at a conference organised by the British Psychology Society (BPS) and hosted by St Andrew’s University, Budds argued that it is unfair to accuse older mothers of selfishly trying to ‘have it all’.
Last month, Content Editor of ScienceOmega.com
, Katy Edgington, interviewed the University of Exeter’s Dr Andy Russell about his research into the evolution of the menopause
. In a subsequent poll, almost three quarters of our readership said that artificially increasing the age at which women could bear children would be likely to result in adverse social and psychological effects. Although not directly analogous to Budds’s research, these results support the theory that there is a societal stigma surrounding late motherhood.
Budds analysed numerous newspaper articles on late motherhood and conducted detailed interviews with a number of older mothers. I spoke to her to find out what she had learned during the course of her research, and to ask what she believes can be done to counteract negative societal perceptions of older mothers…
What was revealed by the interviews that you conducted with older mothers?
A lot of the existing literature propagates the idea that if you are an older mother – if you give birth for the first time over the age of 35 – then your experience is going to be qualitatively different to that of a younger woman. Whilst my interviewees did report some differences that were specifically age related, most of their experiences were typical of any
There is a societal assumption that when women delay motherhood, they choose
to do so. I analysed numerous newspaper articles which put forward this idea. The concept of selfishness is imbued within such articles because they assume that women are choosing to delay motherhood for career reasons. I found that for many women, the reasons behind late motherhood were varied, multiple and complex. For instance, wanting to be in the right relationship and trying to develop financial and economic stability before starting a family were common considerations. These findings contradict the idea that ‘delaying’ motherhood is always a direct choice. Many of my interviewees were trying to create the ideal situation in which to become a mother, and I think that this situation is very much defined by society. Far from being selfish, I think that women are trying to be responsible. They are trying to responsibly produce the right situation in which to give birth to their babies.
So society is placing constraints upon women and influencing when they have children, yet at the same time, criticising women for having children later in life…
Yes, definitely. For example, the ‘right’ relationship is a very contemporary notion. The right relationship used to be based upon economic standards whereas now, it is more about self-fulfilment. The right relationship is socially and culturally defined and there is pressure on women to produce this situation before having children. I would say that women’s reproductive ‘choices’ are shaped and constrained by society’s ideal, and in many cases, older mothers are simply trying to replicate this ideal.
Are negative perceptions held by both males and females?
I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that the negative views that I identified came from the media. The mothers that I interviewed were very aware of these stereotypes; the fact that their actions might be viewed as selfishly trying to ‘have it all’. Interestingly, however, none of the women had actually encountered these opinions directly. Nobody had ever told them that they were acting selfishly.
What did your investigations reveal about the media’s portrayal of late fatherhood?
I analysed 26 newspaper articles and I think that fathers were only mentioned three times. Even these references tended to refer to them as ‘partners’ or as part of a ‘couple’. Recently, there has been some research about the risks involved in being an older father, and I will watch with interest to see whether or not the media picks up on this. When I was conducting my research in 2009, there was very little written about late fatherhood and the articles that were out there tended to be more positive than those concerning late motherhood.
Do you think that anything can be done to counteract the negative stereotypes that society applies to older mothers?
Much of the current media coverage focuses on the perceived risks associated with late motherhood and makes the assumption that women are delaying childbirth for career reasons. I think that the other side of this story needs to be told. We need to challenge and dismantle the stereotypes surrounding late motherhood. Part of what I am trying to do is to make people realise that this is not necessarily a choice. If there is
a choice, it is very much shaped and constrained by the way in which society defines the ‘ideal’ environment for a child’s upbringing. We must challenge the notion that women are frivolously and selfishly choosing to delay motherhood.
Do you intend to conduct any further research in this area?
In relation to late motherhood, I’m not sure. I have now spent four years investigating this issue. I am very interested in non-normative motherhood. I think that society has a very strong concept of the ‘ideal’ mother, and anybody who falls short of its criteria is perceived as a deviant. I think that my future research will focus on non-normative motherhood.